Hello, everyone. I beg your pardon for the laconic author’s notes, but I’m busy with Nanowrimo… At least I spend most of the time writing, and I’m mostly caught up…
Enjoy the chapter!
Edit: I just realized something. I posted this part slightly out of order… You might want to go back and read Chap. II Part IV, then read this one, THEN read Chap. III Part I. My most sincere and abject apologies… I do try to avoid problems like this, but occasionally they do happen.
Bound to the Flame
They were almost back to the royal pavilion when Rowan gasped, clutching Rheadwyn’s arm, his fingers twisted in the hem of her cloak in a mute expression of pain. Rheadwyn gripped the boy’s arm, steadying him. She studied his face with calm, concerned eyes. “Is your leg troubling you again, Rowan?” she asked, collectedly. Rowan nodded wordlessly, biting his lip and drawing blood. Rheadwyn sighed. “I was afraid something like this would happen. You should not be so reckless, Rowan.” Rowan shot her a pained, angry, tearful look.
“I hate being a helpless cripple!” he exclaimed. Rheadwyn steadied him. “You’re far from helpless, Your Highness,” she reminded him. Rowan frowned.
“It’s still not the same thing,” he said. Rheadwyn sighed.
“I know it’s not,” she replied.
“Sometimes, I wonder why the wisps brought me back.” Rowan whispered. “I wonder why I even bothered to follow them. Sometimes, I even wish that I had died there, under that horse!” Rheadwyn sighed and lifted the boy, as close as she would ever willingly come to a full-fledged embrace.
“I know, Rowan. Believe me, I know.”
“Why am I like this, ‘Wyn?” Rowan snapped, his voice cracking, as if he was about to burst into tears of frustration.
“Sometimes, we don’t even know the reason,” Rheadwyn said. “I know this seems pointless to you, Rowan. But it’s just possible—just barely possible—that there is a point. You just can’t see it yet. God knows it, but you don’t. Ultimately, it’s your decision whether you are going to trust God to take charge of your destiny, or not.” Rheadwyn finished her speech by shoving Rowan’s face roughly, though not unkindly, up against her shoulder. Rowan smiled into her mahogany hair. This was why he trusted and loved Rheadwyn as confidante, friend, advisor, and loyal soldier; her lack of attempts to butter people up or influence their decisions, and her no-nonsense attitude were a breath of fresh air. Most of the nobles—even of Ertraia—unbiased as they all tried hard to be, they often had their own agendas or pet projects to further, though they tried to do so on their own time and with their own resources. Not so with Rheadwyn. She was completely loyal to the crown, and without bias or prejudice. Her suggestions were always balanced and well-rounded, but if they were rejected, she did not make undue fuss. While the other councilors and advisors sat in state at lengthy meetings, Rheadwyn served as a Ranger, protecting Ertraia and maintaining its borders, and Rowan privately hoped that he would have her advice, courage, honesty, and good sense to rely on for years after his coronation took place.
No one knew where Rheadwyn came from. She had arrived in Ertraia as a young child, a partially-trained warlock with no parents and no teacher. It was rumored that she had come from the far south of the island, far beyond the clans’ rocky, picturesque, mountainous, forested, starkly beautiful domain, from the fen country; the nation the lowlanders called Wales, but it was uncertain if this were the case, or a mere rumor perpetuated by gossip. Perhaps she had been in a shipwreck, and had alone made her way along the coasts until she turned inland. No one knew. Rheadwyn herself didn’t speak of it; indeed, she rarely talked about herself.
That had been many, many years ago. Like most of the Ertraian people, Rheadwyn did not show many signs of her age, like Melilana, who still appeared as she had in her late thirties, though she was now fifty-five years of age, and Halbyrn, who was five years older, but whose hair was only beginning to be streaked with gray. Rheadwyn herself appeared of indeterminate age, not particularly beautiful in a classic sense, but not unprepossessing, either. She was weather-beaten, with a determined aspect, a hard-edged blade of good sense and hard-earned wisdom, both an accomplished warrior and an able healer. Some of Rowan’s earliest memories were of learning the double arts of warfare and of healing by her side.
