Read Wrede, Patricia C - SSC Online
Authors: Book of Enchantments (v1.1)
Auridan turned to Cyndal. She was
looking at him with an expression of mingled resignation and scorn, and he
wondered whether she thought he had believed Hervan's playacting. "I think
that now I understand exactly why you wish to go to Norstead," Auridan
said before she could speak. "But I thought you said that you had no kin
outside the abbey. Lord Hervan does not act like a stranger."
Cyndal's eyes widened; then,
suddenly, she smiled. Auridan swallowed hard. Cyndal had been lovely before,
but the glowing expression of relief and gratitude increased her beauty
"Hervan was my uncle's
stepson," Cyndal said, and Auridan gave himself a mental shake. He
after all. "When my uncle saw that he was unlikely to have children of his
own, he made Hervan his heir. Hervan has been lord in Syledale since my uncle
died two years ago."
"And it took you two years to
decide that you'd rather enter an abbey than live in his household?"
Auridan said skeptically.
She laughed, but her expression
sobered quickly. "No, it's only in the last few months that he's been
acting that way, since he's known Chathalla will bear him an heir after
Midwinter. I decided on the way to Fyndale that it would be easier on everyone
if I went away for a while. My mother's sister at Abbey Norstead is the only
blood relation I possess, so it's reasonable for me to go there."
Auridan stiffened as wild
speculations chased each other through his mind. If the impending birth of an
heir had triggered Hervan's subtle persecution of his cousin-by-marriage,
Hervan's actions might well be rooted in something deeper than mere distaste
for Cyndal's presence. And whatever the cause, it was certainly not a safe
situation for a mercenary to become involved in. He opened his mouth to tell
Cyndal as much, and found himself saying, "Have you told Lord Hervan of
this plan of yours?''
"Not yet," Cyndal
admitted. "I thought I would have a better chance of persuading him if
Chathalla and I had all the arrangements made before I spoke to him of
"I see." Auridan was more
confused than ever. "And she agreed to your traveling with a single
"I didn't mention that,"
Cyndal said. "She'd worry. I'll just tell her, and Hervan, that you've
agreed to be my guide and head the men who'll accompany me. They won't think to
ask how many men there will be."
"Why the need for all this
subterfuge? Why don't you just take the five or six men you need with you?"
"Because Hervan wouldn't
provide them, and I can't afford to hire that many!" Cyndal snapped.
"And if you aren't going to help me, I don't see why I should answer any
more of your questions."
"In that case, I shall escort
you back to your cousin," Auridan said, rising. "I strongly
recommend, however, that you explain matters to Lord Hervan before you approach
me or anyone else on this subject again."
"That can be no concern of
yours, since you do not wish to take me to Norstead," Cyndal said coldly
as she rose to follow him.
Auridan scowled at her. "By
the Nine Words of Min, lady, do you not realize how much trouble you would make
for any man like me who accepted your offer unknowingly? Blood-kin or no, Lord
Hervan stands as your protector! Were I to agree to take you to Norstead
without his permission, I'd have to go on into the Waste and earn my bread by
scavenging, for no lord would hire me afterward."
"Oh." Cyndal's voice was
thoughtful, and she was silent for a long time. They had nearly reached the
visitors' tents when she said, "I'm sorry; I hadn't thought of it that
way. But if Hervan agrees, will you guide me?"
replied, then wondered whether the wine had not been stronger than he had
thought. He gave a mental shrug. Time enough to worry once the girl got Lord
Hervan's agreement to her plans; from what Auridan had seen, it did not look
Cyndal did not appear to share
Auridan's doubts. "Thank you," she said with a smile that took his
breath away. "You are coming to speak with Hervan tomorrow, are you not?
I'll talk to him before then."
Auridan nodded absently, and she
directed him toward one of the tents on the outer perimeter of the camp. They
finished their walk in silence, except for the obligatory courtesies exchanged
when he returned her officially to her step-cousin's care. Then Auridan hurried
away to his own campsite, feeling unreasonably relieved and irrationally
anxious at the same time.
