- 1 January 30th, 1016 -- Evening -- Oligarch
- 1.1 Catherine Chamberlain
- 1.2 Brigdha Dubhaine
- 1.3 Catherine Chamberlain
- 1.4 Brigdha Dubhaine
- 1.5 Catherine Chamberlain
- 1.6 Brigdha Dubhaine
- 1.7 Catherine Chamberlain
- 1.8 Garas Gabanus
- 1.9 Brigdha Dubhaine
- 1.10 Catherine Chamberlain
- 1.11 Brigdha Dubhaine
- 1.12 Garas Gabanus
- 1.13 Catherine Chamberlain
- 1.14 Brigdha Dubhaine
- 1.15 Catherine Chamberlain
- 1.16 Brigdha Dubhaine
January 30th, 1016 -- Evening -- Oligarch
Brigdha crossed the plains largely unremarked, a craggy old woman wrapped in a ragged shawl, leaning heavily on a crooked staff, grey hair hanging limply about her shoulders, a tattered satchel of cheap trinkets clutched tightly in claw-like fingers.
The sun was westering by the time she joined the last stragglers seeking admission at Oligarch's great southern gate, barely remarked by the watch and instantly forgotten. The kind of frail figure beneath the notice or contempt of noble and warrior alike.
The mission which brought Brigdha to Oligarch, the heavily-fortified armed camp at the heart of Duke Garas's rebellion, was largely one of compassion. There'd been much in his letter which stunk of a trap but still she felt a connection to Lady Catherine which demanded she seek the truth for herself, though it was yet far from obvious how to act upon her instincts.
She made her way swiftly through well-chosen backstreets to the Temple of the Flow, avoiding Darton Plaza and slipping unremarked through one of the side entrances used by acolytes on temple business. Shutting the door behind her Brigdha slipped its bolt into place and dropped the glamour which had brought her this far.
Tonight she'd sleep soundly and on the morrow seek out Lady Catherine.
Her breathing was heavy and ragged.
Looking down at herself she noted with dismay the blood soaked into her gown. The image of it... red on white... blood on sheets. The image made her shake and taught fingers curled and uncurled the small blade clattering to the ground. She had to silence the screams, they were distracting her from everything and nothing.
The ewer had tumbled across the floor and now lay empty and useless in the corner. Rubbing her hands on her skirts she returned to the looking glass and set her trembling soiled fingers to braiding her hair.
Brigdha awoke with a start to a darkened bedchamber, her nostrils filled with the heavy, metallic scent of freshly shed blood. For a brief moment she tensed, lungs pausing, preternatural senses reaching out in expectation of treachery. Had Garas drawn her here to end her life? But as her mind's eye studied the threads linking life to life she heard a familiar song, reverberating across the city in melancholy, atonal phrasing.
Washing and dressing with minimal fuss, Brigdha took a moment to check her appearance in the mirror. The ancient crone who'd crossed the plains was gone, discarded as easily as the ragged shawl she'd worn to be replaced by an imposing woman in conservative court attire, a hint of grey in the raven tresses framing her well proportioned, if somewhat pallid, features.
The letter from Garas was the guarantor of her safety, so she slipped this into her purse. She doubted anyone in the city administration would recognise her from her last visit or be aware of her role as Lord Speaker of Sirion, and if they did she had shadows watching her every move, but still if the letter could forestall any unpleasantness it was worth a hundred bows concealed in the darkness.
However these precautions proved unnecessary, the grand dame strolling unchallenged towards the palace, arm-in-arm with her young beau, dainty parasol guarding her delicate complexion, giggling like a giddy schoolgirl.
At the palace gates weak-willed guards barely questioned her business, swiftly handing her into the care of a succession of footmen, valets and minor officials as she navigated her way to Lady Catherine's personal staff.
She noticed through the dull fog in her head that the Mother of Oligarch did not walk so briskly as she had, indeed she looked positively grey against the white of her robes. They had stopped her training with her captain and now she seemed confined to the most banal of responsibilities. She held council each day in her private apartments, at least she thought it was each day... one day was so similar to the next they often passed without note. It was so quiet. Nobody came any more. The mewling of the baby was battering at her head again. Sitting up she noticed the crib in the corner of the room. The Mother of Oligarch regarded both her and the crib apprehensively then returned to grinding her tinctures.
The sound and the crying of the babe filled her with a haunted dread. She attempted to move from the bed and looking down found her hands tied to the sides of the frames. In panic she pulled at the cords opening old wounds and burns on her forearms. She managed to scramble backward bumping against the unrelenting headboard. She was so weak, even her hair felt heavy on her head. The Mother sighed, moving stiffly across the room she positioned herself behind Catherine holding her in an embrace that involved both arms and legs. Catherine cried freely: "Why?" she wailed into the Mothers shoulder.
