“The wind of the ether is a bilious one,” intoned Lady Dargon, her unbound tresses feathering across her bare shoulders. She sat cross-legged on a mat of woven rushes, her hands held palm up toward the night sky. “Turgid the magic flows.” She turned to one of her attendants. “Bring me the dragon’s blood!”
“Yes, mistress!” the young woman said, getting to her feet. The cold night air drew gooseflesh across her naked thighs. She hurried across the cold stone floor, throwing a quick glance upwards to reassure herself the moon was still high in the sky. Reaching the stairwell she slowed and walked carefully down the unlit steps, finding the door by touch. She flinched when her hand found the cold, iron handle, then resolutely she pulled it open, flooding the darkness with light. She closed the door behind her.
“Don’t tell me, Adel,” said the guard at the door. “The dragon’s blood.”
“You’d farkin’ well ask for wine, too,” said the girl as she minced across the floor to where her robe was draped across a chair, her arms wrapped tight across her chest. She squinted against the brighter lights in the well-heated room. “Ol’s shrunken balls.” She swiped the robe up and wrapped herself with it in one stroke. “It’s so cold I think I just scratched myself on my nipple.”
“If it’s so cold, you could let me start a fire,” he replied. “Or at least put on some clothes.”
She shook her head fiercely. “This divination works best skyclad. And no fire.” Her quick steps were quiet on the thick rug as she crossed the room. “You have a lot of concern for a man who is down here where it’s warm!” She threw him a skeptical glance as she set her hand on the ornate, brass doorknob of the large door that led downward.
“If her grace catches cold again, then *his* grace will have my shrunken balls on a platter.”
“I’ll be sure to get the good wine, then,” she said with a wink as she slipped down out of sight. One floor lower the room was even better furnished. Scents of late flowers and dried herbs graced the air. The Lady Dargon had been using the room lately for her work, and Adel knew exactly where to go. High on the far wall was emblazoned the crest of the house of Dargon. Beneath it crossed two swords: one old and blackened, one gleaming as if newly polished. That one always drew Adel’s eye when she entered that room, and she wondered what virtue kept it so fine. Underneath the crest was a cupboard. Crossing to it, she opened the carved wooden door. The cabinet was filled with bottles of many sorts. Some held tinctures and extracts of herbs and specimens. Others held healing mixtures and medicines. Many held potions, each magical in some way. Adel wasn’t looking for those. She pulled out several bottles before finding the one she wanted. Seizing it she immediately headed back up, heedless of the scattered bottles she’d removed. One floor up she tossed her robe at the guard as she passed. “We have a lot of moon still left. Might as well get comfortable.”
Up on the highest level the air was still cold, but the aide walked easily to her lady’s side. The Lady Dargon was no longer in her careful posture, but was reclining back on one elbow, smiling and chatting with another aide. A luxurious comforter of warm fur was draped over her. She smiled as the bottle was presented to her. She glanced at the label and nodded.
“Thank you, Adel, you may pour,” she said before turning back to her conversation. “So I said to Lady Margold, ‘what in heaven’s name is wrong with a squash?’ and she said, ‘because I told her to get me a peach!’” Then she and the other aides all burst out laughing as Adel opened the bottle and poured the wine. She brought a cup to Lady Dargon, who drank and silently gestured at the other aides. Adel poured more wine for the others before taking some herself, savoring the wave of heat that flowed out from her belly. She joined the others in their circle as they sat and laughed.
“So, Adel, has our good Jonham fallen asleep yet?” asked one of the other aides, a curvaceous woman named Elizabeth who was her grace’s personal physician. She was also sporting a warm covering.
“No,” Adel replied, “he was quite alert when I came down.”
“No doubt keeping an eye out for a glimpse of your naked body,” commented another aide, Lady Samkar by name, who was able to read the weather, and sometimes able to influence it. She was also well known for her use of nightfruit brandy. She had remained bravely nude, seemingly impervious to the cold. Indeed, with the wine in her, Adel didn’t mind it as much either.
“Why would he do that?” asked Adel. “He sees it often enough without looking for it.” Adel shook her head at Lady Samkar’s inclination to see everything in terms of the male-female division. “I see him at the temple baths frequently, and we all know how often we’ve been up here of late in our skins. He has no need of peering to see this!” she said, framing her breasts with her hands.
“Oh, you know men,” said Lady Samkar. “They just want to look.”
“And what if he does?” Adel replied. “What harm does his looking do me? What I don’t understand is why Lord Dargon insists on posting a guard anyway,” Adel continued. “We are far more capable of defending ourselves, and even the keep, than a man with a sharp stick. Why do we need a man to watch over us?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied the Lady Dargon, “it’s often good to have a man around who is handy with a blade.”
“Or who just is ‘around’,” added Elizabeth. “You know, for …” Adel’s blank look gave her pause. “You do like men, don’t you, Adel? Not that a woman can’t be nice too, but I never took you for that type.”
“I’m fine as I am,” Adel replied. “I’m not pining away for someone else in my life.”
“My dear Adel, ‘pining away’ is never a phrase that comes to my mind when I think of you,” Lady Samkar said.
