The raven landed on the window sill, onyx feet scratching the cold stone, and Alain looked up from his late meal. The chill air of the autumn night slipped in behind the bird, ruffling its feathers like a collar of black lace. It blinked—a flash of white in black eyes—and clapped its beak once, twice.
“Shoo,” Wrdisten said, taking a step from his place near the door and waving a hand. “Go on. Out with you.”
The raven blinked again, but made no move to leave. Wrdisten waved his hand again, and the bird only opened its beak and cawed, a raucous sound in the small tower room. Wrdisten sighed.
“Night or day, he knows when you’ve sat down to sup,” he said to Alain. “You shouldn’t feed him.”
The sandy-haired count smiled, moustache bristling with good humor. He pulled the collar of his tunic to the side, revealing the red welting of old scars. “I carry his likeness, etched into my flesh,” Alain said with a broad smile. “When I lift my arms, he stretches his wings. His tail feathers tickle my belly. How can I refuse him a morsel now and again? We’re practically brothers, he and I.” The count winked at the clansman. “Perhaps it’s an omen.”
“Gast,” the other swore, using one of the Brezhoneg curses he had adopted after leaving Cornwall to follow this Briezh count. “He’s a beggar, naught more.” He squinted as he regarded the bird. “Now, were somethin’ more telling t’show such unnatural devotion—a wren, say, or a mare—well, that might be an omen.”
Alain laughed, grateful for his bondsman’s good humor and simple honesty. “You’d not believe it if Epona herself came knocking on our door.”
Wrdisten ran a callused hand along his lime-whitened hair, shaved close on the sides and left long on the top and back to resemble more closely the mane of the horse-deity he worshipped. “The appearance of the White Goddess,” he said with great solemnity, “I would definitely accept as an omen.”
Alain laughed again and shook his head. “Watch the door for me, old friend. There’s been some odd activity along the lines, and I need to investigate.” Wrdisten nodded and made another attempt to shoo the raven out the window. “Leave him,” Alain said. “He’ll be no trouble.”
Wrdisten shrugged. “As y’wish.” He opened the door. “Not too long, though. Your guests should be arriving soon.”
“I’ll be just outside.” He closed the door and Alain was alone in the room.
The raven made a sound like a hoe in stony soil. Alain took the heel of bread left over from his evening meal and walked to the window. The raven eyed him, feet on the edge of the sill, wings slightly spread and ready to fly. Alain broke the heel and slowly placed it on the stone. They regarded one another, man and bird, over the crust of bread. Alain winked. The raven winked back and stabbed at the bread.
Alain smiled. We’re alike, he thought of himself and the bird. Brazen in action but essentially frightened and alone.
He peered into the gloom outside. The week before, cold autumn had swept in with lidded skies and drizzling rains, chasing the hot dry summer off the coast of Bretagne. It did not bode well for the winter weather. A harsh winter often came on the heels of a nasty autumn, and it painted an ugly picture for the winter harvest.
Raised by a simple ploughman, Alain knew the reciprocal cycles of weather and crops. They were as obvious to him as tides were to a fisherman, but the knowledge only added to his burdens. He knew firsthand the hardships, the toil, the disease, and the violence; he knew of families dying in the cold of winter, bodies bloating with summer fever; and he knew well the hunger. In his four years as Count of Vannes, Alain had seen the peasantry’s battle for survival; a jongleur’s slack-rope dance, balancing need against need, every demand threatening the limits of supply. Guihomarc, his blood father and the former Count Vannes, had known nothing of peasant life. In Alain’s case, it was all he had ever known.
The raven poked at the bread, wary still but less so, now that the man’s attention was elsewhere.
Alain walked back to the hearth, placed a fresh log on the low-burning coals. The log hissed and spat in defiance but succumbed to the demands of the dancing flames. Resin-smoke reached up to him. He breathed it in, its sweetness filling him. The scent touched an old memory. He thought on it and pictured the Delphine, his mother, when she was casting her spells. He remembered her crouched over her cottage hearth, melting resin on a heat-warmed stone, the chips sizzling, smoking, weaving patterns of magic and the sharp incense of pine. Her arms were thin, strung with ropy flesh, and her skeletal hands held a packet of herbs in the blue spiral of rising smoke, infusing them with the resin’s spirit before she tucked them into a sewn leather packet, mumbling, cackling. Alain withdrew from the memory, not liking to think of her as she was then: old, crabbed, and madder than a hare at midnight. It was his last vision of her he preferred to keep: when she was whole, rejuvenated, speaking to him from the Summerland, beyond the Veil of death.
