"Brigid did say he was a bit above our touch at the moment, but he might not be above your touch, Your Majesty. If you need cause, we'll go find it."
"That's one of the things I'm going to need to consider," he replied.
"There are also some things that we need to research ourselves while we're here, like the fifty years lack of notice about the veil of darkness, a few other minor little problems."
"Well, Emer had the spell on the place."
"I know, but you would think that would go away. What I want to know is, were the reports made by the accountants guild and then forgotten? I also want to find out why our message didn't get here."
"You know where the libraries are," he told Meara.
"There's a particular incident on page nineteen that my lady might want to take a look at." That was the part about the rose maze.
"How was the summer here?" I asked finally.
"My lady, perhaps I should go and leave you to your reunion with your parents?"
"By all means." Sotto voce, "You just don't want to have to watch them."
"Actually I find affection shown without violence or bloodshed to be remarkably refreshing and quite pleasing." She bowed and leftquickly. Her mother being a priestess of the battle goddess meant a rather unique relationship.
My room had been aired out by the time I finally got there after catching up on the summer's doings. There was a small mountain of correspondence piled on the desk: invitations, poetry, offers of marriage, tax reports. And the report we had sent from Caer Myrrthin.
"That's strange." It was very clearly marked as being both important and for His Majesty, yet it had ended up here instead. It didn't seem that trying to track down exactly how would net me much; who would remember a letter delivered almost six months ago, even if they weren't under Emer's malign and distant influence?
I gave my father the letter we had sent. He read it, nodded, didn't say much. I was relieved that he didn't ask me where Caer Myrrthin was again. The next morning he and my oldest brother decided to put on an impromptu arms display designed to reduce mere mortals to awestruck silence. My brother got the worst of it by a large margin; age hasn't yet started to catch up to our father yet.
The year advanced, the rituals were completed. Llweder harvested his mistletoe and took part in the second Hunting of the Wren; the omens for the year to come were both mixed and intense. It was nice to be home in some ways, back in the familiar rhythms, though I was worried about what might be happening to the village, as I'm sure the others were as well. My older brother had gotten married earlier in the year (I'm the middle child); his wife seemed pleasant enough, but the two of them were nearly a rival for our parents in their degree of mutual involvement. I suppose in a year or two they'll all start giving me significant glances on the subject. I sat back and thought about it for a little while; what would it be like to come home after a summer's roving to a nice little keep of one's own, with a husband and maybe a couple of kids?
The group of us who had traveled north got together at one point to give a full, formal report to the Privy Court. We were much better prepared this time, but it was enormously stressful (even for me); when my father gets down to business, he can be easily the most intimidating person I know. Then we got to do it all again in front of the full court, which was somehow easier because there were more people and they were paying slightly less attention.
Winter is a fine time for bookish sorts, but once the feasting and excesses of the holidays were done I found myself somewhat bored. Perhaps I should take up books. There was arms practice, of course. Meara asked me to teach her how to use a shield, which I was happy to do. Her abbot had received the report and sent back a bland reply that suggested she continue her investigations and let them know what happened.
Gannon found that the reports had all been filed properly, and none of them mentioned a curtain of darkness. He set about trying to get the forms changed to include more room for that sort of thing, but of course it would have to be approved by the committee....
I did some checking on the Lord of Flame and Darkness; there wasn't much to find. My great-grandfather had written most about him, and all he'd said was that this was a man who had been very highly placed in the Court and who had walked out telling the Queen of Air and Darkness that she "could handle the scutwork." So not lacking for arrogance or power, this one, which begged the question: why had he asked for our help? I had the suspicion that Wynn might not be overwhelmingly powerful, but had a considerable edge when it came to sneaky. Speaking of whom, no one seemed to have heard of him at all.
Meara spent part of the winter learning all she could about the workings of Fae magic. She also finished the Fire Ring she had been working on, which she gave to me before we set out. It was mostly gold, with garnets and a couple of small rubies set in it. Excellent workmanship.
Come the thaw, I was more than ready to go. None of us had forgotten about Caer Myrrthin, and in retrospect it seemed likely that no one had forgotten about it earlier, just misfiled the paperwork. That my father was very interested in the resolution of this matter was made clear the day we set out, when he handed me a longspear with a flag wrapped around it. The headpiece was that of the Imperial legion.
"I can't go myself," he said, "there would be... problems that I don't need to deal with at the moment. But you seem to be doing well enough. Take care not to bite off larger chunks than you can chew."
Meara was visibly exploding with curiosity.
"Tradition," I shrugged.
"No," he corrected gently. "Being able to chew larger chunks than your opponents think you can is the family tradition. The other gets you dead."
"Being dead just means even more paperwork, it's just not worth it."
"And I know how you hate paperwork."
He touched the spear's haft. "This should do for helping remind people who's who, what's what, who wears the crown. You might not want to unfurl it if you're in the middle of an undefended town or something. It's likely that the dead guy on the hill is going to notice at the very least."
"Very well." I sat up very straight in Griffon's saddle. "I'll take good care of it."
The trip north was absolutely uneventful. We'd brought some extra packhorses this time, laden with supplies in case we had to spend a winter in the village. Spring came on with its usual enthusiasm.
"Aw damn, I forgot to send a note to my parents," Meara remarked, looking somewhat jaundiced at a couple of rabbits chasing each other.
We passed through the mountains. No dead bodies. The pillar of smoke was visible a long way away, though.
"Shit," a number of us said.
By the time we got to the ring of watchtowers, it was clear that the smoke wasn't from the village. Or the Keep, for that matter, though it had changed while we were gone; it was now almost three-quarters black. The part of the ridgeline under which the iron mine (and Balor) had lain had been largely ripped away, the landscape around it blasted and ruined, a steady steam of black smoke rising from it. At least it wasn't blotting out the sun.
"And to think, we spent the winter in bowers, picnicking," Meara muttered.
"Look, Conner, no veil of darkness," I pointed out.
"Yeah, this is so much better...."
"I hear that Rome is quite nice this time of year," Meara remarked as he headed down the slope.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al