After a short while, apparently knowing that Rowan would object to being carried any further, Rheadwyn set him down. Gripping her hand like he normally would his staff, which he had left behind on a whim today, Rowan limped bravely along by her side. Rheadwyn made no comment. From long years of training and working with him, both before and after the accident, she knew both their limits—mental and physical—very well.
They arrived at the main pavilion—the gathering place of all the tribes and kingdoms—at last. Rowan moved to enter, but Rheadwyn stood as still as a stone, holding him back. The young man looked up at her, curiously, for a long moment. Rheadwyn sighed and took a deep breath. “I know you’re eager to see the world outside our borders, to meet new people, but you must be cautious, Rowan. You would do well to remember that some people here will not—and do not—welcome us. Some people here today would as soon stab you in the back as look at you, and you know how particular some of the nobles can be about the rules of primogeniture. You are the Queen’s only child, and were you killed, a named heir would most certainly be an unpopular choice with one group or another. It could mean civil war if an unfortunate so-called accident were to befall you.”
“I’m not defenseless, you know,” Rowan muttered rebelliously. Rheadwyn sighed.
“I know you’re not. That’s not the point.”
“Then what is the point?” Rowan asked, defiantly. Rheadwyn’s eyes glittered angrily, dangerously, but Rowan was too riled up to care.
“For heaven’s sake, Rowan!” Rheadwyn burst out at last. “You fail to recognize your limits—you won’t listen to warnings. What does this rebellion arise from, Rowan? Is it pride? Is it impatience? I never would have taken you for being the type to harbor either! Then again, I never would have thought you a coward.”
“I am not a coward!” Rowan shouted back. Rheadwyn gripped his shoulder, painfully tight.
“Then why can’t you accept the fact that you are only human?” she demanded. Rowan stiffened, but willed himself to speak calmly.
“I don’t want anyone to think that I’m a helpless cripple,” he said.
“All the more reason why you should accept your limitations,” Rheadwyn said softly. “You can’t work around them until you have. I know you’re not weak; so do you. No one would blame you if you were to just give up, but they would pity you. I’m suggesting a slightly different channel for your energy.” Rowan nodded slowly.
“Why is it that, while Adyn can frustrate me, you’re the only one who can actually make me angry, ‘Wyn?”
“Only because you always get me angry first,” Rheadwyn grinned. “You’re quite the pesky little blighter for an Ertraian.”
“So, you get mad at people who aren’t Ertraian?” Rheadwyn laughed and ruffled his hair.
“All the time,” she grinned. “I don’t think you will, though. You only get mad at me—it’s a sign of mental resilience, I guess. Besides, you haven’t gone mad after teaching that rapscallion Adyn for two years, so I’d say you have a good chance of being a very good diplomat.”
“Why do you say that?” Rowan asked.
“Well,” Rheadwyn said, glancing sidelong at the boy, “the world is full of obnoxious bull-headed galoots who need some sense knocked into them, and you—you started at it young.” Rowan burst out laughing, a clear, rippling note like a brook leaping from stone to stone. Rheadwyn grinned and offered him her arm. “Well, shall we?” she asked.
“’Wyn, it’s supposed to go the other way around,” Rowan protested, leaning on the proffered arm nonetheless. Rheadwyn laughed silently.
“Oh, how silly of me,” she said.
They entered the tent to see Halbryn and Melilana already seated at the dais at the opposite end. The queen rose as her faithful retainer appeared, leading her errant son. “You found him,” she murmured in relief.
“Aye, and gave him the scolding that was due,” Rheadwyn replied, winking at Rowan.
“Please don’t do that again, Rowan,” Melilana said, nonetheless. “If anyone had recognized you, realized who you were… I don’t know what would have happened.”
“I don’t think anyone noticed my tartan colors,” Rowan offered helpfully.
“Good,” Melilana replied repressively. “I know our precautions must seem harsh and constricting to you, but you must remember that you are our responsibility and our son. We love you very much, Rowan.” The boy looked down.
“I know,” he muttered, shame-faced.
