A brass bell’s clangs echoed slowly and loudly through the forest of poplar and birch. In shaded hollow and knitted copse the sound carried, drifting down gentle slopes covered in prickly-bush to where the Coldwell ran. Snow-flecked and rising to meet the crystal sky, the Darst mountains and their molehill cousins pondered the ringing in their granite way, then replied with a stoic, muffled imitation.
The eighth bell, Rianna noted. She sat calmly on an uncomfortable wooden bench within Coldwell Abbey’s atrium. The sun had started its descent to the horizon, not quite throwing the monastery’s shadow over her, but further etching the mortar lines in the surrounding buildings and walls. They were simple structures made of stone around a central yard, and a few straggling monks hurried in their leather sandals and colored frocks towards the refectory on the side farthest from her. Robes of blues and grays dominated the population, each hue representing a different order.
For the priests and monks of this place, it was time for supper and prayers. She, dressed in a simple, ivory robe, fasted and waited. Three years of sporadic visits had taught her the abbey’s routine. Weather-wise, this middle-time between spring and summer was the most enjoyable for her, when leaves hung fresh in the surrounding forest and the Coldwell’s waters tickled the wind with brisk fingers.
Rianna broke from her thoughts to find the sea-priest, Breinert, standing just behind her. The sun caught on the blue robe of his patron god, Cirrangill, and played along its folds brightly. He bowed low in a show of respect, causing her to smile.
“Priest,” she greeted, being equally as formal.
Deep-set eyes twinkled at her, hazel beneath modest brows. Brown hair, freshly combed, topped the priest’s head, flowing back from a square face. In silence he offered her his arm, which she accepted, and led the way out of the atrium. A multitude of worn and rutted paths grew at their feet, bordered by bright sprouts of hill grass.
“I am extremely sorry for not meeting you sooner,” he apologized. “One of the visiting Cyruzhian brothers had difficulty with a manuscript and asked me to assist. How was the ride down?”
“Good, but long,” she sighed. They passed between two low walls fencing the brothers’ fields and vineyards. To one side lay upturned rows of dark soil, recently tilled, on the other a congregation of twisted limbs and posts covered with clingy vines. Rianna admired the view as they walked. “Clara, my usual handmaiden, is ill, so I debated not coming at all. I scarcely feel now is the time for me to be dallying about Kenna at little girl’s parties.”
Breinert tsked at her, his usual form of reprimand. “Ahh,” he replied, “but was it not another, similar event that brought you to the monastery in the first place? I would like to think you’ve benefited from my counsel.”
Rianna blushed. “I have,” she confessed quietly. She did not want to admit that solace was the last thing she had expected to find at Coldwell Abbey, especially from a sea-priest who had settled there temporarily. The thought that Breinert’s “temporary” sabbatical had lasted three years pleased her on a selfish level. At least hers were not the only plans that could be waylaid.
A constant wind frolicked along the hills of the Coldwell, at this point stirring a row of daffodils thriving along the side of the path. The white flowers bloomed enormously among rocks and shoots of grass. Rianna marveled that a day’s ride away, just beyond the shoulder of the Darst, the same blossoms were few and wrinkled. On her land, the last few seasons had been severely dry.
“Perhaps there are other things in store for you on this visit,” he continued, his thick hair stirring in the breeze. “Besides, m’lady, you’ve shied away from these festivities for quite some time. You have responsibilities, yes? What would the other nobles say to your continued absence?”
She took a moment to conjure up images of her social peers, unsettling as it was. “The same things they say now,” she thought bitterly. “My presence will only confirm their gossip.”
But she didn’t answer his question aloud. Instead, she moved her gaze to the sky and noticed a line of voluminous clouds gathering in the west, teasing her with the possibility of rain.
The priest noticed her evasion. “You do realize there’s little to worry about at this reception, don’t you?” he pressed.
“And why would I worry about a girl’s coming-of-age ball?”
“Because Tremmel may be there,” he answered.
She winced inwardly at the name. True enough. Tremmel was the same lord that had been trying to court her for the past year. On some level she had expected to see him tonight. She was obliged to attend these events as much as he and there was little doubt he’d intend on meeting her there. But, all awkward flirting aside, it wasn’t Tremmel who really concerned her. In fact, she worried more about the other nobles — the ones who would recognize her dress from receptions past, who would ask about the state of her drought-stricken lands.