To give himself something to think
about besides Cyndal, Auridan spent the evening worrying at the hilt of his new
sword with polishing cream, strong soap, and a pile of old rags. He worked
slowly to keep from accidentally dislodging the stones in the hilt. Even so, by
the time he was ready to sleep he had removed most of the ancient grime from
the carving that decorated the hilt. In the flickering firelight, all he could
tell was that the two stones were the eyes of some wild-haired creature. Reluctantly,
Auridan sheathed the sword, telling himself he could examine it more closely in
When he awoke, his first action was
to reach for the short-sword. He was surprised to see how different the carving
looked in daylight. The blue stones were indeed eyes, but what he had taken for
hair was a crest of intricately carved feathers that stood out around the head
of a serpentlike creature. The serpent's body twisted around the hilt of the
sword, forming a series of ridges that made the sword less likely to slide in
the hand. Auridan studied it, wondering from what tale the swordsmith had taken
such a creature. A snake with feathers was strange enough to be a relic of the
Old Ones . . .
Auridan shivered, then shook his
head and smiled. The Dales were full of strange things left behind by the Old
Ones, but one did not find them for sale at out-of-the-way booths in Fyndale.
For while the leavings of the Old Ones might be dangerous indeed, there was
always someone eager to take the risk in hopes of the power he might gain. Any
merchant daring enough to traffic in such items would be charging enormous sums
for them, not giving them away to mercenaries. Auridan pushed the remnants of
his uneasiness to the back of his mind and went off to get himself some breakfast.
When he finished eating, Auridan
took the sword to a busy tinker's stall and had the blade cleaned and
sharpened. It cost more than he had expected, but it was worth it to have a
good sword at his belt again. He spent the day wandering through the fair, but
as soon as the sun disappeared behind the mountains he headed for Lord Hervan's
The guard who greeted Auridan did
not seem surprised by his request to speak with Lord Hervan, and he was
immediately ushered into one of the tents. He found Hervan, Cyndal, and a
quiet, gentle-faced woman seated on small folding stools inside. Hervan rose,
frowning, as Auridan entered.
"This is my wife, the Lady
Chathalla," Hervan said, gesturing at the unfamiliar woman beside Cyndal.
He paused, studying Auridan, then said abruptly, "My cousin claims she
wishes to hire you to take her to Norstead."
"She mentioned the
possibility," Auridan said cautiously. He saw Cyndal shift, and Chathalla
put a restraining hand on her arm, and he wondered what he had walked into this
"Indeed." Hervan's voice
was barely a fraction friendlier. "And you approve of this proposal?"
Auridan raised an eyebrow.
"Approve? My lord, I am a mercenary. I approve when I am paid."
Hervan gave a bark of laughter.
"Very good. Sit down, then, and we'll talk."
As Auridan turned, looking for a
fourth stool, he heard a short, hissing intake of breath. He straightened
hurriedly. Hervan was staring at the carved hilt of Auridan's short-sword, and
his expression was curiously blank. "My lord?" Auridan said cautiously.
Hervan ran his tongue over his
lips. "The decoration of your sword hilt is ... quite unusual."
"Really? I had thought it some
whim of the smith who made it," Auridan said. "Have you seen similar
work before, Lord Hervan?"
"Possibly." Hervan's tone
was carefully casual, but his lips were stiff with tension. His eyes darted up
to Auridan's face, then as quickly away. "Enough. What is your price for
escorting my cousin to Norstead?"
Auridan blinked, somewhat
bewildered by this abrupt change in attitude, then named a sum he knew to be
reasonable. Hervan nodded, but he did not look as if he was devoting much of
his attention to Auridan's words. Instead, Hervan was watching Cyndal, and
after a moment he said almost pleadingly, "You're sure you want to take
this trip, Cyndal? You won't change your mind?"
"Yes, I'm sure, and no, I
won't change my mind," Cyndal said.
Hervan glanced at Auridan again and
said heavily, "Very well. You wanted to leave tomorrow morning, didn't
you? I'll see that everything is ready."
"You mean, you'll let me go
without any more arguing?" Cyndal said, amazement and disbelief warring in
"I've no choice!" Hervan
swung around to face her. He sounded desperate, and angry, and somehow
"What's wrong, Hervan?"