“I’m just glad to see you’re all right,” Melilana murmured.
“What’s going on, now?” asked Rowan.
“We’re going to be formally introduced to the Elruunian and Arethwyne nobility.” Melilana explained, giving her son an once-over. She slid the catch of his cloak off to one side, straightened his kilt, and sighed. “There. You’re at least halfway presentable. Now, where did you leave your circlet this time?”
“It’s in my luggage,” Rowan muttered. Melilana sighed and sent one of the servants to get it. Once the maid came back, the queen carefully brushed Rowan’s overly-long bangs back from his brow, carding her fingers quickly through the thick waves, then she set the circlet on his head. It immediately slid down to one side, and Melilana pushed it back up, sliding it back until it was satisfactorily still. Rowan stood huffily, arms crossed, through the whole performance.
“That thing hates me,” he said, stone-faced. Melilana carefully centered the filigreed decoration and sighed.
“It’s inanimate, Rowan. It doesn’t have preferences.”
“I don’t like it, then,” Rowan muttered. Melilana sighed.
“I know you don’t,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s necessary. Come on.” She led Rowan up to the dais. For a while, as they waited, Rowan was distracted by one loosely curling, dark lock that had slipped out from behind his ear, but it did not last long enough to prevent acute boredom from settling in.
At last, there was a fanfare, a brisk beat of drums, and the representatives of the other kingdoms marched in. The heralds followed them in and they seated themselves on the dais, under the banners of their respective kingdoms; the stooping falcon argent on a field verdant for Ertraia, a unicorn rampant argent on a red field for Elruun, and a gold crowned bear on a field argent for Arethwyne. As the herald announced them, the leaders of each nation stood in turn and bowed to the assembly.
“King Archibald and Queen Alana Maroch of Elruun!” the herald cried. The king and queen, an older man and a much younger woman with a faintly worried, peaked face that, had it not held an expression of slight discomfort, unease, and nervousness, would have appeared extremely beautiful, stood. The queen curtsied, and the king bowed gravely. Newly married, Rowan thought. The queen is not quite sure yet of her new station. Most likely an arranged marriage.
“King Seamus and Queen Marena of Arethwyne, and their children Princess Marena Margaret and Princes Gareth, Aaron, and Hamish Dun Fayr!” I didn’t know she had brothers… Lucky lass.
“Queen Melilana Caerlen, King Halbryn Jaentyr, and Prince Rowan Jaentyr Caerlen of Ertraia!”
With a slight struggle, Rowan rose from his seat and made his own bow. He fell back down into the high seat with a tiny sigh of relief. Melilana gave him a concerned glance. Rowan smiled back reassuringly, mouthing “I’m fine.” Halbryn remained standing.
“We are gathered here for the purpose of deciding the future of our kingdoms,” he announced in his fine baritone voice. “Ertraia is here for the first time in over four decades, in the hopes of forming an alliance with the kingdoms of Arethwyne and Elruun.” Melilana stood.
“We also come with a warning. We have kept our borders closed for forty-two years, but even we have felt the repercussions of events in the outside world. We have defended our shores for the past forty-two years against attacks by sea robbers; within, we have faced treason on a scale far higher than ever before in my memory. Our guard on our borders is becoming increasingly strained. In the past week, we received no less than three refugees, none of them magic users. They would not say exactly what they were fleeing from, or where they had come from. We could see the terror in their eyes.
“I remember a time, my lords, when all the nobles of our kingdoms trusted the seers of Ertraia to predict the future, and today I come before you with not only visions, but with material evidence of the dangers that lie ahead. Will you join us in defending our lands?” There was silence for a moment, then Melilana continued, “I do not say that the danger is imminent. I am merely advocating further caution. My lords, our chief reasons in attending this gathering were first, to deliver this warning, and second, to gain the friendship of Arethwyne and Elruun. We are not strong enough to fight these foes on our own, but together we are strong enough to overcome them. Will you join us in the defense? Will you fight with us?”