"I'm sorry Lady, you must be yourself for this, or it will poison the prince." She pressed the goblet to Catherine's mouth, forcing the liquid between her lips. She began to convulse throwing her head trying to dislodge the older womans grip. The Mother called two more Maunts to hold her and disentangled herself from Catherine. Her fumbling old fingers, once so deft now pinching with exhaustion pulled at the lacings of her shift exposing her breasts. They were hard and painful, Catherine bucked weakly against the restraints and the Maunts, and screamed in horror as she began to express at the increased mewling of the child as he was brought toward her.
She could feel the fetid breath of horses and the grasping hands of elves on her body and wished that she could be claimed by an oblivion that would not come. Then the grasping leech was upon her, pulling at her and swallowing her screams to a choking wail.
Catherine lay motionless, eyes wide looking at nothing, her hair pasted to the side of her face with sweat. The maunts fed thin soups and water into her mouth and watched tentatively for the small movements of her throat as she swallowed. The child grew fat as his mother faded further from the World, each day she fought less, but still never accepted what her body was telling her was right. The Mother had supplemented his feed with goats milk after the unfortunate incident with the wet nurse, but when a fever had threatened, her experience told her that the mothers milk was what was necessary, she had been a Queen, but in these circumstances a prince far outweighed the needs of his mother.
As the Catherine she had known had become more distant in her memory, she had found herself increasingly indifferent to her violence and screams. It troubled her at times that she felt so, and her prayers to Ora did little to salve her feelings. Watching the Maunts now tend to the Lady, she unstrapped the wounds on her own legs, cleansing and binding them afresh. Sighing she collected her sickle. The black roots of the sweet sleep bush were difficult to source and pare from the hard earth in Oligarch. If she were back in Nivemus she knew of many a plentiful grove, but here the few plants were becoming more sparse at her repeated harvesting, but the feeding had become a pattern and she knew Catherine's stunned catatonia would be short lived without the medicine.
She took her leave, the upper levels of the tower were largely unattended and guarded from without in Catherine's current state and she traveled the staircases unmolested but for the brief nod of the young Captain her mistress had been cultivating. Leaving for the main courtyard she filled her lungs with the fresh air and her ears with sounds of normal life and already felt a little more at ease. Yet something tugged at her senses, a presence grey and undiscerned to the eyes but there none-the-less. It was almost an echo familiar yet distant among the hubbub. She was no priestess, but she had spent enough time around the Oracle to know when she should seek out what attempted to be unseen. Dropping her basket she surveyed the grounds, breathing a tremulous breath as she extended her senses seeking what would remain hidden.
She was a talented amateur but she felt without seeing the eyes of another drawn to her as she sought the whispers of the presence.
Crossing the inner courtyard towards the Queen's Tower, Brigdha's senses reeled at the discordant flock of facies circling it, cawing and sparring like crows arguing over the charnel ruins of a great battle. Somewhere deep within that stone edifice a woman lay dying and these were the carrion spirits come to feast on her anguish, vengeful creatures of the high-firmament drawn to the black dreams of the cult of Ora.
Brigdha had heard tell of such magics in her journeys to the north, half-remembered and barely understood snippets of pharmacopeia preserved from lost Rancagua and the world's youth. Old Naevan the physician had written two entire volumes on the subject when Fontan's writ ran north of Ashforth, which Brigdha had studied several times over the years, most recently after reading Garas's letter.
For two whole days she'd sat in her private study, quill in hand, scratching copious notes in her distinctive cursive script on the pages of a small leather-bound codex, letters precisely placed and interspersed with carefully drafted diagrams and illustrations capturing the forms of particular plants and the shapes of utensils used in the leechcraft of the Maunts. A codex memorised on the long walk west.
Much of what she learned made for grim reading, the blood rituals and superstitions of a feral people obscuring their genuinely efficacious concoctions and practices. It was unclear whether this was the deliberate design of the Maunts, to maintain their grip on the minds of the northern tribes, or their own genuinely and deeply held belief. Such deceit was not without precedent even amongst the priesthood of The Flow. Long ago the Cult of Darton had followed such a path, and more recently there'd been a heresy drawn to the Turbulence, to the dark gifts of blood sacrifice and unrepressed emotion. Under such influence the Kinseys had raised entire regions in a bloody insurrection during the final days of the Great War and even now Brigdha's stomach turned at the memory of that carnage, the thousands lying dead in the streets of Karbala and Negev, of Al Amarah and Krimml.
"Not now Brigdha. This isn't the time to dwell on the past. There's work to be done," her inner voice anchored her senses in the Lilith Within, activating the particular patterns of perception which allowed a Balancewalker to withstand the full sensorium of the Flow. All about pale shadows of a multitude hues walked, and co-mingling with each shadow a fleshly form, a servant of the palace about their business, inner thoughts babbling yet melodic and of one purpose like small streams descending from the highlands to form a smooth-running river.
And there in their midst a withered tree, her roots deep in the soil of the northern groves, thoughts dark with the sorrows of many years, an alien transplanted to this land of neat-cut stone and neatly cropped grass. If Brigdha's sense didn't deceive her this was one of the Maunts, deep in shadow, beyond sorrow and despair in that unremarked country where death deceptively promises sweet oblivion.
