Halwende discovers that even god magic takes work, and his father disapproves of his son’s tardiness.
“Blessed be Valdher, Lady of the Forest,” Maltaria and her assistant chanted.
Halwende and the others bowed to the small carving of Valdher. “Blessed be the Lady of the Forest,” they replied.
“Blessed be She who gives wood and game.”
“Blessed be the Lady of Game.”
For once, Halwende paid close attention to what the priestess said, and to how she said it. She pitched her voice . . . lower, but also to carry more easily even in the chapel. It didn’t echo the way Valdher’s voice had, but it differed from Maltaria’s speaking voice. Yet she wasn’t speaking for the goddess, either.
Since the day wasn’t a great feast, the service did not last too long. “Praise and thanks we give for Your bounty and Your protection on Your servants, hunters and leaders alike,” the priestess intoned. That was different, but appropriate.
“We give thanks and praise,” came the ragged echo.
Once formal worship ended, everyone save Maltaria herself and Halwende departed. He bowed once more to the Lady of the Forest and waited as the priestess, joined by an assistant, put out the lamps on the altar and those on either side of the statue. The figure looked the same as She had in the forest, except that here, Her eyes stared past Her worshipers, into the distance, and looked green-black, not full of forests. He shivered again and made Her sign.
“So.” Maltaria clapped her hands once. “Here is as good a place to work as any, and if we are interrupted, well, the keep had best be on fire, or under water.” She smiled, and he relaxed.
She studied him, then pointed to the floor. “Sit.” She sat as well on the smooth, clean wood. “How many years have you? Fifteen?”
He tried to recall. He’d been born on the turning of autumn, twenty years after the end of the Great Cold, so that meant . . . “Yes, ma’am. Almost sixteen.”
“So you are of legal age and proper discernment. That might make things easier.” She sighed and rested her staff across her folded legs. “Or perhaps not. Close your eyes and concentrate on relaxing your muscles.”
He closed his eyes and looked inside, then started making his shoulders, neck, and other things let go of their grip. He breathed slowly, as if he sat in hiding, waiting for game, or for an enemy warrior. The green-brown glow inside himself grew brighter as his muscles loosened.
“Ah.” The priestess spoke quietly, her words like wind in the forest. “Good. Very good. Keep your eyes closed and look outward, look for light that matches what is inside you, and tell me what you see.”
How—? Halwende breathed in, smelling the scent like needle-leaf of the incense in the chapel. As he breathed out, he looked out as well, looking for a glow the same as his. One he found very close indeed, Maltaria, strong and clear, like a good spring of water. He looked farther, pushing a little, and found two others of Valdher in the rooms behind the chapel. “I see you, ma’am, and two in the preparation rooms, and,” he sought farther. “I see a red-gold glow across the courtyard and down, two blue and brown lights near father’s private office, and—.” Is that really? “Ah, glowing black near where the men slaughter kine and schaef?”
“Very good. Look inward again, please, then open your outer eyes.”
It felt good to rest his gaze inside. He did for a few heartbeats, then opened his eyes. He saw carved branches arching over his head, polished wood in light and dark brown, touched here and there with green of leaves. The ceiling, he stared up at the ceiling. How strange. He blinked a few times and tried to sit.
“Hold this.” The end of her staff appeared above him. He grasped just below the ornately carved wooden cervi head, and used that to help pull himself upright. She was strong. He knew that, and stared at his legs for a moment, then met her eyes. She smiled, and her one eyebrow rose a little. “You have very strong magic. And you will probably have a headache soon. Besides the one about to be inflicted upon us.”
Huh? Oh no.
Maltaria raised one hand. “Kneel in devotion, Halwende, and give thanks for your life, and for the Lady’s mercy. And don’t tense, or the headache will be worse,” she warned, getting to her feet with the aid of the staff.
“Yes, ma’am.” He shifted to his knees and sort of crawled to the proper place for such things. He knelt and began reciting a prayer of thanks. His back and the back of his neck crawled.
“Where is he?” came a bellow from the corridor. “What do you mean he never left the chapel?” It sounded like am ovstrala’s bellow when the males fought for the does. “I ordered him to attend me!”
Halwende’s shoulders tensed in anticipation of a blow. Instead Maltaria spoke in her “worship voice.” “He attended to—and is attending to—giving thanks to the Lady of the Forest for sparing his life and those of your servants, Lord Hal.” Calm and relaxed, she sounded in full control of herself. Unlike his grace.
“What mean you?” The anger remained, but not so loud as before. “The young fool endangered Pol as well as himself, by coming in so late.”
A soft thump, wood on wood. “Were you told of the two einar in mating fury that attacked the cart and those with it, your grace?”
“Yes, and that was no excuse.” Lord Hal bit each word short, snapping them.
“And that your heir ordered his men to leave him behind, lest they be endangered as well should his arrows miss? They did as commanded.” The priestess’s words came smoothly and quietly. “And that he then brought in the healthy einar for your table, after granting mercy to one that ailed? Carrying the einar by himself, on his shoulders?”
“That I did not know. But he must obey me.” The words came slower, still angry.
“I’m certain that he will, your grace, after his devotions. He has been here since worship began.”
