chalice Page 17

She dreamed she was walking down a long dark corridor with many branching passages, and the sound of mournful voices all around her, so she could not tell from which direction they came. She seemed to walk in the dark for a very long time; the sense of a circulation of air told her which way to walk, and kept her from bumping into the walls. She was glad not to turn down any of the other ways, both for the eerie sound of the sad voices, and because the darkness in all but the corridor she followed seemed absolute. The corridor began to climb, and the darkness lessened till it was no more than twilight, and at last a bright spot slowly cohered out of the twilight, and became the end of a tunnel.

When she emerged, blinking, into the daylight, there were many people around her, and a gallery or summer-house made of tall poles with flowers woven into ropes hung between them. A wedding party. She didn't want to know who was getting married. She turned around, but the tunnel had disappeared; there was only grass and sunlight, and poles and flowers and people. She saw the little group of priests, waiting to perform the various rites necessary for a grand wedding: by the number of poles and flowers as well as the number of priests, this had to be a very grand wedding. The priests were too far away for her to see any of their faces clearly. She also saw the back of the man waiting for his bride. She recognised him as the bridegroom, as she recognised the priests, by the clothes he was wearing. She saw several members of a Circle; these too she recognised only by the badges they wore.

She hoped she did not know who the bridegroom was. She stared at him with dread as he began to turn around.

But he wasn't turning to look toward her at all. Everyone was looking up, and some people were backing away, and there were a few exclamations of dismay. And she registered what she had not yet noticed in the bewilderment of where she found herself: the birdsong of a bright summer day with poles and flowers for birds to perch on was being drowned out by an increasingly loud humming noise.

And then her bees dropped down on her like a dark cloak, and wrapped her round, lifted her up and bore her away.

She woke on the pavilion hill. All the candles had burnt themselves out, it was nearly dawn, and the hill was white with snow. She was covered with a thick blanket of bees, and the snow lay upon them in bright broken spangles. She sat up in distress – bees cannot survive hard cold outside their hives – but they seemed to shake themselves, twisting their bodies back and forth almost like tiny dogs, only with six legs, wings and striped fur; and then they all flew up together in a huge thrumming swirl, and she found out how warm they had been keeping her, because she shivered violently in the shock of the sudden cold. There were many more bees than there had been for the five days of their journey.

Five days.

It was the eighth day; the sennight was passed, and it was the day of the faenorn. She could not pause to think about the bees, nor about whether she had done any good on the old hill or anywhere at all during the last exhausting seven days, nor about anything else. Just for a moment longer she sat where she was, and pressed her hands against the cold earth, and listened. Were the earthlines more tranquil than they had been, or was it only her foreboding about the day ahead that made them seem so?

She gave them a quick rite of blessing and peace, and then ran down the slope and began saddling the ponies in haste. They were standing nose to tail in a little windbreak made by half a dozen saplings, and seemed perfectly content; they looked like hairballs, but their ears were warm, and they sighed as they felt the girths tighten. She gave them the last handfuls of corn, and set out. She allowed time for them to finish waking up, and to digest their paltry breakfast, and then – since it was the last day, and they could have a real rest soon – she asked them to trot.

Perhaps they knew they were going home at last; and they did not fear the faenorn. Their heads came up and they went forward with a will, Ironfoot even leaning on the bit and asking to go faster. Her saddle sores burned, but she barely noticed; and she let the ponies canter, Gallant with his ears pricked, keeping pace beside Ironfoot when the way was wide enough, and clinging to his heels when they had to go single file. The flasks and bottles and panniers that had jingled and clanked with emptiness when she rode back to her cottage from the House's horseyard six days before jingled and clanked with emptiness again.

The ponies had nonetheless had a long journey, and when she asked them to slow down before they came to the edge of the parkland around the House, they fell back to a walk almost with a thump, dropped their heads and blew. She patted them absently; she would not have been able to do what she had done without them, but that was over now; what she could do was either done or not done. The final catastrophe was on them, if it was a catastrophe, if she had done nothing to avert it – if she had not done enough.

But she knew she had not done enough. There was no magic in the Chalice that could make the Master fit to stand against Horuld – that could make this Master capable of standing against any able-bodied adult human. She had not saved the Master – nor herself. She had to tell herself again and again (repeating it with the thud of the ponies' hooves, as if sturdy drumming could drive it into her) that she was Chalice, that it was the demesne that was her concern. If the demesne was to bear an outblood Master without tearing itself apart, she must do everything in her power to hold it together – that was what she had spent the last sennight doing. If the Master had been helping her, as she was half sure he had and half sure he hadn't, then that would have been his objective too: to do everything he could to make his demesne strong and whole, before he…

Everything in her power. Including going on living. Including bearing a son to Horuld.

Everything in her power….

She did not notice that the sky behind her was darkening with bees.