“Agreed,” Lady Dargon said. “I can’t imagine you as anything but fiercely independent, Adel. In fact, it is your fine temper that makes you so useful.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
“Still, a woman in your position could find it useful to have a male partner to have around,” Lady Samkar said. “It doesn’t need to be anything intimate, even. My Vanet and I weren’t even an item when I first brought him to court.”
“You weren’t?” asked Lady Dargon, surprised. “You certainly fooled me.”
“Oh, I’m not saying we didn’t enjoy each other’s company. We just hadn’t … ignited … yet.”
“Oh, I remember something about that,” Elizabeth said. “Didn’t I hear you tell some story about a love potion gone bad, or some such?”
“Or some such,” Lady Samkar said. “It wasn’t meant for him and me. I was making it … well, let’s just say I had another purpose for it. But it spilled, and in the oddest way.” She shook her head. “I should have known better. Love potions almost never do what they’re supposed to. Still, it worked out.” She nodded. “It was almost as if it was meant to be.”
“Oh, now *that’s* a story I want to hear,” Elizabeth said.
“But that’s a tale for another day, ladies,” Lady Dargon said. “Come. Let us be back to our business while the moon favors us. The question of the Doravin lays before us, and our lord and master needs an answer, which we won’t get sitting here chatting.”
With that, the Lady resumed her posture. At this signal the attendants did as well. Adel set aside her glass. She glanced up again at the sky as she settled down onto her own mat, made of woven goose feathers. The moon hadn’t moved. Adel silently recited a calming mantra, preparing her mind to open to the wider world of fey influence. Her role in the coven that evening was to sense any possible interference to what her lady and the other women were doing, and to divert that influence away. This would require intense focus and complete stillness of mind. Calm was eluding her, however. The memory of Lady Samkar’s words and tone kept surfacing, washing away the mantra.
What difference did it make if she liked men? What did that have to do with her skill, or wisdom, or anything, really? For five hard years she had worked under the Lady’s tutelage, learning everything she could. If she had been out in the street playing the maiden to catch a man’s eye she wouldn’t have earned a place in the coven. That was more important. Men were interesting, to be sure, but she was earning herself a place in the world. She breathed a prayer of petition to Celine that she be granted what she needed this night, and felt more at peace. Confident, Adel inhaled deeply, held the breath, and exhaled slowly, beginning the mantra again. The physical world began to take on a now-familiar overlay as her focus brought into view the mystic energies. She opened her spirit to sense any influence that might be changing the course of what her Lady had planned for the evening. Then her concentration was broken again.
“Oh, Adel,” the Lady Dargon said, “you left the bottles all out, didn’t you?”
Adel froze, the mystic world gone from view again. “Yes, mistress.”
“Something told me you had. Of course you did, you were in a hurry to get what I asked while the moon was high. It’s all right, I may have done the same in your position. But that same something tells me you need to go put them away now. There will come no interference for another ten menes, I can promise. Go on.”
“Yes, mistress,” Adel said, rising. She could almost feel the gaze of the others on her bare back as she retraced her steps to the stairs. This time the warmth she felt as she went down the stairs was a blush spreading across her face and bosom. Down below, the guard held out her robe to her as she came through the door. She shook her head. “Keep it. There’s no one down there anyway.” She descended the stairs again and crossed to the cupboard. As she reached for the first bottle she breathed a prayer of thanks that she worked for such a forgiving mistress. Just as her fingers touched the glass there came a knock at the lower door. She hesitated, then went to it. She opened the peephole to see a young man’s face peering in.
“Yes?” she asked.
“I … I am Mernath. Mernath the armorer. I have been sent to collect Lord Cabot’s blade.”
“What?” Adel had a terrible feeling that someone was playing a prank on her. “Who sent you?” she snapped, then regretted her tone.
“I … I … my master … Bren kel Tomis, his grace’s swordmaster, he’s my master. He sent me to get the blade of Lord Cabot, Duke Dargon’s grandfather, to polish it.”
Adel looked out at the wide eyes staring at her through the slit in the door. Wafting through the opening came the smell of hot metal, charcoal, and sweat. Adel looked past him, but he was alone. She considered. It would be insane to open the door and allow anything so alien to enter, but time was short, and the moon called. She sighed and reached for the latch. “Be quick.” Mernath ducked his head as he entered the room. From his hunted expression and wide-eyed glances one would have thought he had entered foreign territory. He stood there, lost, and she rolled her eyes. “Where is this blade?” she asked. He looked around the room in panic. It only took a moment to spot it, hanging beneath the colors. He pointed wordlessly and started towards it.
“Did you bring something to get it down?” she asked. She tried not to sound impatient, but she needed to get back upstairs. She didn’t want to abuse her grace’s patience.
“No, I … uh …”
“Look, can you come back?” she started, but he reached for a nearby chair and pulled it over to the cupboard.
“No!” she insisted. “Not the chair! Your shoes are black! You’ll get it filthy!” She pointed at his blackened footwear. “Look, you need to go get …” She saw the stricken look in his frightened face and relented. “Look, can’t you just … I don’t know …” She looked around the room hopelessly. Mernath put his hands on the cupboard and tested it, lifting himself up on it. “No, bad idea,” she replied. “Here, is it nailed in or something? Can I just get it?”
“Uh, no, I mean straight, it’s not nailed down.”