"We'd better hurry Hrolf, there are forces at work here your blade is no match for," she tightened her arm about his, a gay smile upon her face, and without seeming to do so steered him towards the haggard old woman.
Meanwhile in the High Firmament she cast aside her cloak of shadow, revealing a bright amber flame to those with eyes to see. Above her the facies sensed her naked power and took fright, swooping across the courtyard and scattering with a hideous screeching.
For now they were dispelled, and with them the night terrors by which they fed. They were no threat to her but this was no time for complacency, they'd soon screw their courage to the sticking place and if Catherine yet slept on their return there was little even a Balancewalker could do to keep them from their feast.
Although the Mother of Oligarch had been searching for the presence, it was only when the woman was virtually on top of her that she was aware of the Lady of Negev. Her 'disguise' did little to hide the force of will she had exhibited as she approached the tower. Having seen the Oracle practice some of the seven masteries she had little fascination with her display of force. She was still disconcerted to see her here and now.
"I shall make a great clamor Lady Negev, the Prime Minister himself suspected you long for the poisoning of your master in Sirion, if you intend to finish his work with my mistress you will find me more resourceful than I look."
The priestess barely acknowledged her, her eyes following something unseen above the tower, her march toward the door an unrelenting progress. The Mother backed up not taking her eyes from the woman, stumbling over her own basket as she reached the lower door. The lack of guards was evidence of the lack of visitors to the tower that was becoming increasingly known for the howling wails of its mistress. A scream from this tower would barely be acknowledged so she reached to stop the door herself. As her back hit the door she placed her arms wide, the small sickle yet in her hand.
The priestess stopped regarding the woman with an arched brow.
"The Lady is ill, surely you would not seek to torment her..."
"Your Lady is already dying, good mother, as you well know," Brigdha placed her hand gently on the Maunts outstretched wrist, the sickle slowly dropping to the old woman's side, "if I wished her dead I need only let time pass."
The old woman's face was a rictus of stunned horror, her thoughts torn between the mortal dread of what harm this interloper would cause her mistress, and the sudden realisation that a swift end might at this point be the kindest outcome for both mother and child.
"I... we... you...," try as she might she couldn't tame the flood of emotions coursing through her.
"I'm not here to kill her. I'm here to save her," Brigdha let go of the Maunt's wrist.
"But...," everyone knew the tales... the night when the Lady of Negev cast her enchantment across Oligarch... and the terror which followed.
The Priestess slipped her hand into her sleeve and withdrew a folded parchment, bearing the seal of the Duke, passing it to the Maunt to read:
Lord Speaker Brigdha,
I offer you my greetings milady and must express my congratulations on your election of Lord Speaker. It has escaped my notice that Duke Zadek no longer serves in that capacity.
It is also my fear that I may require your assistance. Long ago I was convinced that you were behind Ecthelion's poisoning, but matters have become more clear now and I apologize for the accusations. At that time however I had not considered the lengths to which Ecthelion would go to ensure war, destruction and death. These days, too much has been seen to deny the truth that the culprit is Ecthelion himself. During the last battle between Sirion and Oligarch, my wife was wounded by Ecthelion's soldiers, but not before they had attempted to rape her. The latter was fortunately averted, but they nearly killed my wife and unborn son, now delivered fully healthy some days ago. After this attempt of rape and murder by his men my wife however has not been the same anymore. The day haunts her every night and even during daytime I fear.
You are one who my wife greatly respects and loves and it is my hope that a visit from yourself would perhaps help her and bring her some light in these troubling times.
I will ensure your safety should you decide to visit Oligarch City and you shall be my guest, protected by my own elite guards so that an event such as at the wedding will not occur once more. Although one can never protect someone from himself I suppose. In your case I would not expect such an action.
Respectfully, Garas Gabanus Prime Minister of Duchies of Southern Sirion Royal of Duchies of Southern Sirion Duke of Primus Governor of Oligarch
It took a moment for the words to register with The Mother of Oligarch, and she mouthed them more than once to be certain.
"We still have hope good mother," Brigdha's tone warmed a little though her voice was still full of urgency, "but you must take me to your mistress now if that hope's not to prove in vain."
Catherine pulled weakly against the ropes at her wrists, she felt more than noticed the return of the Mother of Oligarch. The briefest smell of fresh air as the door was quickly closed and barred a whisper of cleanliness over the soiled linen, tinctures, incense and the coppery smell of old blood. The old woman made for the knots that were cutting so painfully into her wrists. She hesitated at her work striking her cheeks with hardened gnarled fingers.
"Lady," she shook her, "Lady." She struck her again more urgently, and passing salts beneath her nose. The other Maunts had retreated not truly knowing what to do. The Mother called them back.
"She has a visitor. Haldred is checking the particulars but we need to make her ready."
The three women set about her with frantic purpose, scrubbing at her skin and binding her arms before drawing a gown over her body. The clothing felt so heavy and hung loosely where it had previously been fitted. As they teased and pulled her hair from her face they repeatedly pinched her, bringing color to her cheeks as they attempted to more suitably rouse her. Finally they poured the salts into a bowl and set them aflame. The pungent odor was an assault even to Catherine's addled senses. She immediately had a strong pounding headache that was matched by the ache and bone tiredness in her limbs. The Mother cupped her chin, wiping at her face with stern hands. "No tears Lady, you have a visitor... No tears."
Her head hurt and she was so tired... "Can't they see Ambassador Tezokian? I don't feel myself... where is Wulfric?" She searched the room with stinging eyes. The Mother paused in her labours, how lost she looked. Catching site of the crib Catherine attempted to stand but fell back in her chair without reaching her height. Her left arm dangled over the side of the arm, fingers outstretched toward the crib then limp again. The Mother tucked her hands together in her lap covering them with a half sewn embroidery that one of the other Maunts had left on a table. Any who truly knew Catherine would never believe she would sew, but for now image was important.
A respectful knock drew all eyes to the door.
The embroidery slipped falling from Catherine's knee.
Garas had finally returned to Oligarch again. He had longed to see his son again, but at the same time feared to see his wife. Her condition had grown worse and he was not certain what to do with it. His sword would most certainly not work in this situation, but what would? When he arrived at the palace, he was informed that Brigdha was present at Catherine's room and that Goran was also there. "Very well," Garas said "I'm certain the lady Brigdha won't mind if I go and see my son. Prepare my royal robes," he said as he removed his traveling armor.
When Garas was properly dressed, he moved up to the tower where his wife now resides. His assistant, Hartmann, formerly his captain, had met him upon arrival and informed them of everything that had occured in the palace. Garas had sent him on several errands and moved up stairs himself. As he moved up the tower, he came accross the wetnurse who was send to collect some cloths for the baby, and Garas stopped her. "Greetings my Lord," she said as she looked down at her feet, afraid to look at Garas. He placed his fingers under her chin and lifted up her head "Greetings, where are you off too" he said, "the girl still tried not to look at him and replied "To fetch new cloths for the Prince my lord" Garas smiled for a moment, a rare sight seen by only few people, "I see, he is my most priced being in this world, take good care of him and I shall take good care of you," he said as he walked onwards. When he arrived at the door, he knocked and announced himself and then entered the room. He exchanged a small greeting and pleasantry with lady Brigdha, as is custom among high ranked nobles, and then moved to his wife. "She no longer was repulsed by him, but rather seemed not to recognize him at all in this brief moment. "You see milady, I am at a loss," he said as he turned to Bridgha, "I hope my son does not suffer," he said as he moved towards the Prince, picked him up and kissed him on the forehead. "I will take him away from the tower for a moment, into the fresh air," he said to the old ladies nursing Catherine.
As he walked past Brigdha, he handed her a letter. "This is a copy of a letter I sent to Ecthelion, so you know that what will come, is his doing and not mine. I'm sorry milady, and thank you. I hope you will be able to reach my wife, I am at a loss. There is one thing I had been meaning to ask you in private, meet me once you are done here"
An hour earlier
Brigdha entered the room, flanked first by the flustered officer Haldred, then behind him Hrolf with the Prime Minister's safe-conduct clutched in one hand, the other resting on the hilt of his archer's sword. The two men had come close to blows as they argued over the validity of the documents, and it had only been when the Priestess snatched the young officer's half-drawn sword from his hand that matters had swiftly come to a useful conclusion.
"Both you and Lady Catherine stand on the verge of death," she pressed the point of his blade to his throat, backing him against the wall, "must one of you die that the other might live?"
"I would gladly give my life for Lady Catherine," Haldred sought to return the Priestess's intense gaze but his will was no match for her years of training and he gulped reflexively.
"Then put this stupid toy back in its sheath and follow me upstairs. Any fool can die for a cause, it takes much greater sacrifices to live for one."
They entered a room stinking of vomit, stale blood, curdled milk, and the rank concoctions of northern leechcraft. The heavy drapes effectively blocked daylight and summer breeze with equal ease, giving the usually light and airy chamber a sepulchral gloom, punctuated here and there by dim tallow candles which failed to cast their light more than two or three feet.
"Right. First things first, let's clear this toxic miasma," Brigdha signalled to Hrolf and the two of them moved to the curtains. One of the younger maunts moved to stop her but thought better of it.
"I need two large metal pails of freshly boiled water," she spared a soft smile for the woman as they cast aside the drapes, Hrolf leaning into the window casement to threw open the heavy wooden shutters. Daylight streamed in, and with it a fresh breeze off the western plains. The woman thought for a moment before hurrying to the door, relieved that at last someone was taking charge of a situation which had long since passed beyond her control. Meanwhile her two stunned sisters stood gaping at the interloper.
"You two fetch lye, mops, clean towels, fresh bedding and a laundered shift for your Mistress," for a moment Brigdha studied their stunned faces, mouths gawping in confusion, before the sharp staccato clapping of her hands brought them to their senses, "Well be quick about it! We haven't got all day!"