The faenorn would be held on the open drive in front of the House. It was where the original insult had occurred which caused the faenorn to be called; it was also where the new Master had first stepped down from his carriage as Master of Willowlands, and climbed the stair to the front door to be greeted by his Chalice. The place would in itself support the better claim of the two combatants; she realised in despair that she was not even sure who that might be – she was only sure of whom she had chosen, for whom she would do anything, even live on after…

Surely it was the Master who had the better claim? But it was here that the calamity had occurred; should not the land itself have leaped up, to prevent the Overlord falling?

She had not had time to find out the rules or traditions of the faenorn; she had had – she had chosen – other work to do. Now she could only come back to the House to see the end. She had to see it; she was Chalice. She would bear witness to this momentous thing as she was obliged to bear witness to all meetings and events that concerned the unity and accord of her demesne. Her tired mind stumbled, and found itself walking down another path, the path that had become the most familiar of all to her in the last year: What would she mix for this cup?…Her stomach lurched, and for a moment she could neither breathe nor see.

She had no Chalice cup for the faenorn.

When she had packed for the last sennight she had thought only of what she would be doing before the faenorn; it had been cruelly clear in her mind that she would not be able to come back to the cottage before it was all over, and yet she had thought only of what she would need for her clearing and binding, for her journey around the boundaries of Willowlands. The faenorn seemed an absolute, like a vast monolith at the end of her road – like a headsman standing with his axe. She knew that was where she was going, but she could not think about it, she could only try to bear it. And yet – this was the most important, the most urgent and critical meeting that she was likely ever to attend as Chalice. How could she not bear a cup?

The only cup she had with her was the small brass silver-bound and-chased cup she had used for some of the work of her journey; it was a pretty thing, finer than anything a minor woodskeeper would possess, though small and tough for travelling; but it could in no way bear the immensity of the scene to come. She remembered the weight of the goblet she had carried through the aftermath of the Overlord's fall, her sense that it was filling up with broken earthlines…. It had happened occasionally, in the long history of Chalicehood, that some frightened or incompetent Chalice had misjudged her witnessing so badly that the cup she had chosen shattered under the pressure brought to bear upon it. This had never produced a less than ruinous result; and the faenorn was disaster enough.

How could she have forgotten – how could she not have thought of this?

It was too late now. She had to be there, with the rest of the Circle.

She could see the beginnings of the crowd as soon as she rode past the final hedgerow. What she was not expecting was that most of them turned toward her as the news of her arrival spread. She was also not expecting to see that most of them were carrying candles. Many of the candles were nearly stubs; there were very few fresh ones. As the people noticed her and turned toward her, a few knelt, and their flints came out, and sparks were struck; and once the first candles were lit, they lit their neighbours', who then lit their neighbours', and long spreading winding lines of candle flames moved through the crowd till finally a low, twinkling, wavering forest of candlelight was raised to her. "Chalice," the murmur came; and with the murmur a faint aroma of warm honey. Some of them said "missus." Some said "Lady."

She thought the thrumming in her ears was her own blood; she thought that she did not hear the voices clearly because she did not want to. There were bees around her, but there were always bees around her recently; she still had not looked behind her. She had no reason to look behind her; she only looked ahead.

What could she do about the cup she did not have? The people – her people – were looking to her.

The Overlord's coach and a second, smaller one behind it, were drawn up opposite the front stair of the House, and at least twenty horses and riders in the Overlord's livery lined the drive, and more on foot; but the Grand Seneschal stood at the top of the stairs alone. She looked around for the other members of the Circle; most of them were standing in an awkward and irresolute-looking group near the foot of the stairs: not quite treacherously close to the Overlord's company but too far to be counted as loyal to the Master either. And yet what good was loyalty now? Let them save themselves. The Prelate seemed again to have disappeared. All the Circle must be present; even if he stood at the Overlord's elbow it were better than that he was missing. Could he be so selfish as not to care that the survival of Willowlands might depend on an unbroken Circle, today of all days?

A Circle whose Chalice, today of all days, had no cup to bear.

Chalice, she heard again. Lady. These were her people now, as much as they were the Master's. She saw into the crowd without meaning to, looked into their faces – realising how many of them she now knew as individuals – how many she could put names to, and say what they did, how many children they had, where they lived. And – especially today, the day of the faenorn – they were expecting her, relying on her, to hold the demesne together. Only the Chalice had the strength of connection to the Mastership to bridge the difference between a blood Master and an outblood one.

I've only been Chalice such a little while! she thought despairingly. You cannot ask this of me!

But they had to. There was no one else.

And she had brought no cup to bear for them.