“Straight, I’ll get it.” She pushed him away from the cupboard and back to the door. “Just stand there. Don’t touch anything.” Adel glanced down at her hands, which were soiled just by touching the man. She turned back toward the cupboard, wiping her now sooty hands on her hips. She eyed the cabinet carefully, then looked back at Mernath, who quickly looked away. She then pulled the chair back over to the cupboard and stepped up on it. Using the extra height she was able to carefully step up onto the counter. Standing on her tiptoes, she was able to reach the blades.
“Which one is it?” she asked.
“The dark one,” he replied.
“Of course,” she replied. The dark one was behind the shiny one. Since she was up here already, why not make it even harder? She carefully lifted the first sword off the rack, taking it mid-blade and lifting it free of the rests. Holding the first sword carefully, hoping to avoid cutting her hand on the blade, she took the second blade the same way and lifted. The upper part moved freely, but the lower part caught on something unseen. Her grip was too awkward to force it free. Suddenly Adel realized the bulk and weight of the two blades, and that the weight was too much. She could feel herself overbalancing. Below, Mernath saw her wobble and stepped forward. He reached up to steady her, but the highest he could reach was her buttocks. “Hey!” she cried when she felt his touch, and he sprang away. She cringed, throwing herself more off balance. She tried to replace the swords on the rack but that motion only tipped her more. She tried lowering herself down from her tiptoes, but her heels hung over the edge and she had to raise back up. She could feel herself toppling with no free hand to catch herself.
“Give me the swords!” Mernath said, stepping forward again. She tried to lower the swords to him, but the blades turned in her hands and she could feel the edges biting into her palms. Something had to go: the blades or her skin. Adel dropped the swords as best she could onto the top of the cabinet as her balance finally gave way. She turned in mid-fall. Mernath was below her now, arms upraised. She reached for his hands, hoping to catch herself. His arms, hardened like iron from his ceaseless hammering and grinding, held fast, but her momentum was too great for his hasty stance. He tried to shift his arms and catch her instead, but she already had his hands and wouldn’t let go. Backwards they both went. There was a loud metallic crash of steel smashing glass as the swords landed on the bottles, and a great grunt as the two aides landed in a heap.
Adel could feel liquids spraying across her bare back from foot to shoulder. Odors of fermentation and soot assailed her nostrils. In her fall she had drawn up one knee, which had landed squarely in his gut, driving out his wind. Mernath convulsed underneath her, his hands spasming as he tried to simultaneously catch his breath and free his fingers. He finally got it back in a great gasp as she was trying to get up. He shook his hands free from hers, put both hands squarely on her chest and thrust her upwards into a kneeling posture. This dropped the offending knee even lower, landing it on his crotch in the process. He instinctively spun aside, yanking her legs out from under her. She fell on him again. He rolled up, dropping her on the floor. As she flailed to catch herself, she managed to knock his arm out from under her. He caught himself, but in doing so landed his hand right back on her breast. She swatted that hand away instantly, and he landed atop her. She used her hands and knees to shove him off her, once again hitting him in that tender spot. She got up and backed away as he squirmed on the floor in agony. She felt a wave of pity then, and came back and extended a hand to him. He accepted it, and she hauled him up to a wobbly crouch.
The two of them stood there, staring at the mess. The various potions and extracts and substances now were blended in a multi-hued melange on the floor. Fumes arose as portions of it bubbled and seethed. Right in the middle lay the two swords, wet. Carefully, Mernath approached them and picked them up. His face registered simple shock as he stared at the older sword, now corroded and pitted, and the newer sword, smeared with odd patterns of color up and down the blade. Mixed fluids ran down the weapons and mingled with the splashes already on his bare arms. Adel had retrieved a cloth from a nearby stand and was wiping herself off. Looking around the room at the broken glass, the pooling wine, the strange man, and at the handprints smudged on her own pale skin, Adel shook her head in tight motions of pure disbelief.
“We must never tell anyone of this,” she whispered.
Early morning found Adel already up. She had been unable to sleep well. Something in that mix of spilled potions and beverages was afflicting her. After shooing out Mernath, swords and all, she had cleaned up the mess and herself and had continued on with the evening’s activities as if nothing had happened. The coven completed, Adel had retired on time and fallen asleep. As the evening had turned to morning, however, her limbs began to spasm, waking her. It was as if she was flinching, like she was being poked or prodded. In particular, the places where his hands had touched her twitched, as if he were still touching her. Getting up, she lit a lamp. She took her hand mirror and carefully examined herself. Sure enough, her skin was blotched in red where either he or the fluids had touched her. To her horror and embarrassment, there were two clear handprints right on her bottom. She shook her head. That would never do. She poured water and took soap and washed. She applied ointment and smelled some salts, but still the twitching continued. Adel set her jaw with grim resolve. No word of this would come to the coven. She would fix it.
Dawn found her studying medicinal and magical texts in the Lady’s personal library. As she worked she wondered if Mernath had also been affected. She remembered the look on his face the night before. She felt a pang of sympathy. He looked so lost, so out of place. Once she found a solution she would track him down and see how he was doing. After more than a bell of searching and reading, a line of research suggested itself. She moved to the apothecary and started finding bottles and pulling down herbs. The tremors, she suspected, could be reduced by simply allowing the muscles to relax, and there were many ways to do that. She opted for a simple tincture of a mild narcotic herb. The result was foul of odor and flavor, but had an immediate effect without being overwhelming. She could still feel the phantom touching, but was able to control the involuntary movements. Unhappily, a major side effect was that she was all but inebriated. Still, it was better than nothing. With the spasms pacified, if not eliminated, Adel was able to follow an abbreviated schedule without incident. As soon as possible she excused herself and retired to her chamber where she resumed her research. It was afternoon, and the morning dose was wearing off. She could barely hold still enough to compound the tonic again, this time a bit stronger. The effect was not as immediate, nor as potent, but she was finally able to rest.
