chalice Page 12


She paused at the edge of what had been its parkland. It was rapidly reverting to meadow; from where she stood she could no longer see the carriage drive that had led to it from the House, on the side opposite the wood. She could still see the knoll, however, and the ruin of the pavilion; the grass and the fast-growing saplings seemed to avoid it.

Her walk had warmed her, but she still shivered, looking at the knoll. She waded through the autumn-brown grasses, and the crackling noise this made seemed to announce her presence…to what? Seedheads popped and flung their contents over her like the audience cheering a victor of some contest on a fete day…. Again she shivered, although she was not cold.

When she came to the crest of the knoll, the walls of the fallen pavilion seemed suddenly high and claustrophobic, shutting her in, though the highest of them were no taller than the top of her head, and most of them came no higher than her knees. It had been a curious shape, circular at the centre, but with arms like a star. It sprawled over the knoll as if it had been flung there; now that there was no level roof tying all together, the way the arms crept down the slope from the central plateau looked strange and eerie, and the few splintered stone stair-steps that had survived the fire looked like the teeth of lurking earth-monsters.

At first she was at a loss; she only knew you had to sleep on the knoll. But what part of the knoll? Did she have to lie down and close her eyes in the centre of the old pavilion? For a third time she shivered, and this time she told herself crossly to stop it. It wasn't that cold, and the knoll was empty. But it wasn't empty; or if it was, it was no use to her. She stiffened against the next shiver, and pretended it hadn't happened. What if what had occurred here a little over a year ago had broken the power of this place? What if she was here on a fool's errand?

She sat down on the top of the knoll, which was not, she thought, precisely at the centre of the pavilion. This was obscurely comforting. The tallest of the standing walls created a corner, and protected her from the prevailing wind. She lay down and curled up on her side, bending one arm beneath her head as pillow. She was not cold; she only had to sleep for a few minutes; it would be dawn soon, and daylight would wake her, daylight and birdsong. Surely the birds did not avoid this knoll….

She was asleep when the temperature dropped and the snow started again.

It was not at all the dream she was expecting.

First she dreamed of a man, no longer young but not yet old, in heavy boots and leather gaiters and a farmer's smock, walking along a tree-shaded road, whistling. She could not make out his face clearly through the changing leaf-shadows, but she thought it was an open, friendly face. Who is this? she thought, but she was strangely unreassured that this man was not Horuld. He stopped by a well, and unhooked the bucket, and dropped it into the well, and wound it up again; in her dream she could hear every creak and splash, and the faint puff of the man's breath as he raised the bucket. He reached for the dipper, which hung next to the peg he had taken the bucket off. It had been an ordinary dipper – hadn't it? – he must have thought so too, because he didn't merely pull his hand back when he saw what he was reaching for but stepped back from the well itself. What now hung on the dipper's peg was a cup that looked like a Chalice's goblet, heavily worked in silver; dreaming, she tried to see what the forms and figures were, but could not, only that the work was so ornate it threw its own shadows across the bowl. No ordinary roadside well should have such a thing. The man looked at it for a moment longer, laughed, shook his head, and drank directly from the bucket, which, when he hung it back on its peg, he did so very carefully, that his hand should not brush the mysterious goblet.

No, she thought. Perhaps this man might have courted a beekeeper with a woodright, but he will have nothing to do with a Chalice.

As the man walked on down the road, she seemed to remain behind; and the shadows of the trees grew thicker and darker till she was in a cold grey place where she could no longer move her arms and legs; and then she thought, though she was not sure, the figures on the well goblet had come to life, and she was surrounded by the faces of angry, frightened men and women. She recognised none of them, nor did any one pause for her to memorise it so that she would recognise it if she saw it again, when she woke, if she was to marry an angry, frightened, unknown man. She struggled to wake or to move, and as if she had broken some invisible bonds, she seemed suddenly to be free; and now she seemed to be walking at the edge of a field under a night sky. The field seemed to be familiar to her but it was hard to tell in the dark. The almost sweet, slightly dusty smell of a ripe cereal crop was in her nostrils, and she knew it would be a good harvest. The stalks came to her shoulders, and she could see over them, to where someone else seemed to be walking at the edge of the same field at a little distance from her; as she brushed her fingers through the half-soft, half-bristly awns, she thought in surprise, They're warm.

And then the dream had shifted again, and she was surrounded by redness and heat. Where was the face of the man she would marry, or some sight of herself standing alone in an embroidered robe carrying a cup? She could see nothing but the peculiar undifferentiated redness. Not quite undifferentiated: there were streaks in it, fluttering, trembling, golden streaks, and a gentle thumping noise near her ear. Just one ear, as if her cheek rested against something that brought the echo of the sound to her.

