Excerpt from Crown of Stars Vol. 5, The Gathering Storm by Kate Elliott
In the vault of heaven spin wheels of gold, winking and dazzling. The thrum of their turning births a wind that spills throughout creation, so hot and wet that it becomes a haze. This mist clears to reveal the tomb of the Emperor Taillefer, his carved effigy atop a marble coffin. His stern face is caught eternally in repose. Stone fingers clutch the precious crown, symbol of his rule, each of the seven points set with a gem: gleaming pearl, lapis lazuli, pale sapphire, carnelian, ruby, emerald, and a banded orange-brown sardonyx.
Movement shudders inside each gem, a whisper, a shadow, a glimpse.
Villam’s son Berthold rests peacefully on a bed of gold and gems, surrounded by six sleeping companions. He sighs, turning in his sleep, and smiles.
A hand scrapes at the latch to the door of a hovel woven out of sticks, the one in which Brother Fidelis sheltered. As the door opens the shadow of a man appears, framed by dying sunlight, but he is tall and fair-haired, not Brother Fidelis at all. Crying out in fear, he runs away as a lion stalks into view.
Candlelight illuminates Hugh of Austra as he turns the page of a book, his expression calm, his gaze intent. He follows the stream of words, his lips forming each one although he does not speak aloud. A wind through the open window makes the flame waver and shudder until she sees in that flame the horrible lie whispered to her by Hugh.
She knelt in the place of St. Thecla as the holy saint witnessed the cruel punishment meted out by the empress of the Dariyan Empire to those who rebelled against her authority. The blessed Daisan ascended to the sacrificial platform. He was bound onto a bronze wheel. Never did his joyous smile falter although the priests flayed the skin from his body. Joy overwhelmed her in a flood, for was she not among the elect privileged to witness his death and redemption?
Yet the flood-waters of joy wash back over her to burn her.
Is this not the heretical poison introduced into her soul by Hugh’s lies?
What if Hugh wasn’t lying? Has he really discovered a suppressed account of the redemption? It surpasses understanding.
In her confusion, the dream twists on a flare of light.
In a high hall burn lamps molded into the shapes of phoenixes. Their flames rise from wicks cunningly fixed into their brass tail feathers. The skopos presides over a synod called to pass judgement over the heretics. The accused do not beg for mercy; they demand that the truth be spoken at last. Is that her young brother Ivar standing boldly at the forefront? Who will interrogate them? Who will interrogate the church itself? If the Redemption is true, if the blessed Daisan redeemed the sins of humankind by dying rather than being lifted bodily into heaven in the Ekstasis while he prayed, then have the church mothers hidden the truth? Or only lost it?
Who is the liar?
“Sister, I pray you. Wake up.”
Dark and damp swept out from the dream to enclose her, and the cold prison of stone walls hemmed her all around with a weight that dragged her back to Earth. Light stung her eyes. She shut them quickly. A warm hand touched her shoulder, and she heard Brother Fortunatus speak again, although something was wrong with his voice.
“Sister Rosvita. God have mercy. Can you speak?”
With an effort she sat up, opening her eyes. Every joint ached. The chill of the dungeon had poisoned her to the bone. “I pray you,” she said hoarsely, “move the light. It is too bright.”
Only after the light moved to one side could she see Fortunatus’s face. He was crying.
Her wits returned as in a flood. “How long have I been here? Without the sun, I cannot mark the passing of days. I do not hear the changing of any guard through that door.”
He choked back tears, and even then his voice shook. “Three months, Sister.”
A spasm of fear and horror overcame her, and she almost retched, but her stomach was empty and she dared not give in to weakness now. Strength of mind was all that had kept her sane in the interminable days that had passed since that awful night when she had heard the voice of a daimone speak through Henry’s mouth.
“What of King Henry? What of Queen Adelheid? Has she not even asked after me? Have none spoken for me, or asked what became of me? God above, Brother, what I saw–“
”Sister Rosvita,” he said sharply, “I fear you are made light-headed by your confinement. I have brought you spelt porridge flavored with egg yolks, to strengthen your blood, and roasted quince, for your lungs.”
They were not alone. The man holding the lamp was Petrus, a presbyter in the skopos’ court, Hugh’s admirer and ally. What she needed to say could not be said in front of him, because she dared not implicate Brother Fortunatus, the girls--Heriburg, Ruoda, Gerwita--and the rest of her faithful clerics. If she could not protect herself, then certainly she had no hope of protecting them. Her father’s rank and her own notoriety gave her some shelter, which was probably the only reason she was not dead; she doubted Fortunatus and the others could hope for even such small mercies as being thrown into a cell beneath the skopos’ palace.
Fortunatus went on. “Sister Ruoda and Sister Heriburg bring soup and bread every day, Sister Rosvita, just after Sext, although I do not know if you receive it then.”