Adel lay on her bed staring at the ceiling as she waited for the tremors to subside. She strongly suspected that if she was suffering like this, then Mernath was also likely suffering. She forced herself upright and found an empty bottle for the tonic. She donned a hooded cloak and headed down. The armory was just outside the tower, and if he were not there, then someone there would know where he was. The tremors made the climb down the stairs more difficult than normal, but she was still able to make the trip quickly. She smiled pleasantly at the few people she passed, and soon found herself at the armory. The heavily built building was not one she had visited frequently, and she hesitated on the threshold. She was a bit taken aback by the armed guard at the door, and by the number of people sitting at the tables there, resting after weapons practice. She looked past the curious guard, and through the open door at the fighters, but did not see Mernath.
“Do you know a man named Mernath?” she asked the guard.
“Of course, m’lady,” he answered politely, his voice like a hand digging in gravel. He pointed past the tables at a double-door inside, and waved her in. She smiled and proceeded inside, feeling all the while the eyes of the others on her. She was glad that she was able to conceal the bottle inside the sleeves of her cloak. The air was heavy with the tang of metal and sweat. Through the double doors was the yard where the guard practiced, and on the far side of that was another door, a dark portal in which furnaces glowed a hungry orange, throwing off enough heat to be felt even at that distance. Adel crossed the yard and entered. Again men turned to stare.
“Mernath?” she asked. Heads turned to face yet another door before returning to their individual tasks. She moved along, swerving around mysterious machinery and tools to reach the indicated door. Her nose immediately told her that she had finally reached the right room. A single hunched figure worked by the light of a lamp. A thrill of recognition told her it was Mernath. One glance was enough to show her that he was also afflicted. He looked miserable, and his hands shook as he carefully stroked the long cold blade in his hands. He looked up as she entered, but his expression was that of blank unrecognition. “Mernath?” she asked. He nodded.
Adel considered how to proceed. She had hoped to find him alone, not in the company of so many others. She expected that every word she said here would later be heard elsewhere.
“My lady asks what progress you are making on the swords.” Adel nodded at the blade he held. She recognized it as the shinier of the two he had taken.
“Progress is slow, I’m afraid,” he said slowly, “but I fully expect to be done with Lord Cabot’s blade by the morrow after tomorrow.” He nodded toward the other sword, which was on the workbench. That one was in much worse shape than the one he held. It was encrusted with corrosion of a color she had never seen on steel. Here and there the rust had been scraped away to reveal the metal underneath, but that made it even more uneven. She was drawn to the old blade, as if against her will. Adel touched the exposed steel, and a small shock raced up her arm. She gasped and stepped back.
“M’lady?” Mernath asked. “Did you cut yourself?”
“No,” she said, “I … it’s cold, the steel.” She looked back at him. He was looking at her intently, concern in his expression. “I … my lady would also like to know if you are well after your fall, last night, when you came to get the swords.” She saw the startled look on his face, and quickly pushed her hood back, revealing her face. Recognition bloomed on his face along with alarm. He opened his mouth but she shook her head and he shut it. She threw a glance over her shoulder at the open door behind her. He glanced at the door, and from his expression she knew they were not being closely watched. She slid one arm out of her sleeve and pointed at the red blotches, then held the hand out long enough for him to see it twitch. He immediately held his own arms out, showing their involuntary movements. His expression was that of agony. She nodded and handed him the bottle and motioned for him to drink.
“I will relay your progress to my lady,” Adel said, just a bit louder than she needed to. “She will be pleased to hear that you are on schedule.” Adel watched as Mernath slammed back the potion. She shrugged unhappily at his grimace when the flavor hit him. “I see you are also polishing the other sword. Do you expect it to be done also?”
“Augh.” Mernath wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I … yes, I expect to be done with it also. It got … it had some, some unusual corrosion on it. Like something spilled on it. I’m having some, uh, difficulty cleaning it. But it is made of a special alloy, and I expect to be done on time with it also.” He held out his hands. She was gratified to see that he did so confidently. The tonic could not have acted so fast — he was simply feeling the expected relief in anticipation of the actual effect. Nonetheless she was happy for his confidence in her. She nodded, and gave him a small smile.
She reached out her hands and took the bottle back. “I will be back in the morning to check on how you are doing,” she said, again a bit louder than needed. “Will you be here?”
“Good.” She stepped back, unsure exactly what the protocol was. “See you tomorrow, then.”
By the time she reached the wing of the keep where she lived she was resolved to go to Lady Dargon with the matter. No good could come of concealing this from her, she told herself. Adel made her way to the lady’s chamber, getting the usual stern glance and eventual nod from the bodyguard. Lady Dargon was busy having a dress fitted, one that Adel recognized as having been provided for free by a local merchant for a specific event, with the proviso that it be fitted by a particular seamstress and that it be seen by the crowd. Said seamstress was hard at work when Adel was granted audience.