There was a stool next to Lady Catherine's bed and the Priestess availed herself of it, leaning forward over the delirious ruin of the once proud Queen. Her breath was heavy with the distinctive scent of Bryna root, a dangerous and highly addictive tincture used by the maunts as an anaesthetic. In re-reading Helion's work on the leechcraft of the north Brigdha had come across several cases of Bryna poisoning recorded by the great physician Areoscarbus, and she now set about checking the extent of her patient's narcosis against his observations.
Lifting the catatonic noblewoman's heavy lids revealed dry, glassy, unresponsive eyes, veins yellowed and broken, the green tint of necrosis clinging to the tear ducts. Her tongue was likewise jaundiced, with black ulceration of the inner lips and lower gums where the concentrated tincture had pooled longest. And all the time she was being examined her limbs shuddered and wroth, accompanied by shrieks and fevered ramblings, pulling against the ropes binding her.
Brigdha's heart ached to see this fine, noble woman reduced to such a pitiful existence.
"Hush, hush, hush my darling," she stroked the Queen's matted hair, drawing the anguish into herself, where decades of training could contain what Catherine's soul clearly could not.
The writhing form settled and with Hrolf's aid Brigdha was able to turn the frail body on its side and perform a thorough examination. Careful inspection of the lymph glands revealed further signs of necrosis, and despite the overall pallor of the Queen's flesh there was a clear preponderance of choler in the tissue. The flesh was withering away even as the spirit was drawn ever deeper into black thoughts. A blessing perhaps, as otherwise Catherine would probably have taken her own life by now.
The maunts returned with the things she'd requested and Brigdha set them to work scrubbing the room, bathing Lady Catherine and giving the whole room a sense of cleanliness. Meanwhile Brigdha removed a waxed packet from her purse, marked with a red leaf and labelled in her neat scholar's script, and an accompanying bundle of dried leaves. She bruised one of the leaves by rubbing it swiftly but gently between her fingers, releasing a fresh, mildly astringent smell.
"This is Sagemint," she offered her hand to Hrolf, the young warrior's eyes watering as he sniffed it, "it's a common herb in these parts, used to treat battle wounds when they turn necrotic. As a salve the juice will draw the poison from Lady Catherine's eyes, whilst chewing the leaves will heal the ulcers in her mouth. Thus may she see clearly and speak freely."
"First though we must settle the Queen's humours, which is where this comes in," she broke the seal on the waxed packet, revealing an innocuous white powder, "The Bryna root which the maunts have been feeding her is a powerful narcotic poison used by their Oracles to induce visions, and also in the treatment of deathly wounds where carefully apportioned it can induce a restorative catatonia. It's also addictive, the hunger for it stimulating the release of choler, and the buildup of choler leading to a hunger for the tincture. Left uncontrolled the body consumes itself and death is inevitable."
"However Lady Catherine's underlying sickness is an affliction of the High Firmament, of the spirit and not the flesh. In such circumstances the Bryna root makes a prison of the sufferer's body, trapping her with the very memories which she seeks to escape. There is only one treatment which can reliably purge the hunger for the Bryna root - the extract of the Red Shade bush."
Extract of Red Shade, otherwise known as Alexi's Downfall. A rather grim joke. Brigdha had never had the pleasure of meeting Duke Alexi, arriving in Fontan some weeks after the his death and the start of the Civil War, but her sister Moira had been a good friend of his before Red Shade robbed him of his sanity. Rarely has a poison wielded such power in the affairs of men, nor caused so much suffering to a good man.
Yet now that very same herb was the only chance of saving the Queen, and perhaps in so doing rescuing Sirion from the civil war which beset it.
More hands pawing at her naked vulnerability, more liquids forced between her lips, she was too tired for panic. There were no horses this time though the new movement in the air could have her believe if only briefly that there was yet hope in the fields and in the air. As she was laid back on the bed she didn't struggle, soothing words and songs that her mother, no... not her mother... perhaps someone elses mother had sang to their children as they tended fevered brows on summer evenings. Part of her knew the song was only in her head but she felt its warm capsule dampening the hoof beats and jeers of the elvish soldiers. Still she was naked though and her skin crawled as the cloths and water rubbed over her thighs. The touch though was gentle but firm and as any panic drew forth, so too the whispering echo of the song in her head calmed her. She was too weak to fight but for the first time in wekks she felt strong enough not to fight.
Eyes tightly closed she felt the clean shift drawn over her frame. She hadn't dreamt like this since before Commonyr, and though she was aware of lightness and shade beyond her closed lids she tried desperately not to open her eyes lest her body realise that this was indeed a dream and the agonies of her sex would resume. The hands had withdrawn from their work and the song in her head lost its lustre, she could hear a woman talking, her accent the languorous intonations from the South, the voice put her in mind of Lady Ketchum and she began to wonder distractedly why Stratarchos Brock had not been to her today. But she could not have visitors, her hands felt the white shift beneath her fingers, she was not dressed for State. The troubling barrage of questions that began to hammer at her head begged her to open her eyes, but she knew on some level that to do so would be too much for her.