Nervously, she rubbed the silver band on her ring finger until she became conscious of it. Sighing, she stopped.
“If Lord Tremmel attends, it will be nice to see him again,” she lied. “Oh, is that a pig I see rutting in the underbrush, brother? I do think the monastery should be more careful with its stores.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Breinert’s grin.
“Rianna,” he chuckled, patting her arm, “No matter the reason, I and the other monks are always pleased when you stay with us.”
“And I am always pleased to come,” she wanted to reply, but refrained.
The river Coldwell coursed within shouting distance of the abbey’s door. Rianna caught a glimpse of it as they traveled alongside a bluff. The waterway’s deep bed provided sustenance as well as easy trade for the brothers, and travelers going to and coming from the city of Dargon appreciated the respite. With the nearby town of Kenna continuing to grow, this area of the river saw increased traffic.
The bluff softened ahead of the couple and provided footing for a forest, the trees growing along the steep slopes down to the water’s edge. Nestled among the primary rows of birch, a set of square, roughly-hewn steps descended the hill. Breinert cautioned her as they traversed it. A small clearing at the bottom lay not far from the river’s bank, a thicket of trunks dividing the two. Breinert had set up several lines of rope in this area, strung among branches, each line supporting a rough cloth. The overall effect was a somewhat private den with a water-filled pool at its center. Rianna had seen dozens of similar depressions in the rocky foothills leading up to the mountains; this particular one had once been a washing yard, but was abandoned when the order had tapped the Coldwell from a well on the highland. The abbey had given leave to Breinert to use this area for his counsel with visitors. After all, what was a water-priest without water?
Eight unlit candles of various heights sat in fissures along the edges of the pool. As usual, by mixture or magic, the priest had laced the inland air with a faint smell of the sea.
Breinert left her side to light the wicks. Rianna knew the ritual. She undid her robe, revealing a long, white shift underneath.
She walked over to the pool’s side and dipped her toes. The priest had warmed it with the help of a kettle and a fire-pit not too far removed. The tepid water felt comfortable and was amazingly clear. She could see down to the bowl-like center, various underwater ledges and outcroppings providing places to sit. She lowered herself to the closest one, swishing her feet as her gown slowly billowed about her.
Breinert still busied himself with the candles.
“How do you feel?” he asked, eyes set on the wick before him.
She watched his calm, deliberate motions, the way his wiry arms moved under the coarse blue robe. The sun was obscured by overhead branches and surrounding hills, filling the den with a low, mossy light which somewhat eased her anxiety.
Even so, worries lingered. “Anxious,” she answered.
The priest nodded in seriousness. “You know what we’re looking for today?”
She nodded in turn, closing her eyes. She didn’t have to state their purpose aloud. She didn’t want to. There had been enough discussion of it on her last visit.
Breinert’s sandals scraped the ground gently as he came to kneel behind her. There was a sound of a small flask being uncorked, and then liquid being poured near her. A stronger, sage-like scent mingled with the salt. Warm, soft hands touched upon her temples. His fingers glided along the nape of her neck, massaging her.
“Ease your breathing,” his voice instructed. The scent of sage also lay on his palms. Muscles hidden deep within her unclenched. She inhaled greedily.
“Not too quickly,” he warned, adding the habitual tsk. “Let your mind clear. Think not about what lies ahead. Reflect on what has passed and allow the water to calm you.”
She directed her focus on the contents of the pool lapping about her skin, the repeated warmth and coolness along her shoulders. The priest’s voice was low and deep — comforting — as it guided her through the beginning exercises of the release ritual. As the instructions became prayers, and the prayers murmurs, Rianna no longer controlled her breath; her chest rose and fell of its own accord. She vaguely felt the priest’s hands as he slid her deeper into the water, anchoring her by her shoulders.
“In the name of Cirrangill,” he murmured, his voice distant, “we ask that the ways of the mind are opened like the paths of the ocean. We seek the shores of the pain, the shoals of the hurt. Allow the waters to cleanse this woman as it cleanses all it touches.”
He paused, and the wind rose in his silence.