Heavy boots stomped on the floor outside the chapel. “Send him to me when he finishes.” The boots departed.
Lady of the Forest, thank You for life given and taken, for mercy given. Thank You for the bounty of the woods and the wilds, Valdher of the Forest. He recited silently. A tiny ache had begun in the back of his head, as well as at his temples. He needed to eat, and to rest, if he could.
Softer footfalls approached. “Lady grant me patience, as fast as Your grace permits.” A light sigh whispered above his head. Halwende finished and stood. He bowed to the statue, and turned to the priestess. Maltaria gave him a stern look. “Attend to your father, then get food. You pushed your magic farther than you should have, but I wanted to see what you would do. Now I know, and we will build from there.” She raised her hand and made Valdher’s Antlers. “Go with the blessing of the Lady of the Forest, younger brother.”
He bowed again. “Thanks for the blessing.”
He took the longer route to his father’s meeting hall. The keep, one of the first built after the ice and snows began retreating north, could be navigated easily, provided one already knew where he needed to go. A few servants hurried past on errands. The first of the harvest had begun arriving, and the women and some men busied themselves in the still room, kitchens, and storage rooms. The time for preserving meat had not yet arrived, but it would come with the first true cold. Hills and the western ridge sheltered the Valke lands from some storms, but not from true winter. He shivered a little, recalling his grandmother’s stories of the Great Cold, when Sneelah had been the only deity to rule the north.
Halwende heard voices from the meeting chamber and stopped short of the door. ” . . . and that’s all from the Kalman farm, your grace,” the chief steward said. His voice always reminded Halwende of an eigris, the long-legged, sharp-voiced wading birds that stalked the marshes, spearing fish and other things. The steward stood easily as tall as Duke Hal, perhaps taller when he stood straight. He stooped most of the time, round shouldered, eyes on the ground ahead of his feet, or on the record books and papers of his trade.
“Hmm.” His father’s voice rumbled. “Very well. You are dismissed.”
“Your grace.” A soft thump as the big record book closed, and light steps approached the door. Halwende stayed clear of the steward’s path. The man walked like an eigris, long, steady strides that only looked slow.
After he assured himself that he heard no more voices, Halwende gathered his nerves and entered his father’s hall. A small fire burned in the hearth near the duke’s chair of office, a sturdy, dark seat upholstered in grey, with a high back that bore carvings of real and legendary beasts, topped by a valke in flight. The chair dominated the room, just as Duke Hal dominated the Valke lands. More than once Halwende had wondered if even the Great Northern Emperor had a stronger presence than his father. He’d never seen the emperor, so he had no way to know. His father loomed, a man’s man, a warrior among warriors. He stood a head taller than Halwende, broad-shoulders, with heavy legs. Duke Hal, one year from entering his fifth decade, looked younger, aside from the bulge over his belt. His hair remained dark, unlike many of the ruling dukes.
“What excuse this time, boy?”
Halwende bowed, then straightened. “None, your grace.”
A storm cloud lowered over his father’s face, his skin turning darker brown. “You are a fool, twice a fool, for hunting so late in the day. Pol is too old, too important, to be forced to sleep in the open outside the walls.”
So why did he leave the walls? He did not provide aid, he just paced me. As he had so often, Halwende said, “Yes, your grace.”
“And you left your near-ruined garments for the servants to deal with.”
“Yes, your grace.” His aching head kept him from anger at the unjust words.
His father stared at him, then barked, “I have arranged a betrothal. You will be wed to Malita of Kamsicht when she comes of age in three years. The emperor chose your brother’s betrothed as his own, so I had to find a replacement. Kamsicht will do.”
Who? Oh, the girl with the mines and no brothers. “Thank you, your grace.”
Duke Hal stared at him again, eyes narrow. “What were you doing for so long in the chapel?”
“Giving thanks for the successful hunt, your grace, and for your servants returning uninjured.” Do I dare? Yes. “I felt it wise to make good on my promise to Valdher sooner rather than later.”
Fingers drummed on the wide arm of the ducal chair. The cloud of anger lifted, just a little. “Very well. That I will accept. Two einar charged?”
“Yes, your grace, the healthy one that I brought in, and one that had an injury. The injured boar ailed, smelled of dead flesh, so I left it for the eaters of the dead.” For a moment he saw again the enraged einar, mouth open, racing toward him. The vision faded as his head pounded.
His father stood. Halwende backed to the side, out of the duke’s way. “Well, you did one thing properly. And Pol was uninjured. Don’t hunt so late in the future.”
Halwende bowed. “Yes, your grace.”
He went, and grabbed whatever remained on the table outside the kitchen for the servants and those who could not sit for the meal. Something in bread, and sauce-soaked trencher bread. He grabbed a fist-sized lump. He hesitated, then drew his knife and cut a trencher in two and took half of it as well. When he became duke, should he live that long, he would never, ever eat trencher unless it was a time of true dearth. When his mother yet lived, they’d only eaten trencher at the end of spring, when the stored food ran low but the fresh had yet to arrive, and then always with greens and young meat to ease the sting. Duke Hal gave it to his servants and sons even at harvest.
(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved