Fiona held her talisman stone, Godith, in her hand and gazed at it. It was not as if she did not have every line of the intricate carvings and runes on the surface of the translucent stone memorized, or had not studied and restudied the intertwined patterns. All her life she had worn the stone. Hours upon hours had been spent contemplating it.
The stone had been an irregular teardrop of dull blue-black granite hanging from a leather lanyard around her neck until last ByreDaye when reunion with the parent jewel, Clovenstone, transformed the blue-black granite to a glowing blue-cast opalescent jewel and the leather lanyard to a braided gold chain. Fiona still marveled at this miracle of magic. She turned the stone in her hand, reflectively.
Have I been taking the right course? I wish youd give me some guidance. I wish I knew more about you.
She was tense. They were late with the food tonight. She was so hungry.
She hauled herself to her feet, scraping her cold dry hands on the undressed ashlars of the wall as she grabbed it for support. She ached from the chill and from sitting in a cramped position on the stone floor of the tiny cell. She turned toward the uncovered hole in the wall that served as a window and looked out. The crashing of waves against the cliffs far below her made her shiver. Chill breezes of southern winter dragged icy fingers across her face and stirred her dark brown hair, cut short at the sides to be out of the way of her shooting. She shivered again, not only from the cold, but also from the thought of what lay ahead.
And she worried about Talorg. Was he still chained in a dank stable, or was the powerful winged lorynx flying over Lord Cerlics holdings on an early evening patrol? She pictured Cerlic's sentry on Talorgs back digging his spurs in the lorynx silky gray sides and yanking on the choke chain around his neck. Fiona clenched her fist and pounded on the rough stone window ledge.
She walked over to Cormac, nudged him with her toe, and said very quietly, Why don't you scoon down to Talorg's stall and see if he's there? Maybe they won't take him out tonight.
What difference does it make? We've each got to make our own way.
Just go, Fiona hissed. The fyr derrig shrugged his shoulders, then disappeared. Fiona turned back to the window hole and leaned out of it.
The castle wall stretched away and was lost in the twilight gray. Somewhere in that gray the wall flowed into sheer granite cliffs that plunged into the dark sea.
Talorg had said to Cormac on the day before this day, Theres a ledge at the bottom of the cliffs just a little to the morningside of below your window. Looks like its about fifteen feet wide at high tide. You two get down there out of the cell and out of the reach of Cerlic as soon as you can. I'll keep watching for you. When I see you're on the ledge, Ill scrape off my sentry.
Fiona leaned out the window farther. Somewhere far below was that narrow ledge that Talorg described. Waves smashed against the base of the wall. They were threateningly loud. She slapped her hand across the top of a granite gargoyle jutting out just below the window.
Stand firm! she whispered. Then she shivered again. It was cold. She plopped down to the floor out of the wind and pulled her cloak around herself. The gargoyle under the window grinned at the lambent moon.
Cormac reappeared, materializing in the center of the cell floor. He's there. But he says they often don't come for him until blackest nighttime. So we don't know any more than we did before. He threw himself down on the straw and was snoring in minutes.
Fiona pulled up her knees and rested her head on her arms to see if she could sleep a bit, too. It seemed like she had just dozed off when there was a rattle at the door. Cormac opened his eyes, but didnt move.
The door was thrown open and crashed against the wall of the cell. Fiona raised her head wearily. A burly and unwashed guard filled the doorway with a lantern in his left hand, his sword at the ready in his right. He surveyed the cell.
My Lord Cerlic sees you at dayebreak. Be prepared this time.
Fiona and Cormac neither responded nor showed any emotion at the announcement. The guard grunted and stepped aside. A cowering menial set a small wooden trencher of turnip gruel on the uneven rock of the floor and laid a dark brown slab of bread on top of it. Lastly, a waterskin was dropped squishily next to the trencher. The servant crept out. The guard slammed the door and noisily locked it. There was silence.
Cormac pulled the trencher to the middle of the cell between Fiona and himself. Fiona, meanwhile, tucked the waterskin into her sturdy hempen backpack. She looked at the trencher. One end of the bread slab had fallen into the gruel.
Snakes, she said. The bread is soaked again. Now well have to do the you-bite-and-I-bite thing.
Chews easier that way, grunted Cormac. Fiona took a bite of the soggy bread, and handed it to him.
So Cerlic commands my presence, eh? she said in a low voice. Definitely time to move on.
Unless you can produce the magick, orcompanionshiphe desires
Dont joke! Fiona shuddered and shoved more gruel-soaked bread into her mouth. Eat up. Lets get out of here!
The small portion of food was soon gone, and the trencher removed to the wall next to the door. Twilight had slid into night; it was now dark in the cell. Fiona pulled her Godith stone out from beneath her kirtle to hang free on the golden chain. Its blue glow gave enough light for their work.
They tossed the straw off Cormacs bed, exposing a large coil of braided hempen rope that Cormac had stolen from the weapons supplies room. Under the coil were Fionas longknife, Bredai, and her beechen staff with the crudely carved sheep's head on top. It was the work of seconds to drag the rope near the window. Cormac took an end, jumped to the window ledge, disappeared briefly, and then reappeared on the ledge and handed the rope end to Fiona.
Wrapped it around three times. He hopped to the floor.
Fiona leaned out the window and slid the rope turns Cormac had made around the neck of the gargoyle up against the castle wall where theyd be less visible. She held the end of the rope in one hand, and pulled up a loop from the length hanging from the gargoyle. With the end piece and loop, she tied a sailors bowline, learned during her days at sea on the ship Evensong, around the long length and fastened off the loose end into two figure-eight knots. Now one end of the rope was securely fastened to the gargoyle.
Cormac jumped out the window again, sat astride the gargoyles head, and the two of them worked the rope around the gargoyles neck until the knots hung straight down below the forked beard on the gargoyles chin. Rope snaked from the knots up through the window hole in the wall into the coil lying on the floor.
A warning shock from Fionas stone shot through her. She jerked up. Danger! she hissed at Cormac.
The door smashed against the wall again. The bulk of the guard filled the doorway as before. The lantern in his left hand lit up the now dark cell and made Fiona blink.
He strode into the cell, dropped the lantern, and seized Fiona by the neck of her cloak. He yanked her up towards himself and then bent her backward over the window opening so that she hung above the gulf. Only the pressure of his body on hers kept her from falling. He snarled into her face.
And another thing, wicche, if you dont produce those spells, Cerlic will let me persuade you, and Im very good at it!
Fiona dropped her head back to escape the beasts filthy breath and went limp in his grasp. The guard yanked her towards himself to continue his threats face to face.
When he did, she seized him tightly around the neck. The surprised attacker tried to push her away. He lost his balance. Locked together, they teetered over the abyss. Cormac, who had been flitting around trying to find defensive opening, grabbed the back of the mans tunic and pulled hard.
The guard fell back into the room with Fiona on top of him, still gripping him around the neck. When her elbows hit the floor, Fiona loosed the attacker and jumped up, her face contorted with disgust. He, too, sprang to his feet and grabbed the front of her tunic again. He yanked her up against himself and thrust his bestial face into hers. She regarded him without emotion, holding her fear and anger deep within herself. Cormac, meanwhile, had slipped behind Fiona and leaned against the wall at the edge of the window, hiding the rope.
The guard put his huge hand around Fionas throat, and slowly tightened it, pressing his fingers painfully into the sides of her neck. Behind, Cormac tensed for action, though he displayed no outward emotion.
Moments passed. The three players in the tableau were frozen in time. Fiona had relaxed, as before, minimizing the effect of the pressure on her throat. She was just gathering herself to give her attacker a quick knee in the groin, when he released his grip on her neck and clothing and stepped back. Fiona regained her balance and said not a word, just coolly regarded her assailant. Cormac began to breathe again.
You are a highty one! The guard laughed nastily. Ill be looking forward with pleasure to the working over of you and your stinking little dwarf, he added, with a glance at Cormac. His gaze shifted back to Fiona, and he looked her up and down slowly, like a cat sizing up his prey. Oh, yes, he said with soft-spoken menace. She continued to gaze at him without reaction.
The guard smashed his open hand against the side of Fionas face, full force, knocking her to the floor. He laughed.
How do you like that, dwarf? he asked. Cormac did not move.
The guard picked up his lantern and backed through the door. Cormac waited until he heard the clunk of the lock, then dashed over and helped Fiona to her feet.
She rubbed her head, stood up straight, and took a deep breath. Egg-sucking lout. May he fall on his own sword.
Your lips bleeding, said Cormac. He handed her his linen pocket-handkerchief.
They brushed the straw off the coiled rope. Fiona cut a longish piece off the end of the rope. Then they hauled the coil up on the bottom edge of the window hole, where they looked it over carefully and made some adjustments. Fiona gave a pull to check the tightness of a large knot she had tied at the far end of the rope, and laid the knotted end just-so on the coil. Cormac jumped to the sill, and at the count of three they heaved the coil over the gargoyles head and out into the void. They watched anxiously. The rope uncoiled smoothly as it disappeared into the night.
Thank you, Malmut, said Fiona in tribute to the first mate of Evensong, who had taught them rope handling.
if we did it right, said Cormac, peering down into the darkness.
Fiona caught up a loop of the rope and brought it back over the ledge and into the room. She picked up the short length she had cut off earlier and fastened it in a slip knot around the long line. Then she wrapped the rest of the short piece around her waist and tied it securely. Her cloak had been rolled up and stuffed into her backpack, which Cormac now had piled on the floor along with his shoulder-hung haversack, Bredai the longknife, and Fionas staff. Fiona arranged the long loop of rope around herself and backed up against the window ledge.