“I will submerge you now. Just for a moment. When you rise, we will begin to explore more of the pain which haunts you.”
She felt his fingers leave her skin and allow her to float freely. Out into the pool. The sound of the river brushing its banks vanished. The wind in the trees disappeared. She heard only her breath: shallow, even and barely existent. Breinert was still behind her; she felt his presence. The priest’s hand covered her forehead and pushed down lightly. A cool tingle washed over her face and Cirrangill released her …
White tapestries. White flagstones. Rianna squinted in the brightness. It was as if the world had become a reflecting pool for the sun. As the shards of light sharpened, images came into focus. A stone archway stood at her side, just through it the blue of a cloudless sky. She felt weightless.
Breinert’s voice whispered around her. It flitted left and right, came from the solidifying walls and floor. From her skin.
“I hear you,” she replied, disoriented. Her voice sounded feeble and ghostlike in comparison.
The whisper grew in strength. “Where are you?”
“In my keep.”
Her keep. She stood on the smooth, cool flagstones of her grand hall, bathed in an unnaturally bright light. The ceiling vaulted above, its normal shadows chased away in this netherland. She remembered the landscape from other sessions with the priest. Even without him, in dreams on cold nights, she walked in this place. Dozens of familiar objects sat beside walls and on tables: goblets, portraits, heirlooms. There were items she had not seen for years, things she had sold in secret to ease the growing debt from her stricken lands. She stooped to pick up the white rose she plucked ages ago, the one whose dry husk now hung in her bedroom. The flower’s petals were full and tender here; its sweet bouquet filled her nose.
The whisper interrupted. “Do you see the altar?” it asked.
Rianna paused. Thoughts formed with difficulty here. Lifting her gaze, she looked out beyond the images of memories and relics.
At the far end of the hall sat a gilded dais, behind it a great wall adorned with family heraldry and a tapestry depicting a battle from the Shadow Wars. Atop the platform, a shrouded altar stood.
Rianna nodded, a lump developing in her throat.
“Go to it,” the whisper urged.
Her legs refused to move at once. Memories trickled into her sluggish form. The altar. She remembered. This was what the priest wanted her to find. She willed herself to move forward, dropping the rose in her wake. The altar. The object that had always been there, in all her visitations.
There had been a time when she believed it to be nothing more than a table, off at the far end of the hall. But as she had explored the chalices and chests in this place, some vanishing or moving as their contents were revealed, the altar’s unchanging stature gained more prominence. Another voice, one deep inside her, told her to avoid it. The altar intimidated her, caused her to want to shy away. Only recently had she even mentioned the object to Breinert.
“This is what we want,” he had told her after a previous session, the beautiful, hazel eyes firm. He was trying to help her.
Trying to help. She clenched her fists and moved forward, the stones growing noticeably cooler beneath her feet. The rectangular shape grew as she approached. Her stomach shrank.
But there would be no more interruptions, no more avoidances on her part. Breinert knew about the thing and was convinced that it was important. In all her years visiting him, he had never gotten as excited over any of her dream objects as this one. The time had come for her to investigate.
It was several times her girth, with clawed feet anchoring a marble hulk to several shallow steps. Fluted corners decorated the edges, disappearing under a gauzy shroud. Several long, uneasy moments passed as she stopped before it, continuing to stare.
Around her, she heard the whisper: “Fear withers us, courage strengthens us.”
She looked hard at the altar, unmoving. A light breeze stirred the shroud’s fringe.
“Fear withers us …”
Hesitantly, she reached out and grabbed a corner of the cloth, pulling it from its perch. The material felt rough and serrated, something related to silk, but much stiffer.
A marble coverstone as thick as her wrist came into view. Delicate, etched vines adorned the top, circling a plaque inscribed with letters.
She stepped closer to read them, her hands coming to rest on the frigid surface of the tomb. Her fear retreated as she comprehended the word. Gingerly, she reached out to trace the symbols with her fingers, one by one.
“What does it say?” the whisper asked.
“Callid,” she breathed.