She turned Ironfoot's head toward the horseyard. The horseman who took the bridles from her had an unlit candle end tucked in the breast of his shirt. "Thank you," she said, and briefly touched the candle, as if reminding herself of the presence of a friend. She did not think what it would look like to the man. Nor did she think of what she was doing when she unslung the one pannier that held what was left of her honey, water, herbs and mead, stones and the little travelling cup, and hung it over her shoulder. It was too late for her to do anything further with these; she did not dare mix a last-minute, haphazard, unplanned cup for such as the faenorn with the odds and ends left after her journey. But she had carried them a long way, and if there was any reason for her doing it, it was to have a friend with her. The pannier was made to hang from a saddle, against a horse's side, but it settled easily against her back.

She went to join the Grand Seneschal at the front door. She was trembling now, trembling as she had not done for almost a year, when they were waiting for their new Master, their new Master who had been a priest of Fire. The people parted before her, holding up their little candle flames as she passed them. She paused at the bottom of the steps.

She saw neither the Overlord nor the Heir.

She climbed the steps slowly, heavily. The pannier thumped against her leg, and it occurred to her that there was even less sense than none that she had brought it with her. Not only did she have no goblet to carry for the faenorn, she had no goblet to welcome the Master with afterward. However this meeting ended – and she knew how everyone present believed it would end – she would have a Master to welcome. And nothing to welcome him with.

She half imagined she could feel the stairs she walked on crumbling, the broken earthlines sinking farther into the earth, leaving the House nothing to stand on. She could almost feel the first tiny lurch, as the House's foundations began to slip into the abyss; could almost hear the stirring, the pattering of sand and soil and plaster dust into sudden crevices, a sound almost like humming.

The earthlines were silent; silent as no live thing should be silent.

The Seneschal put a hand out toward her, as if she looked so tired she might not be able to climb the last step. Perhaps she was that tired. Perhaps it was something the crowd should see, the Grand Seneschal putting a hand out to the Chalice, and her taking it. She took the offered hand, and leaned on it.

He glanced at the sky behind her, disinterestedly, and back to her again. "The faenorn will be swords," he said without preamble.

She was not so tired that she didn't jerk forward and grunt What? as if his words were blows. His voice had been low, and she struggled to make hers low too to answer him. "Swords. That is no faenorn; that is slaughter."

The Grand Seneschal shrugged. "The Master did not protest. And, indeed, what weapon could he have suggested that would suit him any better?"

"Fire," she said.

"He would not," said the Seneschal. "You know he would not."

She shook her head. She had not considered this aspect of the faenorn; she had tried not to consider it at all, but she had involuntarily remembered what she had read about it, before she had closed the book or gone to answer the door, these last few days, while she was scattering drops and murmuring Be thou one-hearted. It was as if the faenorn itself were a part of what she had been trying to do; as if it were a member of her Circle, and she could not bind round it without knowing its shape. She did not want to know and remember, but she did: that while this battle for the Mastership of the demesne was symbolic, and only the two rivals themselves were involved, it was still a meeting with real weapons. That it was not required that either die of it, but failure was such a disgrace that the loser generally preferred to die, and the victor was considered to have behaved with honour if he yielded to such a request. In the old, barbaric days, when faenorn was almost a commonplace, you wanted your enemy dead; it was the only way you could be sure he would not regroup and attack you again.

Their Master would not have to ask; Horuld would kill him with the first stroke.

By the fourth level an Elemental priest can again go into the world, if he so chooses, because his metamorphosis is complete, the Master had said to her. But they mostly choose not to come, she had replied. And they cannot stay, because they can no longer live among humans. Among us. A fourth-level priest would never have been sent home to be Master of his demesne. And I have never heard of one stopping a forest fire. A fourth-level priest could not be killed by a blow with a sword. But a third-level priest could be killed as easily as a human could.

Before the Master had been sent to Fire by his brother, he would have been trained to use a sword, an eligary and a bow; Mirasol had a faint memory of a rumour that he had been better than his brother at all three. But even if it was true, it was of no use to him now: not after seven years of Fire. While he was no longer as weak or as clumsy as he had been, he still found walking strange and laborious, and anyone watching him climb or descend stairs must look away in distress. There was still too much Fire in him – so much that he still had to remember not to burn what he touched with his hand, even if that meant letting the Overlord fall, and losing his demesne for it.

She saw the people looking up the stair toward herself and the Grand Seneschal; she did not notice that they were looking over their heads, to the sky above the House, where her bees hummed and hovered and where, with every moment that passed, more and more bees joined them. It was a heavy, cloud-oppressed day, and she did not notice the increasing shadow they cast. She thought of her Master, who had too much Fire in him, and wondered why the Seneschal did not ask her why she was not carrying a cup, a crucial, critical cup, to bring the demesne through the faenorn.