She could feel pin-pricks on her arms at fist then spreading along her body, cold dark and slick she felt the veil resettling over her skin and then under it making her feel less part of herself and detatched. It clawed to go deeper and she felt a gasp escape her lips as the feeling of a knife in her side and a tongue on her face sent all remnants of the song fractured and falling, she jerked her body trying to move from the hideous touch and the pain that assaulted her every sense. Then the hands were back at her face and the veil retreated from them galloping like a posse of horsemen to some corner of her mind or her imagining, she knew not which. She heard her name being called, it was definitely her mother, calling her to breakfast. The times her Uncle had left the family destitute were the worst for her father, but yet shone as the best for her and she thought her siblings. The farmhouse in Dale where her Grandfather had lived and worked his entire life, four rooms that had housed her three brothers she and her sister and her parents for the years until her father had managed to finance Kristina and Jared's education. But Kristina was here now, they all were: she could hear the Black Sheep arguing with her beloved twin Hadrian, her sister, always beautiful making daisy chains that she would insist Catherine wear as her crown, Jared oiling his work boots in preparation for the day ahead. Her adult thoughts became an alien intruder realising how fast these days had gone, and how she had never truly appreciated them at the time. Now she imagined her younger self gathering her siblings to her, Jared would be surprised but would gentle her from him as he returned to his labours, Hadrian would push her off and they may even fight a little but it would end with laughter as one reduced the other to a quivering wreck by tickling. Kristina, Kristina would hold to her and not let go, for all of them she was the most precious that they would all seek to protect, and for her Catherine was some idol she would follow to the point of aggravation on a daily basis. Then she turned to the Black Sheep, her older brother Anton. He was dark like Kristina and their mother where she Jared and Hadrian were all sandy children of the Chamberlain summer. She clung to Anton as she tried not to remember the day she had been forced to banish him to the South Island, where he had lived and died at war. For just this instant he was once again her brother, dark and brooding, and hers... If she opened her eyes she knew on some level she would not see them any more so she kept them closed allowing the warmth of the womans hands on her face to keep her in this happiest of places. Her eyes burned filled with tears of happiness, of loss... of pain and of remembrance. But she could not cry, they simply sat behind her eyelids burning and unshed, her words and tears mere moans in the night.
She felt the woman pulling at her lips, that languorous accent detailing something or other to someone else, her words seemed instructive, but were clearly not directed at her. She placed something in her mouth that lay on her tongue dry and uncomfortable. With deft fingers the woman pulled back her eyelids, she was aware of a change in the quality of the light but beyond that all she saw remained inside rather than outside of her head. As the woman placed powders and tinctures on the various parts of her aching body, she felt some of the trembling in her limbs subside, though the song of the woman and the voices of her siblings was becoming more distant. They were replaced by an insistent buzz, that made her tense the muscles in her neck an shoulders. Her mother was calling her to breakfast, the aches in her body pulled from her weakened limbs and pounding head to a tearing pain in her abdomen, it was a void that threatened to pull her within it completely, her eyes started to see the shaes in the room and her arms strained once more at the ropes at her arms.
She could not remember ever having felt so hungry.
Brigdha mixed the innocuous white powder with a little honey and stirred the resulting paste into a goblet of freshly boiled water. The tincture had an appealing effervescent sweetness belying its deadly nature. Were a healthy woman to drink even so small a dose unattended, she'd be reduced to shrieking madness within the hour, and past all hope of physic intervention. However with the Queen's elevated choler this was likely to happen much sooner.
According to Naevan's notes, the semi-mythical Galerian in the pseudonymous Galerica recommended staunching a cup of mustard water with one part aqua fortis per grain of Red Shade to induce vomiting. Brigdha had never heard of aqua fortis being used in such a manner, but apparently in this instance the usually corrosive reagent would soothe the stomach cramps induced by the Red Shade and ensure a clean emesis with a good prospect for the patient's survival.
The priestess quickly prepared the second draught before taking a moment to calm herself. The time between administering the Red Shade and the emetic must be judged finely, her only guide the balance between Lady Catherine's undoubted screams of agony and the dilution of the choleric tinge to her complexion. Leave the drug too long and the choler would certainly be cleared, along with the addiction, but likewise Lady Catherine's fate would be sealed. However apply the emetic too swiftly and her craving for the black root would remain, leaving a more natural madness the likely outcome.
Were the situation not so dire Brigdha wouldn't even consider such a treacherous course of action, but she sensed that the fate of the Republic might well lie in the outcome.
"Gently hold Lady Catherine's face thus," Brigdha showed Hrolf how best to keep the Queen's head still and tilted upright whilst the Maunts looked on with a mixture of foreboding and expectation, "There's barely enough of the tincture for our purposes and I'd prefer we not waste any."
The cup was pressed gently to parched lips, its sweetness at first hesitatingly accepted, then hungrily gorged. For a few moments the catatonic form seemed to relax before the lethal toxin kicked in with a vengeance, burning its way through Lady Catherine's guts, spreading its agonising tendrils throughout her arteries. The half-wasted body wroth uncontrollably for several minutes before finally collapsing into near-death slumber.