She was still curled up, but she didn't seem to be lying down any more, and her head was resting against this gently thumping thing, her wrists bent round each other and hands clasped under her chin as if she were bearing herself as Chalice. Except that she wasn't bearing herself at all; something was holding her. Her legs were folded under her as if she were sitting in a chair at home, the chair whose seat had lost most of its stuffing, so you had to sit on the frame edge, with your legs bent under you, or half disappear down the unexpected well….

There was redness all around her, redness and gold; they blended together, and they did not blend, for the red was hard and restless and spiky, and the gold was smooth and supple and flowing. She seemed to breathe it; her right nostril drew in red, and her left gold. Her Chalice-cradling hands instead cradled a rope of red and gold, whose individual threads wove in and out between her fingers, the red through the fingers of her right hand, the gold through the fingers of her left. She felt that the very hair of her head had gone red and golden, that the hair on the right side fell coarse and harsh and red, and on the left, fine and soft and golden. She wondered if the strangeness of what she saw, the way everything seemed both too shallow and too deep, was that her right eye saw only red and her left only gold, and they somehow could not put the two together as they had done all the ordinary things in her life till now…. She felt dizzy, except that she was being securely held, and could not fall. She thought she should be frightened, for she knew the world was not red and gold; but she did not feel frightened. The red and gold were very beautiful. She wondered if what she was held by was a red thing or a golden thing.

She didn't know when she realised that the Master was holding her in his lap. The chair-well was the space between his knees – she supposed – as he sat cross-legged. The thump was the beating of his heart. (Did priests of Fire still have hearts that beat?) His arms were around her, one round her waist, and the second gently holding her bent head against his chest. She wanted to tell him that she was awake, that he could let her go, that it was very nice of him to warm her like this – it was rather cold to be sleeping outdoors – but it wasn't necessary. But she found she couldn't. Indeed she couldn't move, even to drop her hands out of the Chalice clasp.

It is good that you are awake. But do not try to move yet.

What?

You are still dangerously cold. Do not try to move.

I – I'm not cold!

You are held by Fire. Let it do its work.

I…don't understand.

I found you half dead of cold. I do not understand either.

She stopped puzzling over the strange immobility of her body and tried to remember what had happened before she woke up. The warmth she felt now reminded her of waking up by her own fireside with the understanding that she had to go to the old knoll – suddenly she remembered that its old name had been Listening Hill – and go to sleep there long enough to dream. She needed a dream from Listening Hill to tell her if she was to marry Horuld.

This was not something she wanted to tell the Master.

She was beginning to be able to feel her breath going in and out. Her elbows were tucked so close to her body that they moved as her rib-cage expanded and contracted. She could feel her own breath on the backs of her hands, she could feel the long bone of her right thumb pressed against the bottom of her lowered chin…and at that point she found she could let her clasped hands drop. The red and the gold seemed to dim into the shadows, till all she saw was shadows. For a moment she grieved for the red and the gold.

The Master let go of her gently. She tried to sit up, and swayed a little. He uncrossed his legs and knelt behind her, his hands now under her elbows, and as he stood up he drew her with him. He's stronger, she thought fuzzily – no; he would say that Fire was helping him. But her thought added stubbornly, And his limbs seem to bend in all the ordinary human places, and he seems solid – like flesh, not like fire. She tried not to stagger. The billows of his cloak fell down between them. She couldn't remember now what she had been leaning against while he – and Fire – held her: his shirt? His bare skin? Is it only his face and hands that are black – is he red and golden under his clothes, like fire? But no hearth fire ever looked like what she had seen. Had he become Fire again to save her? She thought, I'm not burnt, I'm only warm.

Once she was standing unaided he bent and picked something up off the ground: her shawl, and then her cloak. He wrapped them round her, though at the moment she was so warm she did not want them. They were comforting, though, comforting in their familiarity. It hadn't been frightening when she woke up, but now that he had released her the idea of having been held by Fire was terrifying. She touched her hair; it felt as it always did. She held her hands out in front of her where she could see them, and they looked just the same as usual. They were not black, and the tips of the fingers did not glow red. And he had learnt not to burn human flesh. He had only burnt her the once, when he had only recently left his Fire, when he was exhausted by a journey he was no longer fit to endure.

It was only then that she noticed that it was still dark. Since they stood on open ground there was enough light to see by despite the cloud cover. She turned to look at him. His blackness was a silhouette against the grey sky; he seemed to grow out of the silhouettes of the broken stones of the pavilion. But she could see his red eyes, looking down at her.

"How did you find me?" she said.

He looked up, away from her. "I often try to read the earthlines at night, when the world is quieter, and most human beings are asleep. This last week I have been walking – with Ponty's help – the line that runs from the Ladywell to the crossroads by the golden beeches, but tonight I could not concentrate. Fire is very aware of heat and cold; I thought for a while that it was only dancing with the snow. Eventually it occurred to me that it would not – not – I don't know how to explain – at last I looked where it would draw my attention and saw one of my folk dying of cold on the pavilion hill. My Chalice. And so I came here." He looked at her again. "You were not…you were not trying to destroy yourself, were you?"