She did notice that the great front doors of the House were open, but that there were no Housefolk standing on either side, as there should always be. She did not know if that was by the Seneschal's order, but she guessed it was. If there was to be a new Master the Seneschal would not want any of his folk to be in danger of accusations of preference for the old Master. As Grand Seneschal, he had to be there. As Chalice, so did she. If they were to be harried later for their suspected preferences, that would be as fate – and the Overlord – ordained. And he probably would ordain, for the Prelate at least should stand with them, and the rest of the Circle should not be skulking with the ordinary folk of the demesne.

The Seneschal was almost an old man; he could be pensioned off; of the Circle, only the Master and Chalice could not retire, and pass their burden on with their own hands. She did not think even this Overlord would see any purpose in harassing an old, retired Seneschal.

Her they needed – they needed a Chalice even above all the rest of the Circle combined; a Chalice to grasp and hold a new Master till he could grasp and hold his Mastership. And they needed a Chalice with an established link to the demesne; they could not afford to – to kill her, she thought almost dispassionately, and let the rods find her replacement. She was sure that news of her activities these last seven days would have been taken to the Overlord and his choice for Willowlands' Heir; but surely what she had done was wise, whichever way the faenorn fell, for she had been tying the demesne together as well and tightly as she knew – as she could guess – how, perhaps tightly enough to withstand a change to an outblood Master.

Perhaps tightly enough to hold on to the Master it had….

No. The faenorn was swords. There was no help for that.

She hoped the Overlord would choose to see her activities as merely the Chalice's best effort for her demesne. She guessed that officially he would have to, so that she could marry the Heir – the new Master. Marry him, and bear his child – bear him a son to be Master after him. Even then there would be no escape; a demesne can only contain one living Chalice; she could not retire, nor could she run away, for a Chalice could not leave her demesne; to try would kill her. There is always that last recourse, she thought bleakly. But she had been Chalice long enough to know that, however desperate that hope, her demesne's only real hope was in her.

She felt rather than heard when the Master came out of the open door behind them. She turned to look at him; he too was alone. He too would risk none of his folk – and that told her, as if she needed to be told, that he too knew how this meeting would end. She felt that his shambling, limping walk was more conspicuous than it had been in months. She looked into his face, into his red eyes, and knew, despite the expressionlessness of his black face and the strangeness of his eyes, that he would not merely fail to raise his own sword but step – stumble – forward into Horuld's blow. Let it be over quickly, his eyes said. Let my blood tell the land it has a new Master, and that it must obey him now.

And she had to stand, and watch, and witness, with no cup to steady her or her demesne, and hope that the land would listen.

The Master went slowly down the steps; he could not go quickly, or he would fall. She could not watch; she could never watch. She stared out over the crowd; they, too, were looking away – most of them looking up, into the sky, as if hoping for a sign or a saviour. She gazed slowly around. The Circle were contemplating their feet.

When the Master was halfway down the stairs, the door of the Overlord's carriage opened, and the Overlord appeared. He stood at the foot of the carriage steps and stared steadily at the Master till he reached the ground in front of the House.

Then the Heir emerged from the same carriage, and behind him another man carrying a long thin box. Two more men in the Overlord's livery came forward to open it with all ceremony; it contained, of course, two swords.

She didn't hear what the Overlord said; he said it in a powerful voice he wished to make sound sad and regretful, but all she could hear was the barely contained delight in his successful stratagem behind the false regret, and she remembered the Grand Seneschal saying to her, long ago in another life, that her understanding of the human love of power was the understanding of a small solitary woodskeeper.

There were only the motions of this token battle to be gone through now, and then the Overlord would have won. She was perhaps some shadow over his pleasure, but he would assume that her spirit would be broken – if it was not already, then soon. She thought of the Master gently holding the bee that had stung him and telling her not to struggle, and she thought she could feel her spirit breaking now. She thought, I need no cup. I am Chalice. I am filling with the grief and hurt and fear of my demesne; the shattered earthlines weigh me down; I am brimming with the needs of my people. After the faenorn I will be stuffed too full to move; I will be too heavy to lift a foot.

Without noticing she was doing so, she raised her hands in the first ritual gesture of the Chalice holding a goblet.

The candles were still twinkling in the hands of the crowd, and at the top of the House steps the smell of warm honey and beeswax was sweet and strong. She thought she saw the Overlord register what he was seeing and – perhaps – some brief narrow look of annoyance. What were the little people getting up to? This demesne was his now – or would be in but a few minutes more – to do with what he wished. He wanted no foolish clinging to the old; no rebellion, however small. But his face cleared immediately, if it had ever clouded. She might have imagined it. Candle flames were fire: but perhaps he smelled the honey and beeswax too, and decided the people were wisely putting their trust in their Chalice. The ordinary folk did not care for the politics of Overlords, and knew their Chalice, still young herself in that role, would have to hold the demesne together through the next difficult years.

And she would be married to Horuld.