Margery had stopped listening to the golden-haired queen of Ertraia after she had mentioned the hope for friendship between the kingdoms, to aid in the defense of the land. Her eyes were fixed on the young prince of Ertraia. How had she not guessed that he was not as he seemed? It seemed so blatant, so obvious, now. The prince had been hiding in plain sight. Then, another thought struck her. She knew now why Rowan’s voice had sounded so familiar. It was the voice of the young man who had ordered her to be set at liberty after she had been caught trespassing beyond the Ertraian border. She put her chin on her hand and gazed at him curiously. She had heard time and time again that the royal family of Ertraia had magical powers; she wondered, now, if her friend Rowan was a wizard. He wasn’t at all like she would have imagined a sorcerer to be. She wasn’t offended at all that he had concealed his high birth; if everyone in Arethwyne and Elruun hadn’t known her identity anyway, she would have taken every chance that she could to abandon it, as well. In fact, she had been doing the same thing to him not even an hour ago, though she knew now that he had seen right through her, as he had at their anonymous first meeting.
Eventually, the adults withdrew to one side to continue their discussion of politics and policy, while the young people drew off and out into the open air to allow the servers to prepare the dais and tables for the feast that evening. Margery walked over to Rowan, who was sitting on a tree stump just outside the tent. “Hello again,” she said. Rowan smiled wanly.
“Hello.” he said. “You’ll have to forgive me for not getting up.” Margery shrugged.
“Oh, it doesn’t bother me,” she said. She sat down beside him and studied him for a moment. “So it was you…”
“Yes. But it’s better if we don’t speak of it. Officially, it never even happened.” Margery nodded in understanding.
“So that’s how you knew you’d see me again tonight?” she asked. Rowan grimaced.
“Don’t tell me I forgot to tell you who I was. For one thing, I despise fanfare. For another, my mother would’ve been furious. Besides, I think it’s better not to take who you were born as for granted, don’t you? I’d rather earn my birthright, prove my ability to rule.” Margery was a little startled. Apparently, Rowan took his inheritance much more seriously than she ever had.
“I never thought of it like that,” she remarked. “I… well, mostly I just hate grovelers.” Rowan burst out laughing. He had a nice laugh, Margery thought.
“So, you’re really named after your mother?” he asked.
“Yes. Everyone calls me just Margery, for short. It’s kind of a joke, you see. Mar is short for Marena, while Margery is short for Margaret. So, two birds with one stone.” Rowan gave an odd little smile and said nothing on the subject.
“Marena is a beautiful name,” he said, taking a completely different tack.
“Thank you,” Margery said uncertainly.
“It suits you, too.” Rowan said, looking at her with a critical though not judgmental eye.
“Excuse me?” she said, confused.
“It means ‘maid of the sea.’ You are very like the sea… I think water must be your element.”
“My… element?” Rowan sighed.
“Sorry. Magic theory. Air is my element. I’ve always been able to control the winds,” he explained.
“Can you tell me more about magic?” Margery asked, curious and excited. Rowan thought for a moment.
“Well, I’m currently teaching a five-year-old named Adyn… just the theory for the moment. We don’t want any trouble. No one is allowed to use magic at the accord. But… you could maybe sit in on Adyn’s classes.”
“Sounds like fun!” Margery said excitedly. Rowan shrugged, resignedly.
“Adyn doesn’t think so,” he muttered, then rallied, looking her with a piercing glance that was decidedly disconcerting. “But mind, you’ll be learning things that not many people care to know. You’ll have to be discreet… I’m not even sure I should be teaching you. But… I have a feeling. It doesn’t feel wrong.”
“I can do that,” Margery said, somewhat confused by the boy’s uncanny intuition. He seemed to be able to follow her emotions with startling, even frightening, accuracy. She paused. “So, it’s true that the Caerlen ruling line is made up of wizards?”
“Most have been Wielders,” Rowan replied softly, “and those who were not had the potential to be. They merely chose other paths.” He gave Margery a questioning look. “Something wrong, your highness?”
“Well, no…” Margery stammered. “I just thought… anyone could be a magician.” Rowan looked shocked.
“Well, not everyone has a good singing voice,” he said, as if that were the explanation.