“Adel, I heard you had retired for the day early,” Lady Dargon said, her gaze not diverting from the large needle being wielded by the dressmaker. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you that I had a dream about you last night.” She gave Adel a quick but meaningful glance that stopped the adept in mid-stride, then went back to watching the needle. “In it you were swimming in a giant glass of red wine, naked, with a man. Neither of you were quite up to the task, however, and were quite in danger of sinking.” Adel’s eyes widened in alarm at the relevance of the imagery. “Also,” Lady Dargon continued, “there was a giant rat, and some pickles.” Adel frowned at that image, and Lady Dargon did also. “I suspect the pickles had something to do with what I ate before I went to bed. I’ve no idea what the rat means.”
Adel nodded, folding her hands together tightly to keep them from trembling, or twitching. “Yes, m’lady.”
“I also suspect that you are not here to finish up your work for the day, given the way you are dressed and the way you are holding hands with yourself.” Adel dropped her hands, then regretted that move also, started to put them together again, and then just let them fall at her sides. “I expect this has something to do with the sudden … messiness … of the pantry last night, and that odd odor of fire and steel that was lingering in the air. Oh, and the fact that the swords are gone from over the wine cabinet.”
Adel nodded, grateful for the lady’s insight and wisdom. “Yes, mistress. I … I have a problem that I need to solve.”
“You have always had a problem with steel, Adel. You would do well to improve your skill with the cold iron, and the stone. Those are very useful talents to have.” Adel pondered this a moment, knowing that the words were true but unsure exactly how they applied in this case. “Well, I am still very busy, and you are quite capable of handling any problem you might have without any undue interference from me. If you were to take a day or even two to work out your issue with this man, or the wine, or even with the rat, then it wouldn’t really be a big problem. I expect you back at your duties in two days, or else a very good explanation why you are not. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to stop breathing for a while.”
Adel nodded and backed away gratefully while Lady Dargon exhaled and held her breath for the seamstress. It wasn’t until Adel was out of her chamber that she realized that the audience with the Lady Dargon had left her no closer to solving the problem than she was before. At least now she had some time to work on the problem. Mernath was less lucky. He had to remain at work. She worried that the spirits in the tonic might incapacitate him to the point that he might injure himself. She herself was actually unsteady on her feet. She needed to act quickly.
Adel knew that if she was to find the cure, she first had to find the cause. The evening before she had quickly gathered the broken bottles and vials and hidden them in a large urn, planning to retrieve them later. It was now “later”. She returned to the workroom and carefully transferred the broken vessels to a basket. She returned with that basket to her room. Adel painstakingly reconstructed the labels and wrote down what contents had been in each. It was slow going, and she found her mind drifting to what happened that evening, and what was happening even now to the man who toiled far below in the armory. Shaking her head, she forced her mind to concentrate. The sun was down by the time she had it all together. The list was not long, nor complex. In fact, it was all rather mundane. She could see nothing in the list that was particularly magical or toxic. The only truly potent item had been a mandrake extract, and that bottle had been small. No, the answer must lie elsewhere.
Adel’s eye fell on her writing table. There, beside her inkpot lay the small flint knife she used to sharpen her quill. Adel sighed. The Lady Dargon was correct. Adel had always had a weakness around iron, and steel. It dulled her sense of the mystical, and always distracted her when it was present. She had learned to cope, and compensate, but she had never really overcome it, and she avoided it whenever reasonable. In her mind’s eye she was again standing at the door, deciding whether to let Mernath in, and she could again smell him, redolent of smoke and metal. Even now she could feel his hands on her bare skin, roughened by the grindstone and blackened with embedded metal dust. In the quiet of her room she could hear her own heartbeat, and she knew where to look. Rising, she left her chamber and returned to the library.
The second bell of the evening had sounded by the time Adel saw Mernath step onto the fifth floor, swords in hand. Summoned by a note Adel had written to Edlin the weapons master, he looked as lost now as he had when she had first seen him. Adel had gotten the Lady Dargon’s personal scribe’s permission to use his chamber, and had gotten the key. She had not told anyone else, and she had not told the scribe what sort of magic she would be performing there. She certainly did not say it involved a young man named Mernath. When Adel saw Mernath come up the stairs, her heart jumped in her chest. Not wanting to be seen with him, Adel had ushered him inside the tiny room and closed the door. A single lamp showed a desk, and a bookshelf, but little else. She locked the door.
“Who are you?” he asked. “What is your name?”
“My name is Adel,” she said, “and we don’t have much time, and we dare not make much noise,” she replied softly. “I am one of Lady Dargon’s attendants.” She again rolled up her sleeve and showed him the red marks on her arm. “Show me your arm again.”
He complied, and she took up the light and studied the marks. She even took a tablet of wax and a stylus and drew a picture of the marks.
“Where on your body do you have these?” she asked.
“Here,” he replied, touching the mark on his forearm, “and on my legs,” he indicated his ankles, “and … uh, and on my stomach, a-a-and one other place.”
“And your tremors, have they come back?”
“Yes,” he nodded unhappily.
She nodded. “Show me the blades.”