The log settled resignedly into the coals. Alain settled his tall frame cross-legged before it. He thought then of Bronwyn, as he always did when he prepared to search the lines. He felt the old, familiar longing that squeezed his heart whenever the idea of her bloomed within him. After four years, his love for her was still entire. Her silence during that time had pressed hard upon him, though, and his constancy had suffered. Loneliness was a constant companion. He thought of searching for her but tossed the idea aside with a frown and a shake of his head. She could hide herself from the magic of the ley lines through sheer will and rigorous intellect. He had never found her in the years gone by, and there was no reason tonight would be any different. He took a deep breath and returned to his original purpose.
Warmth from the fire smoothed his brow and caressed the backs of his hands. Slowly, it seeped into the cloth of his tunic and spread to his shoulders and chest. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He closed his dark eyes and entered the world of the ley lines.
The darkness acquired an element of clarity and depth, like coming from a deep barrow out into a starless night. As his mind adjusted to the nether-world, patches of hazy light began to form. He relaxed, and the haze shrank, concentrating itself into bright lines crisscrossing the distant darkness, threads of hard light laid on an infinite plain. The lines—ley lines, dragon lines—were the threads of the Veil that separated Alain’s world from the Summerland, the land of gods, Fair Folk, and the transmigrating souls of men. The lines stretched between the two worlds and bore in their infinite depths the power that was the source of line magic. They lay across the void of the non-world, standing between all other worlds where they whispered, humming in near silence with a potency waiting to be tapped.
But now, as he dropped down toward them he was swarmed by sounds. Brash chords, heavy blarings, and shouted songs filled the ether, ringing out from the lines. He counted the signatures; two novice mages and one of some experience, all situated on the Briezh coast, working the strong line out of Carnac. The cacophonous novices had found their talents within the last year. Back in the real world of flesh and blood, his body furrowed its brow beneath sand-colored hair.
So many new players, he thought, hovering above the line that alternately shouted and cried with use by unpracticed hands. Why all of a sudden?
He feared he knew the answer to that question, feared he was the answer. His relationship with the lines was unusual. They did not react to mages, were just lifeless lines providing the power for magic, but when Alain was near, they moved, attracted to his presence. They had thickened with power over the years while he had been living in Vannes, and they were easier for new mages to discover. This, he thought, was the most likely reason for the new crop of untried talents.
From within the fury of noise he isolated the more refined signature that had drawn him here to investigate. The player drew power with a sound like the ting and splash of brass cymbals. Alain recognized it as the hand of Brieuc of Brest, but the source seemed closer. He followed the sounding line.
By wishing it, he moved. Though his body still sat cross-legged, bathed in the hearthfire’s warmth, his mind flew unfettered, sailing down the length of the line toward the distant player. Lines that were familiar to him from years of traveling the world between curled away like shavings from a whittler’s blade. One curved up, turning north toward Dol, while the other twisted down and eastward to the Loire. In traveling the lines, he traveled his world, but was not restricted to it. More lines branched off, spiraling up and diving down, heading to places that had no earthly equivalent. Alain suspected that some led to new worlds, perhaps even to other times, but he had never tried to travel that far.
He approached the centefoil bloom of Carnac, a place where dozens of lines converged, twisted, coiled, and spun outward again along their ethereal routes. He continued onward, through the petals and loops that were the power of Carnac. The sound came from close by.
Here, Brieuc? What is it that brings you here?
He slipped along the coastal line until it brought him as close to the caster as possible.
In Lorient, he noted, seeing the home of his noble neighbor.
Lorient’s count had grumbled as Alain consolidated the weaker counts under his rule. In quick succession, he had brought the counts of Kemper, Lannion, Dol, and Brest together under his banner of a united Bretagne. Only the powerful Count Rennes and the young Count Lorient remained. Rennes was waiting, hoping for a larger role than Alain was willing to offer, and as for Lorient, well, Alain thought Treguier would have accepted the inevitable by now.
Young Treguier is more stubborn than I’d thought. More stubborn by a good margin.?
He retreated from the locus, pulling back the way he’d come, letting his spirit take its own route back home while he pondered this new information. Treguier had brought in Brieuc and his two apprentices. He was obviously spoiling for a fight.