“What has that got to do with it?” Margery asked. Rowan sighed, obviously preparing to give a full explanation.
“You remember how Saint Paul says that different gifts are given to different people, don’t you?”
“And he also said that our responsibilities are in proportion to our gifts?”
“Thus, those with a magical gift have a responsibility to protect and preserve those who don’t. Also, Saint Paul said that we shouldn’t be envious of others’ gifts, since all of us have different ones. Magic is just another gift, just like anything else. People who don’t have it shouldn’t seek it out. It’s forbidden. It’s dark.” He shuddered. “Let’s talk about something else, please.”
“I never thought of it quite like that before,” Margery admitted. “But isn’t everyone who could be—I mean, who has the potential to be—a magician, trained? I mean, don’t they want to be trained?”
“There are other things than magic,” Rowan replied, “other ways of life. No, not everyone is trained. It’s partly due to resources, and partly because of personal preferences. Some people who could have been powerful Wielders choose to develop their other talents, rather than their natural aptitude for magic. There have been great musicians and healers and bards who could have all been Wielders, but they chose to pursue another path.”
Margery thought this through, then asked, “So, your mother is the ruler?” Rowan nodded.
“Yes. She married my father during the third year of her reign.” Margery looked thoughtful.
“What does your father do, then?”
“He acts as my mother’s chief advisor, is considered the highest diplomat and authority in the realm aside from my mother, deputizes for her, and he’s the commander of the knights and Rangers. He is also the chieftain of Clan Jaentyr, but since I’m the crown prince, he has a named heir, rather than a blood one. Technically, I’m part of my mother’s clan, rather than my father’s. I hope that’s not too confusing,” he added, noting the look on Margery’s face.
“Not really,” Margery said.
“You have three brothers, then?” Rowan asked. “Lucky! I have two foster brothers, and they’re both much older than me.” Margery shrugged.
“You wouldn’t be so enamored of the idea if you had to live with them,” she said. Just then, a tall, handsome young man stepped out of the pavilion and walked across to them.
“Prince Rowan?” he said, bowing, then flashed a charming smile at Margery as he straightened up.
“Tamnar, please, don’t call me by my title. It isn’t necessary,” Rowan said.
“The banquet is ready, your highnesses. They’ll be calling you back in in a few minutes.”
“Thanks for telling me, Tamnar,” Rowan said, grimacing and fiddling with the coronet he now obviously wished he had taken off for a few minutes while they waited for their elders to complete their business. Tamnar swatted his hand away.
“Queen Melilana would have your hide if she knew you were at that again,” he said. Rowan shrugged.
“It wouldn’t make me hate that thing any less.” he said. Turning to Margery, he continued, “Margery, this is Tamnar MacConnor. He’s almost a knight.”
“Not nearly a knight yet,” Tamnar said, bowing gallantly over Margery’s hand and kissing it. “Merely a humble squire.” Margery could feel herself blushing. Tamnar met her eyes; his eyes were large, liquid brown, enchanting. “Rarely does royalty go with such loveliness,” he said. Turning to Rowan, he teased, “You’re not among that number, your highness.” Rowan shrugged indifferently.
“That’s better,” Rowan declared. “I don’t particularly care,” he continued. “It doesn’t bother me.” Tamnar grinned, flashing a line of white teeth.
“Shall I take it further? Take your unprepossessing face out of here, my lord, you’re scaring the babes.”
“Go execute yourself for high treason, Tamnar. I’m too lazy to bother,” Rowan said, obviously trying to keep from laughing, and failing. Margery, somewhat unsettled, tugged Rowan’s sleeve.
“Is everyone in Ertraia like this?” Rowan shrugged.
“Tamnar teases everyone and everything. I once saw him trading insults with a rock. In my opinion, the rock had better comebacks.” He glanced sidelong at Tamnar, who acted as if he had been deeply wounded. Rowan promptly ignored him. “I don’t know why he does it,” he confided. “He just always has. It’s something that not a lot of our people do. Not even Julian teases like that. But you still get used to it, after a while.” Margery nodded, slowly.