Read Wrede, Patricia C - SSC Online

Authors: Book of Enchantments (v1.1)

Wrede, Patricia C - SSC (16 page)

"The count's lady wife was not
so sanguine. She knew something of magic, and she doubted that the count's
precautions would save her child. So she set herself to unravel the doom the
witch had woven, pitting her love for her daughter against the witch-woman's spite."

"Love against death,"
Arven murmured.

"What was that?" the
prince asked, plainly startled.

"It's something my wife used
to say," Arven answered. His eyes prickled and he looked away, half out of
embarrassment at being so openly sentimental, half out of a desire to cherish
Una's memory in private.

"Oh?" The prince's voice
prodded gently.

"She said that time and death
are the greatest enemies all of us must face, and the only weapon stronger than
they are is love." Arven thought of the grave behind the cottage, with its
carpet of daisies and the awkward wooden marker he had made himself. He had
always meant to have the stonemason carve a proper headstone, but he had never
done it. Wood and flowers were better, somehow. Una would have laughed at the
crooked marker, and hugged him, and insisted on keeping it because he had made
it for her, and the flowers—she had loved flowers. The shadows by the wall
wavered and blurred, and Arven rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes.
Love might be stronger than death or time, but it had won him neither peace nor
acceptance, even after five long years.

"Your wife was a wise
woman," the prince said softly.

"Yes." Arven did not
trust his voice for more than the one short word. The prince seemed to
understand, for he went on with his story without waiting for Arven to ask.

"The countess was not skilled
enough to undo the witch's curse completely, but she found a way to alter it.
Instead of death, the prick of the spindle would cast her daughter into an
enchanted sleep, never changing. The witch's curse would turn outward,
protecting the girl for one hundred years by killing anyone who sought to enter
her resting place. One hundred years to the day after the onset of the spell, a
man would come, a prince or knight of great nobility, who could pass through
the magical barriers without harm. His kiss would break the spell forever, and
the girl would awake as if she had slept but a single night instead of a
hundred years."

"And meanwhile men would die
trying to get to her," Arven said, thinking of bones among briars.
"It was a cruel thing to do."

"I doubt that the countess was
thinking of anything but her daughter," the prince said uncomfortably.

"Nobles seldom think beyond
their own concerns," Arven said. The prince looked down. Arven took pity
on him, and added, "Well, it's a fault that's common enough in poor folk,
too. Go on."

"There isn't much more to the
story," the prince said. "Somehow, on the eve of her sixteenth
birthday, the girl found a spindle and pricked her finger, setting the curse in
motion. That was over a hundred years ago, and ever since, men have been dying
in the attempt to break it."

a hundred years?
You said the curse would last a hundred years to the day."

"That's why I need your
help." The prince leaned forward earnestly. "The curse was only
supposed to last for a hundred years, but the countess wasn't as skilled in
magic as she thought she was, and mixing spells is a delicate business. She was
too specific about the means of breaking the curse, and now there is no way I
can do it alone."

"Too specific?"

"She tied the ending of the
curse to a precise day and the coming of a particular man. It would have worked
well enough, if the right prince had been a steadier sort, but he was . . .
impetuous." The prince looked down once more. "He arrived a day too
soon, and died in the thorns."

"And thus the curse goes
The young axe so impatient,
Arven thought,
and it costs
them so much.
"How do you know all this?"

"He was ... a member of my
family," the prince replied.

"Ah. And you feel you should
put his error right?"

"I must." The prince
raised his head, and even in the flickering firelight, naked longing was plain
upon his face. "No one else can, and if the curse is not broken, more men
will die and the countess's daughter will remain trapped in the spell, neither
dead nor alive, while the castle crumbles around her."

"I thought the girl would come
into it somewhere," Arven muttered, but the image touched him nonetheless.
He and Una had never had a child, though they had wanted one. Sixteen—she would
have been full of life and yearning for things she could not name. He had known
children cut off at such an age by disease or accident, and he had grieved with
their parents over the tragedy of their loss, but now even the cruelest of
those deaths seemed clean and almost right compared to this unnatural
suspension. He shuddered and took a long pull at his mug. The cider had gone
cold. "How do you hope to break the curse, if the right time and the right
man both have come and gone?"