Her eyes filled with blazing light. She was in the air, giggling, looking down into her husband’s face on a summer afternoon. They were behind the keep, in a field unsuitable for farming. Her hair was loose and about her shoulders, his firm grasp at her waist. It was before the dry spell, when the field held hundreds of blooming flowers, their yellow and white petals blinding in the sun. Callid looked up at her in adoration and mirth, honey-brown eyes smiling as sure as his bearded mouth.
And just as quickly as they came, the flowers withered. The field vanished. She lay in bed. A crisp, cold touch of snow-filled air brushed her cheek. The only light came from the darkening bed of coals in the hearth. Beside her she felt the warm comfort of Callid’s form sleeping soundly. He was there, lying against her back, his gentle breathing whispering through the room.
The chill thickened. Rain. She stood in the door to the stables. The heavy, wet smell of animals and hay filled her nostrils. Callid dismounted from his horse and approached her, cloak, tunic, and leggings sodden with rainwater. He embraced her and she now smelled the scent of his body beneath the clothes, pushing out everything else in the world. It was something that lingered on bedclothes and his old cloaks, something whose source she longed for dearly.
The sound of showers ebbed into silence, and she realized she was back in the grand hall, on the dais. A man still stood in her grasp. She looked up and saw Callid’s kind face, with golden eyes somewhat sadder now, peering deeply into her own. Gently, he released one of her hands from his and lifted it.
The silver ring shone hotly on her finger. It burned in the white surroundings of the hall, a cold, noiseless flame.
He stepped back, out of her arms.
“Callid,” she started, tears forming. “Please. Just a little longer?”
He took another step back, shaking his head. Rianna felt the warmth of his embrace disappearing; cool air filled the space where she had once held him. She became aware of a sound coming from the distance: a heavy, rushing sigh that grew in volume. Around her, the walls shimmered.
“Please,” she pleaded, louder, taking a halting step towards him.
The hall crumbled.
Rianna sat up violently in the small pool, screaming her dead husband’s name. Breinert was instantly by her, thigh-deep in the water.
“Rianna!” he shouted, trying to grab her flailing arms. “M’lady! Awaken!” He crouched down beside her, concern etched on his face.
She almost didn’t recognize him. She stumbled back from his grasp like an animal cornered, hand clenched to her mouth. She looked bewilderedly about her. The pool. The ritual. Her shift had slid down off one shoulder. Self-consciously, she covered her breast and tried to regain composure.
Breinert stood motionless, his sleeves and elbows dripping, watching her.
“Please,” she choked, then cleared her throat. “Please, priest, get me my robe. I think we’re finished for the day.”
Rianna refused to speak with him about the vision afterwards. For the first time in her memory, she didn’t care to hear Breinert’s advice or counsel. There was no time for it. She had obligations. Despite his protests, she changed at the abbey and immediately took her carriage to Kenna, instructing her driver to take his time in arriving. There was nothing else for her to do but attend this ball. There was nothing for her to think about.
Evening had fallen by the time they reached the gates. All the ramparts were alight with torches, the guards dressed in their finery. Inside, she found the expected crowds of nobles and merchants of the region, many of whom feigned delight at seeing her.
“It’s been so long!”
“The lack of rain’s been dreadful for you, hasn’t it?”
“Have you still not remarried, my dear?”
Rianna made her rounds early, pretending to ignore the hushed conversations that blossomed as she left each group. In less than a bell, she retired to a quiet corner, away from much of the commotion. Before her dark gaze, couples danced to the strings and lute, seemingly oblivious and gay. She fidgeted with the ring on her finger, turning it obsessively. The band weighed unusually heavy.
Her new handmaiden, silent on the ride and arrival, meekly stepped forward. “Would my lady care for a drink?”
“Wine,” Rianna muttered, not shifting her gaze from the spectacle on the floor.
Relieved at having some purpose, the girl fled.
“I would be glad to offer you something stronger, m’lady.”
Rianna started at the voice. She found Tremmel standing beside her proudly, decked in his family’s livery of crimson and silver. The black embroidery of a flanduil’s head adorned the breast. The lord’s dark beard was neatly trimmed around a pointed jaw, and his pock-marked cheek was less noticeable in the hall’s dim light.
She sighed inwardly. “I don’t think that would be a wise choice, my lord.” She mustered a smile and offered him a hand out of courtesy. He accepted, brushing her fingers ever so lightly with his lips.