He took up the scabbard that held Lord Cabot’s sword and slowly drew the weapon out of it. She could see that he was a bit taken aback by Adel’s reaction to it. She drew back, and only hesitantly extended a hand toward it. She touched the naked steel, her eyes closed. She realized that she was holding her breath. She exhaled and slowly slid one finger down the blade, opening her eyes slowly. She studied the sword.
“This was all covered in rust this afternoon,” she said.
“Yes,” he agreed, “and I feared I would not be able to complete the task of polishing it,” he said. “The potion you gave me helped a lot. Although,” he said, extending a quaking hand, “it is wearing off.”
“I have more,” she said. She stroked the steel again. “This blade feels very old.”
“It is the sword of Lord Cabot, Clifton Dargon’s grandfather.”
Adel nodded. When she touched the sword she could feel anger and fear in the air around her, echoes of the wars the blade had seen. What she could not feel was anything else. It dulled her sense of the fey winds that swirled through the world.
“And the other?”
Mernath nodded and placed the blade back into the scabbard. He lifted the other and slid it free. As it emerged, without even touching it, Adel could sense a very different emotion in the air around her.
“This blade is new, isn’t it?” She reached out her finger and laid it on the blade. The emotions she felt from it were stronger, newer, brighter. Even more than the other blade, this one blocked her view of the world.
“This was a gift to his grace from a very learned nobleman. They say it never rusts, never needs sharpening.” Mernath’s eyes glowed as he held the sword up and turned it slowly, letting the light of the lantern glint off the mirrored edge. “All swords are made with steel, which is iron worked and reworked to give it temper. But I have never seen steel such as this before. There must be some special substance blended with the iron to give it this virtue.” Adel saw the knowing admiration on his face, and she realized that Mernath was as adept at his art as she was at hers. It lent him a rough sort of beauty. A bit embarrassed, she looked back at the sword. Adel could see where there were stains on the blade. She reached out and touched them.
“Are those from … from the other night?” she asked, feeling those same conflicted emotions leaking from the steel into her own body.
“Yes,” he replied. “I will polish those off after I finish with Lord Cabot’s sword.”
Adel nodded. “Mernath, I would like to try something. I know that the potion will ease the symptoms for only so long. I need to find a cure. I would like to try a divination here, with you. Will you help me?”
Mernath swallowed hard, then nodded, his eyes wide.
“Good. Here,” she said, indicating the floor, “sit down.” She lowered herself to the floor as his did as well.
“What do I have to do?” he asked. His stiff posture showed his fear, and the tight set of his lips showed him pushing that fear down and away.
“Nothing bad or harmful, or even unusual,” she said. Remembering their first meeting, she added, “I promise to keep my clothes on, even.” She smiled, and he laughed nervously. She could feel heat on her cheeks for some reason. “So I need to hold your hands, if that’s all right with you.” She looked at him questioningly, and he nodded, and held out his hands. She took them, feeling their size and strength. His hands were rough and dusty and warm. Adel could sense the traces of metal ground into the skin, and hoped it would not block her view. She closed her eyes. It was a bit humbling to have someone as strong as Mernath relying on her. “Mernath,” she said, “please close your eyes and remember what happened last night. Remember it in great detail, as if you were reliving it right now. Try to remember how everything looked, how everything felt, how everything smelled. Do that now.”
The two sat silently as Adel tried to calm herself. The steel lying on the floor beside her, and the man sitting on the floor in front of her, were both distractions, but she had faced distractions before. She used her mantras, and purged her mind, and steadied her breathing. She had anticipated these distractions, and released a cantrip that she had prepared just for the occasion, her lips forming the silent words of power. Her third eye opened, and looked out at a dimly lit world. She could hear the color wafting up from both Mernath and the swords, and it was hot. Suddenly her arms spasmed, and then her legs did as well. She almost overbalanced, and she could feel him move his hands as if he were tipping too. As if a door had opened she could smell the air in the workroom, two stories above. The sound of breaking glass echoed in her ears, and she could taste the wine and see the pale light of the moon. That sense of being touched returned. Even though she still held his hands in her own, and knew that he was seated before her, now she could feel his body under hers: under her hands, under her knee, under her chest. She flushed as she felt his touch on her breasts, bottom, lips, and crotch. A feeling of wetness bloomed across her dry legs, and the acrid acid of spilled wine and potions mingled with the metallic tang of steel. Once again she could feel the swords in her hand, weighing her down. The blades were turning, turning in her grasp, and the edges were beginning to bite. Any moment now they would cut through her skin, lopping off her fingers one by one by one by one by …
Adel cried out, and wrenched her hands free. She fell backwards, gasping for breath. Mernath stared at her, his hands held out, his eyes wide with concern. For a long moment she stared at him, breathing hard, then she closed her eyes and shook her head.
“I … I don’t think this is going to work, tonight. Not now. I … I need more time, to study.” She got up quickly, and he followed suit. She took a bottle up off the desk and handed it to him. “I made more potion. It’s stronger now, and there is more of it. Do not let anyone see you drinking it, and be careful not to appear to be drunk while you work. It is almost too potent now.” He nodded. “I don’t know how long this formula will work. I will need to find the answer soon, or we will both be incapacitated. I will check back with you in the morning. Let’s go.”
