Este spent most of the morning in stony silence. None of them tried to get her to talk after Denis had asked, “And would you have let her go?” Este hadn’t been able to answer that, all the responses she had wanted to give sounded…petty to her mind’s ear.
The second unwanted surprise of the day came mid-afternoon when Denis reined in his horse and announced, “Well, it’s been interesting working with you, but this is where we part company.”
“Why?” That was from Este.
“Now the Korrigan’s been dealt with, I have my own affairs to attend to and they take me south.” He indicated the long, dry slope that led in that direction. “Two days’ll see me in Grand Bluffs and I’ve no need to go back to Conniption or to Green Tor.”
“We’ll miss travelling with you,” said Tyon sincerely.
“And I with you, you’ve been good company, all of you,” the older man nodded at the three of them. “I will leave you with a little unasked for advice though, Lady Este,” he switched suddenly to a formal mode none of them had heard from him before. “It might have been better if you had not been so free with your sister’s person, powers and possessions. The breaking point for me would have been when you tried to exchange her mules for a horse, two fine mules for an okay horse wasn’t a good deal, and the only reason you telling her to sleep with Havok was acceptable was that she’d already been doing just that for about a week.” He switched out of formal mode and added, “It was amusing to watch Havok conducting a courtship in all his seriousness, I hadn’t realised he had it in him.” He nodded again, “Perhaps we’ll see each other around,” and with that he moved his horse of down the slope, disappearing unnaturally quickly into the heat haze.
“They were already sleeping together?” asked Este.
“Yes,” that was Zani. “When you told her to sleep with him, I thought you were giving her permission for something she was already doing. Your approval, in fact.”
“I had no idea.”
“So I realised.” Zani sighed. “I know that as One of Those Who Rule, your mind works on a tactical and strategic track to achieve your goals, but you have a train to help you fill in your blind spots. The thing is, you need to talk to us about things, otherwise we don’t know what you don’t know.” She added, “You must have noticed something, otherwise why would you think Arra was the solution to keeping Havok happy and involved with us?”
“That he was attracted to her?” was Este’s offering. “I honestly never thought she’d willingly get involved with a Caprucci. I mean, that family… I wonder what Mother will say?”
“She’s gone off with a Caprucci warrior?” Lady Gwiera raised a perfect eyebrow, giving herself a sceptical expression. “Then no doubt she’ll be back when she finds out what he’s like when he takes his skin off, as they say.” She looked over her second youngest daughter and her two companions, freshly returned from the task she’d set them almost half a year before. “Your task, however, is done and done well it seems. The Caprucci obviously provided you with aid. What is the name of this warrior who seems likely to make me a grandmother?”
Este looked at Zani and Tyon then back at her mother, “He told us that we could call him Havok,” she told her.
The Lady of Green Tor said slowly, “I know the names of most of the adult Caprucci but…”
Simultaneously the tan and brown furred, unbeglamoured One of Those Who Teach standing deferentially off to one side said, “Now that’s an alias I haven’t heard in a long time!”
“You’ve heard of him then, Melford?” Lady Gwiera turned to him, grace and beauty in her every movement. “How does he fit into their family tree?”
“Oh, he doesn’t,” the mouth in the long muzzle smiled, “but he and Sier Caprucci have been like that,” Melford held up his hand with index and middle fingers crossed over each other, “since the days when Queen and Council mattered in these parts.”
“If he’s that old,” Este had gone pale, “why did he follow my lead?”
Melford’s long, pointed ears twitched forward in interest. “Well, that is the question, isn’t it? Who else did you persuade to help you?”
“Only one of the du Mains,” replied Este. “They’d seemed to be taking the Korrigan quite seriously but then they only sent Denis with us.”
“Denis du Main,” said Melford slowly. “About five foot ten tall, lots of laugh lines round his eyes, carries a black sword?”
“Hilt and blade both?” Tyon replied. “That would be him.”
“He’s the original du Main,” Melford explained. “Scutter, the Master of Dublane, is his grandson. Denis du Main and Havok were both in the group that took out the Dragon Bahamel.” His ears twitched, “ I remember my Mentor telling me at the time that one had been for Queen and one for Council, but in those days it was particularly rude to discuss old politics so he didn’t go into details. I suspect, Lady Este, that by accepting your authority over the party they saved themselves from having to establish which of them was in charge.”
“So,” said Este flatly, “I was useful.”
“Say rather, Lady Este,” corrected Melford gently, “that two experienced and combat-hardened veterans of the Fall chose to work under your leadership for the period it took to complete a task.”
“That sounds rather better than having been a convenient fiction,” Este agreed quietly.