"I've studied this spell for a
long time," the prince replied. "Two men can succeed where one must fail."

"How?" Arven insisted.

"The curse is really two
spells muddled together. A single man, if he knew enough of magic, might hold
it back for a few hours, but he couldn't clear a path through the briars at the
same time. Sooner or later, his spell would falter and the thorns would kill
him. With two men—"

"One can work the spell and
the other can clear the path," Arven finished. He gave the prince a long,
steady look. "You didn't really come looking for me to get information
about the keep."

"No." The prince returned
the look, unashamed. "But you wouldn't have listened if I'd begun by
saying I wanted you to help me get inside."

"True enough." Arven
considered. "Why at night?"

"I can only work the spell

Arven glanced sharply at the
prince's face. He knew the sound of a half-truth, and that had been one. Still,
there had been truth in it, and if the prince had additional reasons for
choosing night over day, they could only strengthen his argument. Arven
realized with wry humor that it did not matter any longer. He had made up his
mind; all that remained was to nerve himself to act. That being so, hesitation
would be a meaningless waste of time. He looked down and saw with surprise that
his plate was empty; he had finished the bread and cheese without noticing, as
they talked. He drained his mug and set it aside, then rose. "We'd best be
on our way. Half a mile is a far distance, in the dark and uphill."

The prince's eyes widened. He
stared at Arven for a long moment, then bowed his head. "Thank you,"
he said, and though the words were soft, they held a world of meaning and
intensity. Again Arven wondered why this was so important to the younger man,
but it made no real difference now. Whether the prince was trying to make up
for the loss of his kingdom, or had become infatuated with the sleeping girl of
his imagination, or truly wanted to repair the harm his unnamed uncle or cousin
had done, Arven had agreed to help him.

"You take the lantern,"
Arven said, turning to lift it down from the peg beside the door.

"No," the prince said. As
Arven looked back in surprise, he added a little too quickly, "I need
to... prepare my mind while we walk. For the spell."

"Thinking won't keep you from
a fall," Arven said, irritated. "There's no moon tonight."

The prince only looked at him.
After a moment, Arven gave up. He took the lantern down, filled and lit it, and
carried it outside himself. He was half-inclined to tell the young prince to go
on alone, but each time the words rose in his mouth he bit them back. He shifted
the lantern to his left hand and picked up his ax, then glanced back toward the
door. The prince was standing on the step.

Arven jerked his head to indicate
the direction of the keep, then turned and set off without waiting to see
whether the prince followed him or not. If the prince wanted a share of the
lantern light, let him hurry; if not, it would only be justice if he tripped
and rolled halfway down the mountain in the dark.

Thirty feet from the cottage, with
the familiar breeze teasing the first fallen leaves and whispering among the
beeches and the spruce, Arven's annoyance began to fade. It was not the
prince's fault that he was young, nor that he was noble-born and therefore
almost certainly unaware of the perils of a mountain forest at night. Arven
paused and looked back, intending to wait or even go back a little way if necessary.

The prince was right behind him, a
dim, indistinct figure against the darker shapes of the trees. Arven blinked in
surprise, and his opinion of the young man rose. Prince or not, he could move
like a cat in the woods. Arven nodded in recognition and acceptance of the
other man's skill, and turned back to the trail. He was annoyed at having been
inveigled into misjudging the prince, but at the same time he was grateful not
to have to play the shepherd for an untutored companion.

The walk up to the keep seemed to
take longer than usual. The prince stayed a few steps behind, moving so quietly
that Arven glanced back more than once to assure himself that his companion was
still there. Mindful of the prince's comment about preparation, Arven did not
try to speak to him.

At the edge of the briars, Arven
halted. Though the keep was all but invisible in the darkness, he could feel
its presence, a massive pile of stone almost indistinguishable from the
mountain peaks, save that it was nearer and more menacing. "What
now?" he asked as the prince came up beside him.

