Sorry I’ve been remiss in posting this part… Anyway, on with the show!
Bound to the Flame
The next morning, the Arethwyne contingent began their ride to the Cremlegged. They were forced to move slowly, to allow the wains to keep up, but Margery did not mind. She enjoyed the scenery as they slowly traveled across the mountains toward the wild no-man’s-land north of Ertraia.
Once, Cremlegged had been within Ertraia, but in the great wars the common folk had wrested it from the magicians, and then, under mysterious circumstances, had fled. No one knew quite why, but there were whispers of a secret fear that no one dared name. It had traditionally been used as a meeting place; after a decade, the terror was forgotten and the people returned to hold their gatherings there.
The Cremlegged itself was an ancient circle of standing stones in the center of a forest, with a single flat stone in the center. No one knew how long it had been there, or who had built it, and no one dared to enter the center of the circle itself. It was thought to be forbidden. Only the fields around it were ever used.
The gathering place at the Cremlegged was crowded, and noisy. Margery looked excitedly about at all the tartan patterns, the heraldry, the hawkers standing about here and there, shouting out the merits of their goods at the tops of their voices; the venders selling hot buns and pies and candy; the minstrels, bards, and wandering troubadours who stood at intervals, singing popular ballads or telling stories from the histories of the various clans. Tents were pitched everywhere in haphazard sprawls, except on the fields specifically kept clear for the games. Indeed, the games were going on right at that moment, interrupted by some half-witted wastrel who was attempting to pitch a tent, smack dab in the center of the field. Margery paused, staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed in disbelief. A moment later, the foolish fellow’s pavilion was summarily flattened by a stray hammer from the hammer throw, and the varlet issued forth in wrath to protect his little castle in the clouds. A loud argument started and turned into a fistfight, which turned into a pitched battle, with the vagrant attempting to hold his own against all comers. Unfortunately, as the fool defended his shelter, two of the games’ marshals crept up behind him, removed his tent, and walked off to one side with it, where they dumped it in a sorry heap of loose canvas and poles on the ground, in a similar state to its dazed master, who, despite all his valiant efforts, had been bested, and now was lying in the middle of the field, alone, dazed, and apparently wondering where his pavilion had vanished to. Margery burst into a hearty laugh. “What an idiot galoot!” she exclaimed, then looked up to notice Marena staring in the same direction, an expression of surprise, amazement, distaste, and perhaps just the tiniest bit of amusement on her face. Margery looked up innocently at her. “A princess does not stare?” she offered, and they both burst out laughing.
“She doesnae chortle,” they chorused, then laughed again. They followed the rest of the clan off, toward their allotted area.
The most organization that was ever done at a gathering was to assign a kingdom an allotment of space to camp in, to keep kingdoms from becoming mixed up and national pride from starting minor wars. Once that was accomplished, the royalty of the kingdom, working with the great lords, would split that assigned area up into clan territories, again, to prevent minor-scale wars and internecine strife. Everyone belonging to a given clan was expected to encamp in their clan’s area, under pain of censure by the marshals and heralds, who were assigned to make sure that everything was kept in a reasonable state of order and running smoothly, and preventing aforesaid minor wars.
As the Arethwyne contingent made its way to its assigned spot, Margery could not stop glancing around in unconcealed excitement and awe. A whole troop of young people her age dashed by, and Margery shot Marena a pleading look. The tall woman smiled in reply. “Go,” she said. Handing Celad’s reins to the nearest servant, Margery raced off into the crowd.
As soon as the Ertraian contingent had settled in, Rowan slipped off into the crowd. He moved briskly, to hide his limp, gazing around in excited wonder at his surroundings. He had never witnessed such an excited bustle in his life before. He wandered among the peddlers and minstrels, the sheer crowdedness and wild panoply of different tartan designs and coats of arms, completely happy. No one looked amiss at his presence; no one seemed to think twice of the fact that there was another person among them. No one noticed that his tartan was the dusky green-and-heather-gold of the Caerlen clan—then again, that might have been due to the cloak he was wearing, the serviceable plain green cloak of the Ertraian nobility. He wandered slowly through the crowd, thoroughly enjoying the sights and sounds.
Suddenly, he found himself very near to the ancient circle beyond the edge of the campgrounds. The woods had enclosed it, hidden it from prying eyes. He had, in fact, wandered further into the woods than he had thought. So afraid seemed all the others of it, that no one else had even entered the virgin forest on that edge of the encampment. It repelled them, but strangely enough, it seemed to call him in; he could not resist its beckoning siren call.