Cyndal asked almost gently.
Hervan hesitated, and his wife
leaned forward and said quietly, "Yes, please tell us."
Hervan jerked as if he had been
stung, and his expression hardened. "Nothing. Nothing whatever." He
looked at Auridan and said, "I'll have your payment ready in the
Auridan nodded, and the bargain was
swiftly concluded. He bowed his thanks and left, puzzling over the implications
of the little scene. Hervan had all the earmarks of a badly frightened man, but
why would the design of Auridan's sword hilt have frightened him? Auridan
kicked at a rock in frustration. Hervan was lord of a Dale, however small;
there was nothing Auridan could do to make him explain.
Briefly, Auridan considered leaving
the sword behind, but he needed a weapon and he could not afford to buy
another. Nor could he refuse to escort Cyndal, however uneasy her step-cousin's
attitude made him. Even if he had not given his word to both Hervan and Cyndal,
Auridan could not afford to pass up such a commission. His purse was nearly
flat, and it would be at least a week before he could expect any income from an
alternate position, supposing he could find one quickly. Auridan grinned suddenly.
It was pleasant to have honor and necessity in agreement, for once, about his
future course of action.
They left early the following
morning, before the fair-goers emerged from their tents to crowd the space
around the booths. Lord Hervan had provided a pretty chestnut mare for Cyndal
that Auridan thought would be more than a match for his own gray. Hervan had
also arranged saddlebags full of supplies for both Cyndal and Auridan, and he
had a purse with Auridan's fee ready and waiting. He even suggested a route—
the old track near the top of the ridges. Auridan thanked him without
mentioning that he had been intending to take the high trail anyway. At this
time of year, any outlaws would be watching the main road for unwary merchants;
the high trail would be far safer for so small a party. Hervan's farewells to
his step-cousin were perhaps a little stiff, but Auridan had to admit that in
everything else the man had done as much or more than he had promised.
Cyndal was in a sober mood after
taking leave of her cousin, and for the early part of the morning she rode in
silence. But the warmth of the day and the cheerful calling of the birds proved
too much for her to resist, and by the time they stopped for a
meal she was laughing and talking with Auridan
as though he had stood guard over her cradle.
Auridan was surprised at how
comfortable he was with her. His previous experience with noblewomen had not
led him to expect anything remotely resembling this casual camaraderie. Before
he thought, he said as much, and Cyndal grinned.
"You've probably only seen
proper noblewomen, like Lady Chathalla," she said without rancor.
"Penniless females like me aren't usually allowed out in public."
the Dales hold any
other women 'like you'?" Auridan asked, studying her with exaggerated
"Hundreds," Cyndal said,
and her smile faded. "I'm one of the lucky ones. If Chathalla weren't so
nice, I'd have been stuck in the kitchens or the back gardens with fewer
prospects than a serving wench. I've seen it happen; Uppsdale isn't very far
away, and I remember how Lady Annet treated Ysmay. And Ysmay had dowry enough
to marry, in the end; I don't even have that."
"Surely your uncle—"
Auridan stopped short as he realized that, camaraderie or not, this was not the
sort of question a blank shield ought to ask of a noblewoman.
"My uncle didn't think of
settling anything on me for a dowry," Cyndal said. "He was more concerned
with making sure no one would be able to object to Hervan as heir. And it was
lucky he did; things were rather difficult for a while after he died. If he
hadn't made such a point of Hervan's being his heir, blood-kin or not, I'm not
sure what would have happened to any of us."
Auridan nodded sympathetically and
changed the subject. He had seen enough in recent years to be able to guess
more than he wanted to know about what Cyndal was not saying. The thought of
this beautiful girl helplessly caught up in one of the sometimes bloody
struggles over a Dales rulership made him wince. Then he smiled at himself.
Beautiful Cyndal might be, but helpless? Little as he knew her, he knew she was
Despite his enjoyment of Cyndal's
company, Auridan grew increasingly uneasy as the day wore on. In the late
afternoon, clouds began sweeping in from the west, turning the day gray and
adding to his irritability. Finally Cyndal noticed his nervousness and demanded
to be told what was wrong.