"Put out the light."

With more than a little misgiving,
Arven did so. In the dim starlight, the briars reminded him of a tangle of
sleeping snakes. Frowning, he untied the thongs and stripped the leather cover
from his ax, feeling foolish because he had not done so before he put out the
light. A breath of wind went past, not strong enough to ripple the prince's
cloak but more than enough to remind Arven of the clammy fear-sweat on the back
of his neck.
I'm too old for this,
he thought.

"Hold out your ax," the
prince said.

Again, Arven did as he was told.
The prince extended his hands, one on either side of the blade, not quite
touching the steel. He murmured something, and a crackle of blue lightning
sprang from his hands and ran in a net of thin, bright, crooked lines across
the ax blade.

Arven jumped backward, dropping the
ax. The light vanished, leaving a blinding afterimage that hid the ax, the
briars, and the prince completely. Arven muttered a curse and rubbed at his
eyes. When the dazzle began to clear, he bent and felt carefully across the
ground for his ax. When he found it, he picked it up and slid a slow finger
along the flat of the ax head toward the cutting edge, brushing off leaves and
checking for nicks. Only when he was sure the ax was in good order did he say,
"Your Highness?"

"I'm sorry," the prince's
voice said out of the night. "I should have warned you."


"It will help with the

"It had better." Arven
wiped one hand down his side, then transferred the ax to it and wiped the
other. "What else do you have to do?"

"I will restrain the thorns so
that they will not harm you while you cut a path through them. I must warn you;
I can only affect a small area. Beyond that, the briars will remain . . .
active. The sight may be disturbing."

"This whole venture is
disturbing," grumbled Arven. "Very well, I'm warned."

"One other thing: do not look
back until you reach the castle gate. Your concentration is as important as
mine; if you are distracted, we may both be lost."

"You're a cheerful one."
Arven paused. "Are you sure you want to do this? I'm an old man ..."
you are young, with a long life, perhaps, if you leave this lunacy undone,
thought, but did not say, because it was the same advice his elders had given
him when he was young. The prince would probably pay as much attention to it as
Arven had, which was none at all.

"You're the only one who would
come with me," the prince said, misinterpreting Arven's question and
confirming his opinion at the same time.

"You've about as much tact as
you have sense," Arven said under his breath. He twisted the ax handle between
his hands, feeling the smooth wood slide against his palms, and his fear melted
away. He had worked these woods all his life; he knew the moods of the mountain
in all times and seasons, and the moods of the keep as well; he had cut every
kind of tree and cleared every kind of brush the forest had to offer, over and
over. This was no different, really. He turned to face the briars and said over
his shoulder, "Tell me when you are ready."

"Go," said the prince's
voice softly, and Arven swung his ax high, stepped forward, and brought it down
in a whistling arc to land with a dull, unerring thump an inch above the base
of the first briar.

The stems were old and tough, and
as thick as Arven's forearm. He struck again and again, and then his muscles
caught the familiar rhythm of the work. A wind rose as he hacked and chopped
and tossed aside. A corner of his mind listened intently for the warning creak
of a tree about to fall in his direction, but otherwise he ignored the growing

All around, the briars shifted and
began to thrash as the wind ripped their ends from their customary tangle to
strike at air, straining against their roots. Where Arven stood, and for thrice
the length of his ax in all directions around him, the air was calm and the
briars inert. The only motion within the charmed circle was the rise and fall
of his arm and the shifting of the cut stems as he pushed them aside. The
sounds of the wind and the thrashing briars were clear but faint, as if they
came from outside the walls of a sturdy house. The thud of his ax, the rustle
of the briars as he passed, and the crunch of his boots against the
mountainside were, in contrast, clear and precise, like the sound of Una's
singing in a quiet room. Dreamlike, Arven glided onward, moving surely despite
the gloom. His ax, too, never missed a stroke, though as the keep drew nearer,
the night thickened until the faint light of the stars no longer penetrated its

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