It stood on the crest of a hill, a huge circle of ancient, moss-covered, mouldering gray stones, open to the blue sky above. In the center, a single, flat, black stone rested. It was strangely chilly, even though he was no longer under the canopy of the trees. The sounds of the encampment died away into a chilled hush, a distant murmur; he slowly moved toward one of the stones, his hands raised to it. There was an odd hum in the air. He shuddered, suddenly. All around, there were shapes… moving, coalescing, evaporating, shining faintly in the sudden twilight. These visions had a meaning, he realized hazily, but he could not tell quite what it was, not yet. The sky was suddenly overcast, thunderous, ominous. A chill washed over him and suddenly he was back in his own world, with a cold thrill still running down his back. He realized that he was much closer to the standing stones than any other person had been in a long time, and he slipped back through the forest to melt back into the crowd, slightly embarrassed by his own strange attraction to the place, and wondering what it was that he had seen.
The chill was gone, but not forgotten, a faint memory on the edge of the nimbus of his mind, faintly nagging, clinging to him, calling him back, but he was strong enough to resist the call, though he determined that some time he would have to investigate further. A soft breath of warm spring wind lifted his thick, wavy dark hair, playing with it. He trailed slowly after a group of young people around his own age, content just to watch, not quite yet comfortable with joining in with them.
Suddenly, a young woman bumped into him from behind, accidentally knocking him to the ground. Rowan sprawled ungracefully on the trampled grass, looking blankly up at the few fluffy white clouds in the sky. The young woman offered him a hand up. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. Rowan was a bit startled. It was the young princess of Arethwyne; he recognized her instantly. Regaining his wits, he took her hand and pulled himself to his feet.
Margery could not believe what had just happened. She had physically knocked someone down. She turned, offering him a hand up and an apologetic grin. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “Are you all right?” He took her hand and stood, albeit somewhat slowly and warily. His grip was stronger than she had expected. Margery sized him up thoughtfully. He was somewhat smaller than most, slim, pale, with thick, wavy dark hair and large, wise, kind hazel eyes. His face was long and somewhat narrow, its sharp lines full of character, with almost elfin features; high cheekbones, a straight, small nose, sharp chin, and an expressive, delicate mouth that gave a vague impression of fragility; yet Margery imagined that he could be very firm. All in all, an interesting if not handsome face. The young man gave her a crooked smile.
“I’ve been hurt worse,” he said. His voice seemed oddly familiar, but she couldn’t place where she had heard it before—soft, yet with a hard edge to it, underneath. Margery offered a quick handshake.
“I’m Margery,” she introduced herself.
“My name is Rowan,” he replied. Yes, Margery thought, he did remind her, vaguely, of a slender tree, raising its humble branches to the sky. His appearance was curiously otherworldly, eerie, ethereal, yet solid, grounded. She studied him, thoughtfully, for a long moment.
“Have you ever been to a Gathering before?” she asked.
“No,” Rowan said. Margery smiled.
“Me neither.” She smiled again. “Are you as excited as I am?” Rowan shrugged.
“I don’t know. How excited are you?” he asked, in all seriousness. Margery burst out laughing. Rowan smiled, a little. “I just wanted to get away from everyone for a bit,” he confessed. Margery sighed.
“Same here. It’s going to be crazy until they get the tents and pavilions all set up.”
“I wish we could slip away into the woods,” Rowan remarked. Margery stared at him oddly.
“Why do you say that?” she asked. Rowan shrugged.
“Well, it’s just that… well, the crowd and the noise—it’s all a bit… overwhelming.” Rowan peered hesitantly from under thick, unruly dark bangs at her, as if he was wondering if she would laugh at him. Margery gave him a sympathetic look.
“Not used to all the commotion?” she asked. Rowan shook his head. Margery smiled. “They are making quite the racket, aren’t they?” she asked. Rowan laughed.
They passed a minstrel, who was relating the deeds of some of the clans in the wars, and paused to listen. After a few minutes, Rowan said, “This is the first time he’s told this story in public, and he’s not quite confident that he’s telling it correctly, not just yet. He shouldn’t worry. He’s doing just fine.” Margery turned to him, astonished.
“How could you tell that? Are you training to be a bard?” Rowan half-grimaced.
“Not really, but I know all the stories very well,” he said.
A tall woman with gray eyes and mahogany hair, wearing a green cloak similar to Rowan’s and tall boots and carrying a long claymore at her side, walked up and put her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Rowan, we’ve been looking for you,” she said in a tone of quiet reproach. Rowan hung his head. The woman gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
“I’m sorry, Rheadwyn,” he apologized. Rheadwyn smiled, amused.
“Couldn’t resist the pull of the crowd, could you?” she said. Rowan smiled, sheepishly. He followed Rheadwyn as she led him off toward the eastern area, turning for a moment to wave to Margery, his tawny eyes alight, joyful.
“I’ll see you later this evening, Margery. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” Margery called before turning to head back to her own family. What had he meant, “I’ll see you this evening”? Margery shrugged and put the thought out of her mind. If he had known something she didn’t, she could ask him herself, later on.