“If they didn’t challenge or rebuke you during the period they agreed to be with you,” agreed her mother, “then it is true.” She smiled warmly at Este, “Then you have done extremely well.”
“On the other hand,” observed Melford, “if I wish to speak with my former Student, I must go looking for her. I’m afraid I must take my leave of you, Lady Gwiera, sooner than we expected.”
“At least stay with us for another night,” protested his hostess, “it will give you time to consider where to begin your search for my daughter and her…protector. You know your company is always welcome here.”
Melford bowed politely, “You are most kind, milady.”
It was not, as such a council of war. It was, however a meeting of Lady Gwiera and all her children who remained with her. The fay were long lived and so the eldest person at the table, after their mother, was Saphro, a broad shouldered and muscled One of Those Who Protect who herself had adult grandchildren. “A number of you have asked,” began Lady Gwiera, “what we are going to do about Arra. The answer is nothing. Under the circumstances, if Melford is right and he usually is, there is nothing we can do without looking extremely foolish.”
Saphro looked around the table at her mother and siblings and commented, “I don’t know Arra very well, the age gap and everything, but I’m surprised that she could break her oath and go off like that.” A murmuring of agreement rippled around the table.
“Arra was not oath sworn to anyone,” their mother pointed out quietly. “All the tasks she undertook at my behest, she did as a personal favour to me. I paid her a stipend for the duration of those tasks and provided her with a room, of course, but she was under no obligation to me. In fact, as she has not claimed her stipend for her excursion with Este, I am in her debt.”
“Hang on,” interposed Saphro elbows on the table and gesturing with her hands, “she left her Mentor what, two or three years ago? All of us were oath sworn within a year of that.”
Lady Gwiera sighed. “Arra has been difficult to place, she doesn’t fit neatly into a niche in a train and she hasn’t ‘clicked’ with anyone who has one.”
“Just as long as no-one told her that her oath wasn’t wanted or was worthless,” commented Hagen, One of Those Who Rule sitting halfway along the table.
There was a moment’s silence and everyone turned to look at Arlo, another of Those Who Rule, sitting further down the table on the opposite side. Arlo looked back and asked, “Why are you all looking at me?”
“You can be very…blunt and cutting,” pointed out Tegan, the next youngest to him in age, “and you were the one she spent the most time working with before she went off with Este.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure I didn’t,” he snapped back. “Why does it surprise anyone that she didn’t fit neatly into a train, anyway? She doesn’t have an archetype, that means she has no defined role.”
“As to that,” intervened Lady Gwiera, “Melford has a theory he’s trying to test, which is why he wants to talk to her. Arlo and Este, both of you have travelled with Arra through the badlands. Did you ever make camp with her at a place that had no fresh water?”
“No,” came back Arlo.
“Never,” echoed Este.
“That,” said Saphro, “is statistically improbable.”
“Exactly,” Lady Gwiera nodded. “Melford’s theory is that she’s a rare archetype and he wants to see how additional maturity has developed her so he can be certain.”
Este, down at the foot of the table asked, “What does Melford think she is?”
“He thinks, although he’s never met one, that she may be,” Lady Gwiera took a deep breath, “a Mother of Waters or even a Mother of Life.”
“Well,” said Arlo into the long silence that followed, “that would explain a lot then.”
Havok was walking Arra through cool, shadowed halls cut into stone, linked by carved stone corridors and stairwells full of light that came in through cunningly cut shafts and windows. Clusters of rooms with tall, narrow window spaces letting in breath and light awaited occupation. Everywhere he took her, it was just the two of them.
She asked him, “How long has it taken you to make this?”
“You can tell that it’s my work?” He looked down at her and smiled. It softened his face a little.
“Of course,” she smiled back. “There’s only your scent in here. It’s your mark all over the stonework, no-one else’s. So, why have you built not just a stronghold, but a citadel?”
“The Barrier is weakening,” he said bluntly, “and the people who created it are beginning to poke at it, looking at a way in from the outside. When the Queen and Council put it up, they didn’t warn us, even though they did it to confine the Great Beasts. Trouble was, the Great Beasts were fay, so the Barrier works on us as well as it did on them. The human infrastructure was already crumbling and the Barrier finished the job. The population here was lower than it was in better watered places but tens of thousands died as a result of the food, water and power supplies being disrupted. Diseases we didn’t have the medicines for killed more.” He pounded a wall with his free hand. “We were betrayed. We held to our oaths but those we were sworn to broke theirs. They do not get to come back here and take over again as if nothing happened. This place, my place, plugs a hole in our defences. They won’t have the chance to betray us again.”
“You need water,” she reached up and kissed him on the cheek, “before you can man the walls and rally troops here. Take me to your cisterns and I’ll see what I can do.”