"Be ready with that bucket," Brigdha waved her hand in the general direction of a wooden pail, all the time her eyes fixed on the barely breathing chest of her patient, "The purge should be sudden and complete."
Were her eyes deceiving her? Was the tinge of choler already much diminished? A few more moments and she was certain, the choler was indeed leaving the Queen's pallid flesh.
When Garas returned to Oligarch, he quickly gave a multitude of orders to those who had flocked to greet him. "Captain, have new recruits prepared and ensure the recruitment is prepared" he said as he turned to Rein. Then he turned to Hartmann, his personal assistant and previous captain "Is Lady Brigdha still present?" Hartmann nodded to his Lord and uttered a short "Yes milord" further awaiting his orders. "Very well, bring her to the throne room, I have business to discuss with her. But make sure you bring the Prince as soon as you can first, or both of them together if you can manage"
He continued to give out orders left and right to merchants, servants and many more. But all of this no longer mattered, the only two people he wished to see where being gathered. He had received news that the situation of his wife has not improved, or even worsened as it is.
The treatments turned into a three day cycle. The first would see her wracked with pin at first almost intolerable, every sinew straining to break free from her skin and to ensconce itself in a little shaded area under her chests. The burning would quicken and she found herself gasping breathless, there was no time for the perls of the mind when the body cried out so violently that its every fibre was dieing. She was never sure how long this foaming calumny was allowed to continue, it could feel like hours, but she recognised that it was perhaps only minutes at a time. Then there would be the buzzing non-silence, where every cell felt hypersesitive and she was so aware of her skin that she would happily have succumbed to the flayers knife. Pinpricks first hot then cold would spread from her hands and feet centring on hr head and chest making her feel light headed and the vomiting would begin.
Brash and bile would leave her lips swollen and her stomach twisted in its own agony of spasms. She remembered how she had vomited on almost anything when she was ripe with Wulfric, but that was nothing compared to this. As it settled and she lay back dizzily the maunts would press thin soups and water upon her, she took what little she could but her stomach would rebel. She would then rest a little, the same cold pin-pricks would gradually extend back outward to her hands and feet, and though she could barely hold a cup or pen, she at least felt in control of what her hands were doing. The maunts would sing songs and fill the room with chocking incense as she lay angling her head painfully toward the window in effort to smell the fresh air. Even this effort had spots appearing before her eyes.
After what seemed a miasma of respite the older woman with the strong but gentle hands would put the powder into her mouth again. Each time there was the briefest seconds of delirious joy before the pains would set in again like a thousand blades being thrust into her, then the sickness then the rest. Each day she would try to rally her senses to count how many times this would happen, and each day she found a different number, three... seven... six. In the end she gave up.
The second day of the cycle she would be bathed in scalding and cold baths then allowed to rest, her stomach would yet feel bruised and abused by the vomiting and by the end of the day she would gradually begin to eat once more. The third day was in some ways the worst. Nothing would happen, she was left to herself, and the torments that had become night terrors, though compared to the days of pain and sickness they were dimming for herto a cold dark gleam that would see her seek revenge. The third day was not all bad, the maunts would bring fresh fruits from the market and squeeze them into a cordial, it was something quite unlike anything she had had before. And she would eat again, porridge and pottage, simple but warm, and their presence in her stomach would send the comfort that food to the starving would. She didn't dare look to herself in the glass, her body was drawn thinner than she had been even on the longest expeditions, and she felt her every movement as both clumsy and inelegant. Positively after the first week the maunts had allowed her to be released to move around the rooms a little, and had not seen fit to restrain her when she eventually returned to her bed.
Then the older woman would return, and it would start again. She had a presence that put her at ease almost with what was happening, even though she was bone weary and her body was weakening, she never fought when the woman placed her hand on her face, tears may have betrayed her eyes but she accepted the powders and she accepted what would happen.
As days turned into weeks, she would find the cold intolerable, wrapping herself in blankets by the fires and listening to the maunts tales of the city. Occasionally one o them, usually the young one with the child would read her letters of what was happening, mostly she did not recognise the names though the places were more than familiar. It was near to three weeks before she finally recognised the older woman who visited every third day. She opened her eyes from a dreamless sleep, her skin feeling every ruck in her bedding. the warm hand was once again on her cheek and weary eyes regarded her with dancing intellect. Her mouth was opening to to receive the powder when the recognition struck and she placed her hand on the womans arm.
Her words stuck in her throat and seemed to cloy on her tongue as they attempted to make sound in the room: "Lady... Lady Dubhaine...? I... I..." she gulped again shaking her head weakly to try and move the fog.
"You gave us all quite a scare there Lady Catherine," Brigdha gripped her hand and smiled the warmest smile she'd managed in many a long year. A pang of regret tugged at her memory, the death of her grand-niece Aednadh beneath Kocyma's poisoned blade. Perhaps on reflection that was why she'd gone to such lengths to aid the Queen, placing herself at the mercy of Garas and his traitor legions.