“Just as well,” he replied, straightening. “I think they water the stuff down.”
He lifted an earthen mug to his mouth and took a long draught. “There’s speculation that it may rain this evening.”
Rianna only hoped the storm would continue eastward, over the mountains. She thought of the withered daffodils on the other side of the Darst. “Then it’s a good thing the feast is indoors,” she said dryly.
“Pah,” he grumbled. “This is nothing but a parent’s show of pride.”
She didn’t answer. She didn’t have the heart. Rianna prayed that this one time Tremmel could feel the awkwardness between them. To her best effort, she offered him nothing in the way of outward affection. He spoke and she replied aloofly, not meeting his gaze. He stepped closer to her and she tensed, wishing to all the gods he would just get away from her.
Conversation fell silent between them, the sounds of the reception filling the void. Tremmel took another swig from his mug, draining the contents.
“My lady, a dance?”
She prepared to decline gracefully, but Tremmel’s hand was on hers, pulling her onto the floor. The mug he carried must not have been his first. Rianna gasped as the lord’s left arm clamped about her waist, bringing him uncomfortably close.
The music started. Tremmel had her circle the floor as the musicians played festively. Couples wove intricate patterns around them; gowns ballooned in response to twirls. In the blur of motion, she saw the arms of gentlemen about their ladies, smiles on their countenances. She politely resisted other attempts by Tremmel to pull her close, pushing away in a side step if his arm grabbed her again.
Try as he might, the lord’s movements were not part of the dance. He broke the pattern regularly, drawing attention to them. Rianna flushed hotly with each disjointed round. Tremmel managed to pull her close one more time as she misstepped. Big teeth smiled from under his wiry beard, the stink of ale rank upon his breath.
Rianna’s feet faltered. Tremmel laughed and attempted to drag her back into his own rhythm. Gentility fled from her; she pushed away from him at last, fleeing to the outskirts of the floor, clutching her middle as if out of breath.
The lord followed in haste. “I’ve pushed you too hard, my lady?”
“Yes,” she replied, too fiercely. Faces turned in the crowd surrounding them.
The music continued to play, couples danced, but Tremmel’s face hardened. “Perhaps we should take a walk in the garden to refresh ourselves?”
Before she could reply, his thick fingers locked on to her and led her through the groups of revelers.
A garden was situated just beyond the hall, set within the castle’s protective bailey. They brushed several nobles on their exit, some glancing back as they walked by. The lord made no apologies or excuses. Outside, the wind was up, tinged with moisture.
Tremmel released her once they were on the tailored path, but he did not look at her directly. Instead, he marched stiffly ahead, hands clasped behind his back.
“You are not your pleasant self tonight,” he called back.
“Neither are you,” she almost retorted, but Tremmel was never exactly pleasant.
When he noticed she did not follow, the lord stopped. “Will you deny me this walk as well?” he demanded.
There was little light out beyond the entrance. Torches placed along the path burned foully, their heavy smoke filling the air. Uneasily, she came forward, following him on around the edges of the garden, pointed spires of shrubs their only eavesdroppers.
“The day has been difficult,” she did say, not knowing how to reply. There was ale in Tremmel’s blood, and she began to worry.
“It has been a difficult year,” he countered, halting. They stood under the lanky branches of a weeping cherry, his face cast in shadow. “It is no secret that I have affections for you, m’lady.”
Rianna flushed at the confession. She felt embarrassed for him.
“Your lands haven’t enough water, nor your people enough food,” he continued. “My wealth can help change that. Why do you resist?”
Her embarrassment flared to anger. “Your concern is appreciated but unwarranted, sir. My lands are my own business!”
“Your lands are the kingdom’s business,” Tremmel growled, his hands animatedly pointing to the land around them. “You, m’lady, have been shown too much leniency in your refusal to remarry!”
A rustling emerged from along the path. There were others in the garden.
“Rianna,” Tremmel started again, lowering his voice. He looked away for a moment and then back, as if gathering his thoughts. “I would rather you gave yourself willingly than otherwise.” He reached out and caught her hand, his fingers closing on the ring.
She pulled back from his touch and slapped him.
The lord did not recoil from her blow. “That ring,” he hissed, raising his fist. “You still wear that infernal ring!”