Gwyan, I wish I could scoon down to the sea ledge like you can. She clutched the rope with sweaty palms. Youd think Godith could spirit me down there. But maybe that kind of magick in the stone hasnt been awakened yet or maybe it is possible, and I dont know how to use it.
Id bet on the latter, said Cormac. Ill scoon the packs and staff down once you get started.
The rope descending from the gargoyle went through her left hand, around her back waist, down between her legs front to back, then up through her right hand. The loose rope fell down the cliff face into the night. She pulled herself up the rope with her left hand, and loosed the slipknot with her right. Bit by bit, she let the rope pass through her left hand. At the same time, she released her grip with her right hand to allow the rope to slide, and lowered herself step by step down the wall. She could feel the emptiness around her, hear the hungry sea smashing against the jagged rocks below. The rope hurt. It cut into her body and it hurta lot!
After a long time, the flat-faced ashlars of the castle wall gave way to the seamed granite of the cliffs. Here footing was unsure jags or holes to trip her, smooth spots where she could get no grip.
Step. Step. Step. The wind was stronger than Fiona had expected. Sudden gusts knocked her off balance. She was sweating. She was shivering. The sharp-edged shadows on the rock seemed to move in the moonlight, confusing her. She didnt know up from down, and concentrated on the rope extending above her left hand to keep herself upright.
Step. Step. One foot after the other, on and on. Talorg had guessed the cliffs to be at least a hundred feet high, and the dungeon window something like forty feet above the cliffs. Fiona thought it must be at least twice that. She grew tired. Her left arm shook. Her hands were raw from the rough twisted hemp.
Cormac appeared above her, arms and legs wrapped around the rope. Youre more than half-way, he shouted down to her above the roar of the wind and sea. Fiona nodded. Can you hear me? Fiona nodded again. She hadnt the energy to shout. Cormac scrunched down so he was closer to Fionas head. Youre going to be about twenty feet short. Ill grab you and scoon to the ledge. Itll at least break the fall. Fiona nodded again, and Cormac vanished.
Step. Step. She tensed her left arm to stop its shaking. She moved in a trance, pushed away pain and exhaustion, focused on each slide of the rope, each step. Her left foot slipped on an icy spot. The rope scraped painfully across her back. She struggled to regain her footing. Her left arm shook again, an uncontrollable jerking that loosed her grip on the hempen line.
Without the brake of her left hand, the rope slid through her right hand, burning away the skin, until she was brought up with a painful jerk by the slip-looped line around her waist. She dropped her arms and hung there like a rag doll, swaying and twisting in the winds that buffeted the creased and jagged granite wall.
An alarmed Cormac appeared on the rope just above her again and shouted her name. She didnt hear him. He shouted again. She raised her head. The fyr derrig stretched his arm as far as he could, and squeezed Fionas shoulder, hard! She flinched.
Keep up the fight! he cried, then vanished, not wanting to add undue weight to the rope.
The brief contact gave Fiona life. She flexed her left hand and arm until she got sensation into them and could feel the sting of her rope-burned palm. Her left arm was weak anyway from a past stab wound to the shoulder that had left a deep scar. When she gathered up the line once more she switched hands and kept her stronger right hand outstretched on the line above her to hold her weight.
She put her feet up on the wall, worked loose the slip-loop, and continued, step, step. Her whole life, the whole world, was centered upon each careful placement of a foot. She didnt feel the wind any more. The pain of her skinned hands and rope-bruised body receded into a numbing mental fog. Step. Step. Step. Step.
The knot at the end of the rope hit her left hand. She froze in momentary confusion. Cormac appeared, hanging on the rope above her.
Im going to grasp you around the waist. When you feel me take hold of you, let go of the rope. Let go with both hands. Do you understand?
Im cutting your safety line. Cormac leaned down and severed the line from her waist to the slip loop with a swift slash of his dagger.
Fiona felt his short, strong, arms around her waist.
Brace yourself, he shouted. With your weight, the landing could be rough even at this distance.
The pressure around her waist tightened.
Fiona shut her eyes and let go of the rope. There was a brief flash of nothingness. They hit the rock ledge with a jarring thump. Cormac jumped up, but Fiona lay there glorying in the safe solidity beneath her.
Fiona opened her eyes and looked up at him. No. Not too bad at all. She closed her eyes again.
Fiona opened her eyes. Her outstretched arm was wet from the spray of waves that splashed over the edges of the ledge and left foam to run in lacy white rivulets back to the sea. She got up shakily and slowly crawled to the back of the ledge, where she painfully sat down with her back to the granite wall.