"Oh, no," she said, appalled. "No. Absolutely not." Was I? Would I rather die than marry Horuld? A tiny thought added plaintively, Who would take care of my bees? If I died, or if I married Horuld? she thought back at it, but there was no response.

He let out his breath in a long sigh that crackled like fire. "I thought, perhaps…being Chalice to such a one as I…might be too great a strain."

"Gods of the earthlines," she burst out, "no." She thought, And how would a Chalice who cannot bear her Master's Fire choose to kill herself? Very possibly by freezing.

He was silent for a moment and then said, "I have also thought, lately, that perhaps, it would be as well if I…removed myself. Ceded the Mastership to Horuld, presumably, as he has been chosen by the Overlord."

"No," she said again, but he did not seem to hear her this time, and there was a lump in her throat so large she could not immediately say it again. She put her hands to her throat as if to squeeze the lump away and let her speak. "No – think of the hardship – even the annihilation – of any demesne when the bloodline is broken and another family must establish itself."

"That is only when the bloodline is broken. I do not know if anyone has ceded a Mastership before. My thought is that if the old Master can create a way for the new, there may be little disturbance. Less, perhaps, than the disturbance caused by a priest of Fire trying to become Master of a demesne, even if he is of the old bloodline."

"What disturbance has been so great that you must think this way?" she cried. "Do you know – do you not know – that the demesne has been in trouble for years? Perhaps no one will tell you – very well, I am your Chalice, I will tell you – your brother had been trying his best to shatter Willowlands upon the rock of his egotism. He grew much worse after you left – after he no longer had to pretend to explain himself to you. He could no longer be bothered even to listen to the earthlines, let alone walk them. He was fully absorbed in what he called his researches. I know very little about this, even now, because I was a small woodskeeper when your brother was Master, and such as I was only heard rumours, and since then I…

"But I can tell you what the small folk of the demesne experienced, the last years of your brother's Mastership. Mortar would not hold and walls fell down. Roof-trees cracked when they were sound and without woodworm. Saplings well-planted withered; seed put in the ground did not sprout. Sheep rarely had twins; cows were often barren. And every season there were fires. Brush fires, till the farmers who were accustomed to burning off their redberry moors no longer dared do so; chimney fires; lightning fires. The same year we in the east saved Cag's barn, two lightning-struck houses in the north and the west burnt to the ground. But the heat of your brother's energies beat out from the pavilion, night after night after night, till they too caught fire and burned."

He answered, "Yes, I have wondered about that fire. You are right that most people – even my Circle; even my Chalice – do not speak to me willingly of what happened since I went to Fire. But I can read, as I find my way slowly through this land that is unexpectedly my demesne, that there had been much fire here in those seven years. As unusually much, perhaps, as there have been unusually many quiet old horses overturning their carts or their ploughs and running away – although any horse may take fright and bolt – or as unusually many Housefolk being turned away for breakages and carelessness, although there are always people who do not pay proper attention to what they are doing, or do not care.

"I have never known why my brother chose to send me to Fire, rather than Air or Earth. Perhaps Fire runs in our blood: I did think, in the heat of my own fury, that he chose Fire from his burning rage against me. But as the priests agreed to take me he must have been right about what there was in me that Fire could fix on, could yoke to itself; they would not have taken me merely because my brother wished to be rid of me. Perhaps – perhaps we were born in the wrong order, and it was he who should have gone to Fire, where the fire that was in him could have been put to better purpose."

Perhaps we were born in the wrong order was so like what she had often thought that she could not reply. Perhaps his brother would have been a good priest of Fire; but Willowlands had had to live with his being a bad Master.

After a little he went on: "The Circle will not speak to me of what happened in the seven years of my brother's Mastership, but they speak to me much – if not very clearly – about what has happened since I returned. They will not say it outright, but they would like to see the Overlord's Heir as Master here."

"Not all of them," she flashed back at him. "Not I. Not the Grand Seneschal."

"That is two against nine," he said gently.

"And the twelfth?" she said. "What of yourself? Would you truly say against yourself?" She paused, and a dreadful thought occurred to her: "Do you miss your Fire so much?"

"Miss Fire," he said musingly. "I don't know. Isn't that strange? Do you miss your woodskeeping?"

"Yes," she said immediately. "Especially – " She fell silent.

"Especially now?" he said. "Why were you asleep on Listening Hill on a night too cold for human flesh and blood?"

She jerked as if he had struck her when he said "Listening Hill."

He waited, but she made no answer. "I do not think you would come here for the sake of recent ghosts," he said at last. "And I remember it had an oracular name, when it was still called Listening Hill. What foretelling was worth the risk – was so urgent it could not wait – with the snow falling?"