He watched her with an expression of alarmed concern as she worked her way down to the bottom of the bowl. She was so hungry, and she supposed she must smell very badly since she was never given water to wash. But no disgust showed on Fortunatus’s lean face. He looked ready to begin weeping again.
“You have not been eating well either, Brother. Have you been ill?”
“Only worried, Sister. You wandered off in a sleeping dream that night, as you are wont to do, and never returned. It did not take us long to discover where you had wandered to in your delirium, alas.”
He smiled and nodded as if she were a simpleton whom he was soothing, but she read a different message in the tightening of his eyes and the twitch of his lips.
“Three months,” she echoed, scarcely able to believe it. In that time she had meditated and prayed, and slept, knowing that whatever she suffered at the hands of men would only test the certainty of her faith in God. Yet who had lied to her? Hugh? Or the church mothers? She could not shake that last desperate dream from her thoughts.
“Truly, the weeks have passed,” Fortunatus continued blandly. “King Henry has ridden south with his army to fight the rebel lords, the Arethousan interlopers, and the Jinna bandits in southern Aosta. Queen Adelheid and her advisors rode with him. Since I could not go to the king, I asked for an audience with the skopos. After eight weeks of patient waiting, for you know that the cares of the world and of the heavens weigh heavily upon her, I was admitted to her holy presence two days ago, on the feast day of St. Callista. She refused to release you, but she agreed that you ought to be allowed exercise in the corridor each day between the hours of Sext and Nones. Her generosity is without measure!”
Amazing, really, how he kept his voice steady, how he managed to keep sarcasm from his tone. The horrors of her confinement, the intense focus of mind she had brought to her prayer to keep herself from utter despair, were lightened by hearing him and clasping his hand.
“The Holy Mother also gave me permission to pray with you every Hefensday. So do you find me here, Sister, with such provisions as I was allowed to carry as well as a blanket. As long as I am allowed, I will come every Hefensday to pray.”
“Then it is the almost the first day of Decial. The dark of the sun.” Facts were a rope to cling to in a storm at sea. Knowing that she lay confined in this dungeon while, above, the good folk of Darre celebrated the feast day of St. Peter the Disciple, on the longest night of the year, amused her with its irony. “Does the Holy Mother wish me kept in this cell indefinitely?”
“If it is the Enemy’s doing that causes you to walk in your sleep, Sister, then you must be kept apart to avoid contaminating others. There will be a special guard to walk with you at your exercise, one who is both mute and deaf.”
She bowed her head. “So be it.”
They would never be left alone, and even if they thought they were alone Anne could by means of magic spy on them anyway. She could no longer speak frankly to him, nor he to her. Hugh knew that she had seen the king ensorcelled by a daimone and Helmut Villam killed by subtle magic at Hugh’s hands, and yet Hugh still had not had her killed.
She was ill, she was hungry, and she was imprisoned in darkness in the dungeon beneath the holy palace, but by God she was not dead yet.
“Let us pray, then, Brother, as we will pray every Hefensday, if God so will it.”
She knelt. The straw cushioned her knees, and she had grown accustomed to the aggravation of fleas and the scrabbling of rats. If her limbs were unsteady and her voice ragged, and if she shifted the wrong way because the glare of the lamp hurt her eyes, at least she had not lost her wits.
God willing, she would never lose her wits.
As Fortunatus began the service of Vespers, she knew at last what time of day it was: evening song. To this scrap she clung with joy. In an appropriate place she chose a psalm, as one added prayers of thanksgiving or pleading in honor of the saint whose feast day it was.
It is good to give thanks to God
for Their love endures forever.
Those who lost their way in the wilderness
found no city to shelter in.
Hungry and thirsty, they lost heart,
and they cried out to God,
and God rescued them from their trouble.
God turn rivers into desert
and the desert into an oasis,
fruitful land becomes wasteland
and the wilderness a place of shelter.
The wise one takes note of these things
as she considers God’s love.
When they had finished, Fortunatus answered her with a second psalm.
Blessed be the Lord and Lady,
who snatched us out of the haunts of the scorpions.
Like a bird, we have escaped from the fowler’s snare.
The snare is broken, and we have flown.
Blessed be God,
who together have made heaven and Earth.
Too soon he had to leave. He kissed her hands as servant to master, wept again, and promised to return in one week. It was hard to see him, and the light, go. It was agony to hear the door scrape shut, the bar thud into place, and the sound of their footsteps fade. Fortunatus might return in a week, as he had promised, or he might never return. She might languish here for a month, or for ten years. She might die here, of hunger, of lung fever, or of despair, eaten by rats. It was hard to remain hopeful in the blackness where Hugh had cast her.
But she had heard the promise implicit in Fortunatus’s choice of prayer:
Like a bird, we have escaped from the fowler’s snare.
The King’s Eagle, Hathui, had escaped and flown north to seek justice.