Going to the door, she unlocked it. She motioned for his silence, then composed herself and stepped out. Looking around she saw no one. She motioned him out. He followed, swords in hand. Looking both ways and seeing no one, he looked at her. She could see his hands were trembling. She nodded, as did he, and then he headed back down the stairs.
Adel was shaken by the experience in the scribe’s office. The sensations had been so strong and new, as if she were experiencing them for the first time. The twitching in her arms grew, and it was all she could do to keep from brushing away the hands that she knew were not touching her. Back in her chambers, she pulled out her divination rods. Sitting on the floor, she placed herself into a receptive mode, then tossed the rods down. The reading was clear, almost classic — a woman and a man. That would be her and Mernath. Adel shook her head, tears of fatigue and sadness welling in her eyes. How had she gotten them into this mess? Mernath was handling the problem well — he had not been angry or accusing, but had just trusted her. Adel vowed that she would not disappoint him. She paused to petition Celine, then threw again. This time she could get no sense from them at all; the pattern was essentially random, meaningless.
Adel’s thoughts drifted back to the meeting in the scribe’s chamber. In her mind’s eye she could again see Mernath holding aloft the newer sword, his eyes catching the warm glint of the fire’s light. A special alloy, he had said, of particular substances blended with the iron. How that sword had affected her, just as this whole affair had. Perhaps she needed some of that special substance, to temper her own strengths and weaknesses. Even as she formed that thought Adel could feel it resonate with the fickle winds that blew through the ether. Could that be the key? Was this Celine’s way of telling her that she lacked something? But what? She began to meditate, opening her mind and mystical senses to the fey elements. She threw the rods again.
The divining rods landed in the most peculiar pattern she had ever seen. Her rods were not round sticks, but thin strips of wood. She had made them herself as a young adept, years ago, and was well attuned to them. Now Adel stared at them as if she had never used them before, mentally tallying each one before she could believe what she was seeing. It was again the classic pattern for a man and a woman, but each rod had landed on the narrow edge. Adel shook her head. She had never seen that before, and the very sight of that impossible pattern made her mind rebel. What did that mean? Adel took the rods and tossed them again. They landed in the same pattern, each on edge. She tossed them a third, and a fourth, and a fifth time. When each stick again landed on edge, she left them where they lay, blew out the light, and climbed into bed, fully clothed, and sat in the dark, trembling, for bells.
Adel awoke to the sound of gentle knocking at her door. She moved to throw off the covers, and was frightened to discover that such a simple task was almost impossible because of the tremors. She finally got to the door on shaking legs and opened it. There stood the Lady Dargon with her bodyguard.
“May I enter?” she asked needlessly. Adel tried to say yes, and was horrified when the words were slurred. Lady Dargon’s brow knitted in concern, and she motioned for the bodyguard to enter and close the door. “Adel, what is happening?” she asked.
Adel tried to explain, but the words were difficult to form. She indicated the tonic bottle she had prepared for herself, but her hands were now useless, so she did not try to take the bottle. Lady Dargon took the bottle, smelled it, closed her eyes and muttered a moment, then helped Adel drink some. Adel realized that, in her fear, she had forgotten to take any the night before. She all but fell onto the bed when her legs could no longer support her. The Lady Dargon came to her side.
“Is it working?” she asked. Feeling the familiar warmth spreading inside her, Adel nodded. The lady, satisfied for the moment, looked about the small room. She spotted the rods on the floor, and bent to inspect them. On the bed, Adel could feel the effect of the tonic filtering out from her gut, and the spasms slowly dispersed. She sat up, and worked her arms. The Lady Dargon straightened. “How many times did you throw them?” she asked, pointing at the rods.
“Fiiive,” Adel answered, slowly.
“And the same each time.” This was not a question. Adel nodded. The Lady Dargon muttered under her breath. Adel could feel the air thicken with power. The Lady reached for the rods, took them, rolled them in her hand, and dropped them. Adel peered down at them, and slowly drew in a deep breath. The pattern was not a traditional one, but it was most clear. The rods lay in almost the exact shape of a sword. The Lady Dargon looked at her aide. “So,” she said. “I think you know what you need to do.”
“Repeat,” Adel said, her jaw finally beginning to obey her.
“Undo, is what I would read it as,” she said.
“Yes. Repeat the same event, but backwards, as closely as you can. Undo what happened that night, and you will undo the damage. The closer you can repeat those events, the more you will be able to erase the harm done.”
Adel nodded, her face a mask of misery. “I’m … I’m sorry, so sorry.”
Lady Dargon shook her head. “I’m not here to reprimand you, Adel. You made one very small mistake, really more of a bad decision, and you did it for a good reason.” Adel looked up at her quizzically. “I’ve been divining, too. There’s a reason I knew you’d left the bottles out, that night. You still have time, now.” She stood up. “I will see to it that the workroom is empty, oh, say in two bells. Go get this poor sod whose fate is now tied to yours. Bring him up to the workroom, and undo what happened. Be as accurate as you can, because every little difference will determine your fate. You will get this one chance.” Adel nodded, and bowed. Lady Dargon turned and the guard let her out.