Strong fingers dug into her arms and her dress, crushing her. Fabric ripped. Rianna struggled with him, trying to push his bulk away. From the darkness, a shape emerged, calling out to the guards.
Tremmel released her, turning to face the intruder.
Breinert stood by a torch, unflinching against the other man’s wrath. Tremmel was upon him in an instant, grabbing the priest’s collar and hoisting him off the ground. But the lord stopped short of assault, catching the sound of feet running quickly towards them. Throwing the priest down, Tremmel snarled and fled.
When hands reached for her again, Rianna batted them away frantically.
“Easy, Rianna, easy,” Breinert whispered, his voice filled with concern. The priest’s arms embraced her, an awkwardness in their touch. “You left the monastery so abruptly,” he tried to explain. “I followed … I felt it important to attend. And then I saw you and the brute dancing …”
She clung to him, realizing this was the first time she had ever held him. The scent of sage filled her nostrils — that curious scent which always accompanied calm and serenity, floating freely. It was Breinert’s peace. Breinert’s love.
Rianna tore away, shaking her head.
The priest looked confused. “M’lady?” he asked.
She stood up in her ruined dress and ran into the dark of the garden, away from that pillar that touched off a wild craving in her heart.
Rianna abandoned her handmaiden at the reception and had her carriage take her back to the monastery. Refusing an escort, she fled the abbey and stumbled her way down the paths to the sound of the river, out on the bluff near the priest’s pool. For how long she stood on the rocky plateau, high above the Coldwell, she could not tell. Instead, she focused on trying to discern the course of the river running invisibly in the night beyond. There was no moon to illuminate the landscape. Clouds blanketed the sky.
Rianna stood motionless in that darkness. She listened to the rushing waters, feeling nothing inside or out, trying to push out the arguments in her head.
How many suitors had courted her? How many had been too loud? Too fat? How many of her subjects had gone hungry this winter?
She swallowed heavily and clasped her hands over her ears, whispering over and over, “Please. Please stop.”
But she couldn’t stop the reprimands and accusations in her mind. The questions. Tremmel’s words. Breinert’s voice.
“Have you still not remarried?”
“Your lands haven’t enough water …”
She saw Callid as he stood in the grand hall, eyes infinitely sad.
The wall inside of her, the one that struggled to portray a strong noble, crumbled like so many battlements neglected over the ages. She shook her head, sobbing, her lower lip trembling. Hot tears streaked down her cheeks, and this time she let them fall.
Fiercely, she grasped the wedding band on her finger and jerked on it. The metal clung tightly to her flesh, scraped against it. Rianna grew more desperate as she yanked.
“My vow,” she gritted, pulling the ring free and raising it. Lightning flashed in the distance. “I honored you, Callid. I loved and followed you. I supported and strengthened you. I was your wife!” she cried to the river. “Why did you leave me? Why did the gods take you from me?”
Her fingers closed into a fist about the ring, as if she could crush or deform the band, break the circle. She cocked her arm to throw its burden into the darkness, trembling with the effort.
But her arm refused to complete its motion. She remained that way for moments: clenched and ready to finish the action. What was it that stopped her? What prevented her from being rid of this agony?
“Callid,” she breathed, shuddering.
Her knees buckled and she fell onto them, letting the ring drop from her fingers. The band uttered its own high-pitched cry as it struck the stone.
She dropped onto her back, lifting her hands to her face, weeping. Rain began to fall swiftly about her, striking her arms with cold, stinging drops. Rianna opened her eyes to the wet night, the water mixing with her own salty tears.
Rolling over, she made out the ring just beyond her reach at the edge of the drop.
“No,” she whimpered. It was wrong, regardless of what the vision told her. Callid was her husband. His memory was her life. His honor was in her care. It was all that was left for her. She reached out for the band, her fingers brushing it, nudging it closer to the fall.
From deep within, the whisper of her dreams spoke: “Fear withers us. Courage strengthens us.”
She paused, her fingers about to light upon the metal, to grasp it or fling it from the cliff. In her mind a thousand thoughts sparked. Fear or courage? Flowers blossomed. The unknown or the painfully familiar? She smelled the sea.
Her fingers descended.