The Maunts were overjoyed to see their mistress restored to her sense, no matter if it was but a passing spell of lucidity. But they'd learned during the long weeks of confinement to let the Priestess minister without interruption. Now they stood expectant onlookers, hoping beyond hope that their mistress's burden be finally lifted, ready to serve her however she required.
For three long weeks the treatment had run its course, administering doses of the Red Shade in thirty-fold dilution to purge the black root from Lady Catherine's flesh, then tending to her increasingly shriven flesh, a constant battle to give it just enough strength to survive to the next dose. Had Lady Catherine not been a battle-trained warrior it's doubtful she could have endured more than a day or two of such torment. And indeed even with such reserves of strength she'd come close to death near nightly for that first week.
The nights remained the worst time. It was then that the facies descended to feast on the Queen's anguish, contending with Brigdha for long hours. There was a limit to what even a Balancewalker could achieve against so numerous a flock and at times the Priestess feared for her own life as she fought in the High Firmament whilst all about her slumbered.
However as the effect of the Queen's dependence on the black root subsided, fewer of those nauseating creatures found her scent appealing and the assault became less frequent and more easily dispelled.
Brigdha's deft hands made a swift but through examination of the Queen's body, her eyes at last satisfied that the excess choler was gone leaving in its place a healthy balance of humours.
"The black root no longer has any power over you My Lady, for good or ill. The flesh is already recovering well and with a few more days of rest you should be able to take light exercise."
Her first steps had been stumbling, within a private courtyard under the watchful eye of the Lady of Negev. How ironic that the woman should come to her aid in the midst of war between their two lands. The maunts were increasingly defensive against the priestess, as Catherine's condition improved they would actively try to restrict the time the Lady would stay, but Brigdha was far beyond the concerns of the maunts and would stay wherever she felt she wished. It was a trait Catherine admired greatly.
Her physical improvements did not stop the night terrors, indeed some nights she woke with her mouth filled with her own blood as she had bitten back screams, her sheets crumpled and damp with sweat. These nights she yet craved the black roots of the sweet sleep, but under pains of death from the lips of Lady Dubhaine, the maunts continued to refuse her the drink.
The Lady attended more sporadically as she resumed training at first only with Haldred, but soon with the unit she had been neglecting in the barracks at the bottom of the tower. Her training regime became punishing as her body became taut and toned to a condition it had not seen since her youth as a Marshal in Nivemus. Looking to herself though, she knew she had never been so thin, but as she moved through cut and thrust she felt a strength in this frame that she had not possessed before and each nightmare deepened her desire for justice and vengeance. Perhaps more of the second than the first if truth be known.
Training only taught a man so much of war and Catherine decided it was time her men became the honed unit she needed them to be. She could not move two steps without a fleet of maunts, but her desire to leave the walls and return to the field became a constant feature and focus for her as she continued to push herself to improve.
All of the time the Lady of Negev watched offering guidance and medications that Catherine took readily asking nothing in return until the question of why became too much for Catherine. She dismissed both men and maunts asking the Lady to walk with her to the bazaar at the edge of the Temple district. Catherine found the business and proximity of the many patrons and sellers uncomfortable to the point of breathlessness but persisted taking the priestess to an old Eponite merchant from the days before the ice. He was swarthy and yet spoke the dialect of the old Kingdom of Eponllyn. His shop had become fashionable in recent months being attended by many of the nobles of oligarch. Today saw the place mercifully quiet and Catherine bade Brigdha sit with her in a corner booth, ordering the steaming cups of fragrant tea.
They sat in silence for a moment. "Lady Negev," Catherine began, looking furtively between the drinks, her hands and the priestess. "Brigdha," she breathed deeply: "I hate to ask, for you know how much gratitude I have for all you have done, but you understand I must know.... I must know why?"
Brigdha paused for a long moment, a torrent of images flooding her inner sight as she remembered the night of Catherine's wedding and the tangled skein of fate laid bare to her Balancewalker's understanding. How could she tell this poor child the truth? Surely she had suffered enough already, without being forced to know what the future held in store? Kindly eyes studied the young queen's face, its gentle lines hardened by war and... worse.
"Your Highness... Catherine," she took the warrior's hand in her own and squeezed it gently, "Our mutual friend Lord Brock asked me to keep an eye on you, and at first out of respect for him and more recently from genuine affection, I've tried to fulfil that duty. However time grows short. War is prepared on all fronts, and even as we speak the powers of this continent make sport of the fate of Oligarch. They mean to utterly destroy your husband and all who stand by him."
The priestess closed her eyes for a moment and was silent, recalling the ragged scar in the High Firmament, still unclear whether Garas was instigator or victim. It mattered little. The feeding frenzy would consume him utterly.
"You must be strong. Not just of body, but of mind. If the weight of the world falls on your shoulders - and surely it will - you must be prepared to bear it as only a queen can. If not for yourself then for the sake of your children and your people."