Cormac vanished. Rope slid down the cliff face and piled itself into an untidy heap on the ledge. He reappeared with the bowline knot in his hand.
Your weight tightened the knots so much that I had to cut the rope off the gargoyle. But its gone now without a trace the rope, that is. Theyll think we left by magick for sure. He carefully coiled the rope in long loops and pushed it towards Fiona. Here, if we sit on this, itll be warmer than the rock.
He shoved the coiled rope into small sheltered angle out of the wind. They huddled together on the coil and waited for Talorg.
The pale winter moon, now high in the sky, painted a shimmering silver path across Ehrwán Sea. The moon-path, said Fiona. Clovenstone awaits us at the end of it.
If its a feast-daye and if were lucky, said Cormac around a yawn. I hope Talorg gets here tonight, and soon. Im freezing.
They pushed back into the little nook as far as they could. Fiona returned to her contemplation of the moon-path. She could see in her minds eye the glowing uncut opalescent jewel that was the symbol and power of the land of Kildonan, her land which had been shattered for hundreds of years now into petty squabbling holdings. Clovenstone lay hidden, entombed, on the enchanted isle of Mhúire at the end of the moon-path. There it awaited the gathering of all seven of the Mêrthyr talisman stones.
Fiona, with Cormac, Talorg, and others of their traveling troupe, the Nonesuch Players, had found the fabled stone only months ago after a long quest. She had thought, as they searched, that her journey would end with the discovery of the jewel. It hadnt. Clovenstone was only a way-marker on the road to the restoration of the island-city of Iódha and the reunification of Kildonan as one land. The quest was destined to go on, perhaps beyond her lifetime. If so, her talisman stone, ripped from the cleft in Clovenstone ages ago, would pass on to another stone bearer.
She wished she could take out her Godith stone and hold it. But she couldnt hold anything until her hands healed. She looked down at Cormac snuggled against her side. He had yanked his green felt hat down over his ears and pulled his knees up under his dark brown skirted coat of fulled wool. At her movement, he looked up.
Wondered if you were sleeping, said Fiona.
Nope. Watching for Talorg.
Youll have to tie me onto Talorg. My hands are useless.
I thought of that. Id cut the rope now to do it, but its too cold. Cormac shivered.
How do you suppose the others are doing? asked Fiona, to pass the time.
Better than we are, I hope.
Yes, this was not an wonderful event in our campaign, agreed Fiona. But then, ventures are not always comfortable.
Cormac grunted. They could at least be warmer.
Anyway, how were we to know that Cerlic was a rat trying to enslave his neighbors?
Cormac merely snorted.
The two fell silent. Wind whistled eerily around on rocky prominence above them. Waves crashed continually against the rock and ran back into the sea with a liquid trickling sound. Fiona loved the salt smell of the sea air. She breathed deeply and tried to relax. Cormac shifted against her.
Béagran had the easiest job, to start, said Fiona, picking up the thread of conversation. He didnt have to convince anyone up there at Girond Mead-Hall to work for making Kildonan One again. Theyve been fighting for peace hundreds of years, ever since the fall of the Mêrthyr and the breakup of Kildonan. The news that Clovenstone has been found just spurred them on, I'm sure.
Not to mention the discovery of three Mêrthyr alive, well, and wandering about the landscape, added Cormac.
Were not Mêrthyr. Were stonebearers, as others have been for generations. A Mêrthyr controls all the magick of a stone, rules Kildonan, and holds Clovenstone. Not one of us now has any of the above, and neither will the other four stone-bearers when and if we find them. Not til Kildonan is One again.
Cormac with finality. Wheres that cat?
There was again silence on the sea-washed ledge.
Fiona hovered between sleep and wakefulness. She thought she was awake, then realized shed been dreaming. Cormac snored. She drifted off again. It was in one of these half-awake moments that a soft thump brought her fully alert.
A great silver-gray winged lornyx clung to the edge of the ledge. He scrambled to surer footing, and folded his wings in a marked and elegant manner.
"Talorg!" Fiona cried. Thank Gwyan! Youre all right!
The saddle, an ingenious one built by Cerlics leatherworkers to fit Talorg, hung askew on the lorynx side. Cormac straightened the saddle and tightened the girth. Fiona go to her knees, dragged herself painfully over to Talorg, and with help from Cormac, sat herself very gently onto the lorynx back. Cormac tied her securely to the saddle. He grabbed his haversack and the sheep's head staff, strapped Bredai the longknife around his middle, hopped up on Talorg behind Fiona, and put his arms around her waist.
The lorynx spread his massive wings and slowly rose into the twilight gray of dying night. A blush of pink showed on the morningside horizon. Ehrwàn Sea rolled below them. The gargoyle grinned its eternal grimace under the window edge of an empty cell.
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