Several heartbeats later, still pondering, he looked at the line-world around him. He had stopped moving. He had traveled homeward, but Vannes still lay half a league off. Without thinking, he had gone not to Vannes, but had traveled along the neighboring line that lay deep beneath a craggy, tree-covered ridgeline. He was in Dead Ox Wood, the place where he had first discovered his talent, and the place that his heart still thought of as “home.”
He reached up and the land formed around him like a ghost, milky and translucent. The line burned below the image of Alain’s first home, its cold fire flowing beneath the ridge. He looked down from the ridge and saw the valley and his second home: Belvanetes, a tiny village asleep in the crook of the river’s arm.
How are you? he asked, but not of the quiet town. On an impulse, he sang a thought, an image of a glass bead made of curling white lines on a sphere of blue. His memory aided the picture, tuning the melody by curving the line here, bending it there. When it was right, his song was answered. He knew he would be wasting his time, but his heart was lonely and hard to deny. He moved off the line, down through the ghostly landscape toward the echo of his call.
He did not take the path he would have trod were he there in the flesh, winding down the steep grade from Dead Ox Wood, weaving in and out between the boles of massive oaks and towering yew. The land about him here was an illusion, a phantom. It did not bind him.
He passed through trees he would have circuited, and flew high above the river. He glided over the thatched roofs of Belvanetes, sensing the heartbeats of villagers settled in for the night. The path he flew was straight, unvarying, leading from the top of the ridge down to the old Roman villa where he had lived, worked, and learned to love. The white-washed walls flashed by in the wan starlight, and then he was there, in the kitchen. Before him was a woman. Other women worked nearby—cleaning the last pot or banking the fire for the night—but this one woman was the one he had come to see.
Josselyn leaned over to scoop dried beans from a sack. As she did, a strand of snakestones swung out from beneath her collar. Glass beads, blue as a twilight sky and inlaid with turnings and spirals of white, they had first belonged to the Delphine. Alain had given them to Josselyn after his mother’s death. They had answered his call, and drawn him from the line to their wearer. During the years since Bronwyn’s departure, he had often thought of Josselyn, and of what might have been. Seeing her both pleased and saddened him.
A serving maid came in. “He’s asking for you again, Mistress.”
Josselyn nodded. “And Courette?” she asked.
“Down for the night. In your room.”
Josselyn nodded again and dumped the beans into water for an overnight soak. With the back of her hand, she pushed a stray tress of golden hair back where it belonged. She dried her hands and turned to go.
Alain followed, pulled by the echo of the snakestones. He floated just behind as Josselyn went down the long hall. Coming toward her was a tall man. He wore a long robe, tied at the waist. They stopped a few paces from one another. The cleric bowed.
“Mistress,” he said.
“Blessings of the Christ upon you.”
She bowed her head as he said the words, and made her way past him. She stopped at a door. She opened it.
The room was shut up tightly. Rags were pressed into the cracks between the shuttered windows and the sills. Only a single candle burned, for it was common knowledge that evil spirits were attracted to open flames. Three faces looked up as Josselyn entered; two maid servants—their motions slow, silent, and deliberate—and a sour-faced elder, Robert, who sat at the bedside of his dying son.
“Close that door,” Robert snapped at his son’s wife. Josselyn did as he bade her, but slowly and with a twist of dislike on her lips.
She walked to the bed and leveled a stare across at old Robert before she knelt and took her husband’s hand.
“Charles,” she said to the invalid, her voice cheerful, and her smile now pleasant. “Husband, they said you called for me?”
Charles lay on the bed covered by heavy linens and furs. One of the maids wrung out a cloth and placed it on his forehead. His face was beaded with sweat and his cheeks shook with tremors. He looked around him, eyes wandering, blind.
“Wife,” he whispered.
“Here,” Josselyn said, leaning close and squeezing his hand. “I’m right here.”
Charles faced his wife, but his gaze still wobbled. “Wife, you have given me no son. After five years, all you’ve been able to whelp is one puny little girl.”
Alain watched as Josselyn remained impassive. The small reassuring smile stayed fixed. Her eyes stared at her husband, cold and grey, unmoving in the pulse of candlelight.
“I shall bequeath all my lands and goods to Father—”
“—in hopes that they may remain in the family.”