The fifth bell of the day had sounded by the time Adel once again approached the small room in the armory where Mernath worked. For a long moment she just stood and observed him, her mind a-whirl. He was in much better shape than Adel was at that moment. Unlike her, he had not forgotten the tonic, and was almost tremor free. He was also neatly intoxicated. Adel hoped that the duty officer hadn’t noticed yet. He finally noticed her, and silently gathered up the swords. Adel told the guard that she needed Mernath and the swords immediately, and there were no questions asked. She restrained the urge to run back to the tower, instead walking slowly back. Once in the tower Mernath started to ask what they were doing, but she put her finger to her lips. It was only when they were safely onto the spiral staircase going up the tower that Adel quietly explained that she had a way to help fix the problem. Mernath nodded silently.
They passed a number of aides and attendants on the way up, including Elizabeth. The physician gave Adel a curious look, but Adel simply curtseyed and breezed on past. Once they reached the workroom Adel locked the door behind them. She motioned for Mernath to stay put, then went up to the next floor and to the roof. There was a guard on the roof, but no one in the floor below. Doing her best to stifle any incipient tremors, Adel walked purposefully up to the guard and pointed to the door leading down.
“Please see to it that no one goes down those steps for a bell, or until I say otherwise.” The guard nodded unquestioningly, and Adel turned and headed back down. She reasoned that he would have no problem carrying out that order, as he was the only one up there. Once out of sight of the guard she gave in to a massive shudder that was at least partly nervousness. She steadied herself against the wall until she was ready, then continued down. Once inside she exchanged her cloak and dress for her robe. She descended to the workroom below, where she found Mernath right where she left him. Despite his earlier inebriation, he now looked reasonably alert. He was standing upright, looking about the room with interest, the heavy swords cradled lightly in his arms. He smiled when he saw her coming down. Then a tremor rippled through his otherwise sturdy frame, and a wave of something almost, but not quite, like pity swept over her.
She came to his side and laid her hand on his arm. “I’m so sorry to have gotten you into this mess. I want to make it right. Now,” she said, “we must do exactly what we did that night, only in reverse order.”
“Exactly?” he said. “Backwards?”
“Not really backwards, just in reverse, to undo it.”
He nodded. She pointed to the floor before the cabinet. “Lay the swords down where they landed.” He slid the swords free of their covering scabbards and laid the naked blades on the floor, then stepped back. Adel took a moment to adjust how the blades lay, then placed the broken bits of bottle where she remembered them. Going to the table, she took the potions she had prepared and splashed them across the floor and the swords. Looking around to be sure the tableau was set, Adel gently took Mernath’s hand and led him to his proper location. She stepped back, fixing his gaze with her own. The differences would determine her fate, Lady Dargon had said. Hers, and his. With a single motion, Adel shrugged off the robe. Standing before him nude again, it was an effort to not smile at his expression. Tossing the garment as far away as possible, she breathed a quick prayer to Celine, then stepped up to Mernath and took each of his trembling hands in hers. Moving in close, she put her face up to his. “We must never tell anyone of this,” she whispered.
It was overcast three days later when the Lord and Lady Dargon came down to the docks for the groundbreaking for the new bathhouse. A tent had been set up atop the rocky outcropping that formed the foundation for the pier. Arbogast the mage and several of the leading clerics of the city were there as sponsors, and many of the ranking officials and nobles were either in attendance or were represented, as were the major guilds and merchant houses. Lord Dargon himself was late, arriving by boat along with the Lady and her aides. Waiting at the dock was Bren kel Tomis. Mernath was at his side. The ducal barge drew up next to the reconstructed pier, and discharged its noble cargo. Adel and Mernath exchanged a glance and a brief smile as they passed. The Duke and his party ascended to the dais with kel Tomis, with Mernath at his master’s side carrying the Duke’s ceremonial sword, to be used for the blessing of the foundations.
Once Duke Dargon was seated the speeches began. kel Tomis looked bored, and the Lady actually dozed off once. Dargon looked suitably regal, but did take to rubbing the stump of his arm towards the end, a sign that he was getting fidgety. Finally the actual blessing part came around. Duke Dargon stood, and Mernath carried the sword forward and knelt, offering the blade to his master. Kel Tomis took it, and Mernath returned to his place. As he did so he passed Adel, and to her surprise he brushed her. She felt him press something into her hand, and she quickly took it. On the dais kel Tomis presented the Duke with the ceremonial sword, properly polished for the occasion. A section of a wooden beam and a few masonry blocks had been assembled for him to touch as part of the ceremony. As the Duke began to read off his brief speech, Adel took a quick peek at what Mernath had given her. It was a tiny sword, perfect in detail, complete with a tiny scabbard. She smiled, and clutched it in her hand.
His speech concluded, Dargon drew the blade, held it aloft, said the requisite blessing, and touched the items. It was at this point that the events diverged from the typical ceremony. The moment the blade touched the wood there came a loud crack and a tremor that unseated at least one noble. Once the hubbub subsided it became apparent that the block of wood had cleft in two, right where the Duke’s blade had touched, and that the large boulder that the block had been placed on had also split right down the middle.
There was a flurry of discussions, the longest and most intense of which centered on the wisdom of inviting the Duke to a ceremony situated on an unstable bit of bedrock. Amid it all Adel, who was standing at the Lady Dargon’s side, found herself the object of intense scrutiny by her ladyship. She withstood it, dispassionate, for a long moment before the Lady leaned over to her.
“As I said, my dear, it’s good to have a man who is handy with his blade.”