Things were a little crowded for a while. Gannon and I both landed our thrusts, as did Gaenor and Rhonwen. Emer's breastplate glowed red and began to melt. He seemed to be trying to do something mystical, but whatever it was evidently took a while. Gannon landed another blow. Bits of bone flew. Artos unlimbered his oak tree. I took another swing with the molten sword; there was nowhere for the dead king to go.
Emer finished what he was doing; something was happening to Gaenor and Rhonwen, who both screamed as something black and amorphous engulfed them. That lent the rest of us an even greater urgency, if that was actually possible. Meara sprinkled them with some of her angelica and switched to a song in praise of life and sunlight.
Artos missed, shattering half the casket instead. Gannon's short sword struck home again before Emer's magic reached him, beginning to sap his strength. He landed another blow regardless, as bits of black fire seemed to rise around him.
Good man to have around.
The gladius and my sword struck simultaneously; the skeleton began to burn. Artos was busy tending to the women, putting out the black flames that had been feeding on them. Gannon and I hacked at the burning skeleton a few more times until at last it skeleton collapsed.
Fifty years too late. He was mostly a pile of loose ash by then, but I removed the skull anyway. The altars began to crack around us.
Meara suggested it would be a good idea to leave. We gathered up our comrades and ran for the stairs. I grabbed the standard on our way out.
"Where's his sword?" Meara wanted to know. It was next to Emer, where it had fallen. "We'll probably have to come back for it, we really can't leave something like that lying around."
That could wait; we watched the keep crumble in on itself from a safe distance away. The outer walls remained standing, but the inner building was soon nothing but rubble.
"That's one down," Llweder observed.
"Why do I suspect that was the easy half," I sighed.
"Because it was."
Rhonwen and Gaenor were not doing very well; Meara purified their wounds, and Llweder gave them one of his concoctions, after which they looked somewhat improved although much in need of quiet rest. The standard curled and flaunted in a breeze that had sprung up just for the occasion.
"Now stop that," I told it.
"You might want to furl that again," Meara suggested.
I did so; we stayed in Powys. "Nobody's dead," I noted in some surprise. And we had accomplished one of our goals.
"Except Emer, hopefully."
"Well, yeah. Go to your rest, you bastard," I muttered, looking around in puzzlement as the oddest sensation registered. I didn't work out what it was until Rhonwen woke up a while with a look of resigned horror; the land magic of Powys had picked itself a new king after an unplanned-for delay. I'm sure she'll do a fine job.
Of course, there was still the statue of Balor in the courtyard.
"While we are risking having whathisname sneak in here and steal it, perhaps we could deal with this tomorrow," Meara offered. She put a salt circle around the figure, and went down with the rest to the party the town held to mark the victory. I didn't take part, instead borrowed Artos' horn and kept watch at the Keep, half hoping that Wynn would show up, but no such luck. It was dark, and cold, and quiet, and when the sun came up the only development of note was that Emer's sword had somehow made it to the surface.
Its name in the best translation anyone could come up with turned out to be Right of Kings, assuming that it was ancient Powyian that was written in. It was remarkably plain, particularly compared to Hunger. We put it in the lead "coffin," without touching it, just in case, and wrapped it in iron chain with a lead seal. It didn't like any of us very much, that was clear, though apparently I was almost sort of tolerable, to the extent that it might pause to say hello before killing me some day. Haughty bit of metal. Although it might simply be that it was rightfully Rhonwen's, we determined to do some research before giving it to her, just in case it did turn out to be cursed.
"You know, this thing gets heavier every time we have to carry it someplace," Meara remarked as we lugged the box back to town.
Artos met us at the door. "So, apparently I'm a Consort?"
"Congratulations," I told him.
"As far as I can tell it means absolutely nothing, unless I feel like rebuilding that damn house on the hill."
"Let us know, we could lend you some good stonemasons."
"So, what can I do for you this morning?"
"We were just checking to see if Rhonwen was okay," Meara said. "Besides ripping royal mad."
"She's not that mad. She stopped throwing crockery at me an hour ago."
"She must be feeling better, then," I observed.
"Or did you trundle the crockery in for her?" Meara asked.
He grinned without comment.
"Is she okay?" she asked, just to make sure.
"She's fine, she just needs about a week of sleep."
"About the same."
"Emer's sword crawled its way to the surface last night."
"Otherwise a quiet night," I told him.
"If it had been one of us up there, we probably would have found the sword buried in our bodies."
"You keep it, I don't want the damn thing," he vowed.
"We are keeping it, but if you happen to find us all mysteriously dead and a trail of iron filings going south or something...."
"I'll be sure to put a bounty on it, write your next of kin, say you were killed a sword."
"The sword's name is Right of Kings or something like that."
"We've got it locked up," I told him. "We'll see if it behaves itself. Once we get back home we'll see if it has a history."
"Lovely morning we're having, nice weather."
"Yes, yes it is. Thanks for knocking down the castle; that was fun."
"Couldn't have done it without you," I said. "Closing the coffin door on his face, that was priceless."
"Saved us from an ostentatious display of arrogant might," Meara concurred. "Thank you. Just wish I could have seen the expression on his bony little face."
There was a bit more talk along these lines, some speculation around where Wynn might have been while we rifled his castle, and some about the immediate future as well, at least as far as it involved Balor.
Llweder went to commune with the grove, keeping a careful distance from the willow. The place had a happier feel now that Emer was gone; it was no longer isolated, and he could distantly sense the other groves out there across the realm. Meara wanted to go play with the forge at the bottom of the mine, so I went along to make sure the cave troll didn't make a nuisance of itself. She started working on a gladius like Gannon's, and a new dagger. I don't know what Gannon was doing; I assume he was bored. No more Fae showed up, although we started putting out milk at night just in case. Meara found someone willing to take her out to where the serpent liked to swim; it was indeed very good at riddles, and its mockery was almost good-natured when she of course lost the contest. Quite friendly for a dragon, it seems. The stones of the Keep were visibly changing color once again, back to gleaming white marble.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al