Josselyn’s facade cracked. Her gaze slashed to Robert and met her father-in-law’s satisfied smile. Her lips curled with building rage.
“You cannot do this.”
“He can,” Robert said.
“There are my lands. My father’s. For generations.”
“No longer,” the old man said. “You gave them up when you took my son’s hand.”
“But these lands were my dowry.”
“Your debts were your dowry! If your father had not ruined himself ransoming back a despoiled wife, if he’d let spoiled food rot instead of paying Northmen—”
She reached across the bed and slapped him to stop his words. Tears ran down her cheeks. Slowly, Robert smiled. His fist flashed over the bed and caught her across the mouth. She crumpled backward with a muffled cry. Robert stood and rounded the bedside.
“Father,” came Charles’ weak protestation.
“Silence,” the old man ordered. He reached down and laced his fingers through Josselyn’s golden hair. She shrieked as he pulled her to her feet and he slapped her again to quiet her struggles.
“Hush,” he said, his voice almost melodious. “And be glad I do not throw you out altogether. You and that feeble daughter of yours. I am now the master of this household, and I alone. No one will gainsay me that right. Charles has bequeathed his home to me, in lieu of any male heir. He swore it this evening before the Brother Anton. It is done. Do you hear?”
Josselyn, cowering beneath his painful grip, nodded.
“Excellent. Now go and leave me to pray for my son’s soul in this needful hour.” He threw her toward the door. She stumbled, but kept her feet. Without a sound, she stepped outside and closed the door behind her. She stood there, holding the latch. Alain saw her shoulders shake, her back heave with quiet weeping. Slowly, she straightened, her back uncoiling. With steady grace she turned and, her jaw purpling and her lips stained red with blood, walked to a nearby door. She opened it and stepped inside.
Within were a small mattress, a three-legged chair, and a table near the window. An oil lamp hung from a hook on the rafter. Next to the low bed with its heavy coverings was a large wicker basket in which, tucked in under cottons and furs, lay a small child. The little girl’s cheeks were pale in the light from the tiny flame, her hair pale and flaxen. Alain knew her eyes to be dark and brown, like chestnuts, like his own.
Josselyn’s wounded lip began to tremble.
Josee, he sent, his sympathy reaching out to her before his mind could rein in the thought.
She looked up, startled. Then her brows contracted above narrowed eyes. “Well, Count Vannes. You have finally succeeded in ruining me. Are you at last pleased?”
Josee. I never intended—
She reached beneath her collar and grasped the leather lacing with its four inlaid beads. With a yank, the leather parted and she held the snakestones in her upturned palm. She offered them to the air, to Alain.
“I am not your pinioned bird that you may look in whenever you choose. I do not belong to you. I never belonged to you.” She wiped at the blood on her lip. “And neither does Courette.”
Josee, he sent again, struggling to convey his complex emotions through the medium of the lines. I tried to save you.
Josselyn frowned and gripped the necklace in trembling fingers. “Go,” she said. “And never come again.”
But, our daughter.
“Leave us!” She threw the stones to the floor and stamped on them. One of them cracked and the lines shivered as the stone released its magic. Alain, his anchor lost, was pulled back to the line in a disorienting jolt. He slipped, unsure of himself, felt the non-world of the lines moving, turning around him. He felt the echo of movement as his body gasped, shocked by the sudden attenuation. He grabbed the echo before he lost it and followed it, traced it, letting it lead him back down from the line of Dead Ox Wood, until he rejoined his body, heart pounding and his pallid face covered with a sheen of sweat.
The log crackled in the hearth but its cheer did not reach him. He felt suddenly cold and found himself shivering. He rose and walked to the window.
At Alain’s purposeful approach, the raven snagged the last of the bread and leapt into the darkness of the night. Alain reached out for the shutters and stopped.
The early moon glowed above rumpled clouds, a nebula of cold blue. Beneath it, like the shoulder and head of a sleeping giant, laid the black ridge of Dead Ox Wood.
“Josee,” he said to the tiny village beyond the wood. “Courette. I never meant to harm you.” His regrets over Josselyn were many, but he could not think of what else he might have done. She had never tried to understand his position or the requirements of his new role as Count Vannes.
He jumped as a rapping sounded at the door.
“Fair One,” Wrdisten called to him, using the Old Tonguse of his clan. “Your messenger has arrived.”
“Very well,” the Count said. He pulled the shutters to and locked out the night.