Which doesn’t prevent someone finding her by accident.
Will the Bride return the gods to the world or will she bring the end of days? It all depends on the one who found her, Kula, a broken-hearted little girl with nothing left to lose.
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"RIDDLE ME REE, such fancies are free, the cat's in the cream and the bird's on the tree!" Many voices, most of them either intoxicated or excited, the owners full of sweet honey pastries, were united, belting out the words to the old rhyme so enthusiastically that the sound floated all the way across the scattered trestles and decimated feasts to the farthest reaches of the castle grounds. Children playing, dogs barking, infighting amongst various relations, bawdiness and other fine noises of a celebration in its throes circled about the grassy pastures and along the hedgerows.
At Celestaine's family home the number of songs known and sung gustily without the slightest concern for sense or melody always amazed her — joyfully for the most part. But today she was simply grateful that it wasn't another rendition of 'The Blade of Castle Mourn' in which she had a starring role as the warrior who slaughtered a dragon, cut off the Kinslayer's hand and paved the way to human salvation. It would have been unfitting to lie about in a drunken stupor under the blossom-heavy boughs of the cherry orchard and have unwitting relatives find her in the loose embrace of the 'enemy', sharing mead with another 'enemy'. There would have been explaining to do, and shouting about Yorughan scum. There probably still would be. There might be a fight and that would be a pity because she enjoyed a good fight but had now drunk too much to make a showing. The only consolation to the entire tedious day was that finally it was over and she was now free to leave for the open road as she had tried to do three days earlier when Caradwyn had thwarted her. She'd been calling for her horse, her armour, all set to ride off and find out what foolish nonsense Deffo, least useful Guardian, was on about this time (and thank goodness for Deffo, if you could ever say that and mean it, but she did right then, the boredom and the difficulty of being at home already stifling and unbearable) when her cousin had appeared, a spectre of orange and pink silk, blonde braids and rosewater.
Caradwyn was the family beauty. She shared Celestaine's height and "silver- beauty" near-white hair, blue eyes and milk skin, but the resemblance ended abruptly at that point. Celestaine was broad of shoulder, straight and strong, trained for combat and endurance. Caradwyn was willowy at the centre and curvy where it counted. Although in childhood she had loved the outdoors she now considered walking a chore and disliked anything that would disturb her sense of order. Despite this unpromising development she and Celestaine had shared happy childhood moments riding out and canoeing along the river tributaries. What Caradwyn lacked in general gusto she made up for with a powerful imagination. She was the storyteller who had Celestaine spellbound with the lives she invented for them; they were troubadors on the run, they were Guardians helping the poor and driving back the ferocious evil of the underground races (Celestaine knew irony was never going to let her go) and they were heroic princesses, freeing flying horses from evil enchanters, fishing up magical beasts from the dark pools beneath the hanging willows, dreaming of the winged demons of the far north who soared high up between icy mountains on wings feathered with steel. Since then they hadn't seen much of one another. Celestaine had trained for combat and the tough business of every day on the estate, and Caradwyn had travelled to Ilkand as a scholar with her books and scripts to become the master of managing and recording. She took to it with the love of a Cheriveni for numbers and regulation.
They were already distant by the time Celestaine came back, now a person who really was immortalised in song, a hero with a horse. She hadn't even talked to Caradwyn, or anyone, on her return. It was hard to say which had been harder to bear — the adulation and awe or the horror and the revulsion — but on balance it was the revulsion that did her in when Heno and Nedlam were revealed as her companions. Caradwyn hadn't made a tale about that in the good old days.
Heno and Nedlam, as Yorughan, the vanguard and powerhouse of the Kinslayer's elite forces, were the evil enemy from below. Heno was the worst of the worst, a Heart Taker, painted like a devil, a tusked beast, filled with eldritch sorcery. Nedlam was the kind of giant monstress that ate babies. You killed them and left the bodies for the birds. You let them die slow for all the thousands they'd killed. You didn't bring them home. You didn't lay down with them. You didn't offer them home and hearth and heart and feel that of all the people in the world they were your closest friends. Closer even than all who had known you before the war.
So Celestaine had avoided Caradwyn — easy enough given Caradwyn's responsibilities as Fernreame's bookkeeper and estates manager — and then, just as freedom beckoned its crooked finger, there she was, as large as life and twice as sweet, her large, grey eyes bright with the tears that suspected betrayal, those full, curving lips that perfectly pouted in a fully justified hurt.
"You can't go before the wedding!"
Celestaine had opened her mouth and nothing had come out. Fully nothing at all.
She could hear servants in the courtyard without, hauling trestles and benches into place for the wedding of Caradwyn to another newly-returned war hero, Starich the Wolf. He was heir to the titles and privileges of Thistledown; a notable clan. In addition he was a sufficiently skimpy number of warrior- barons short of the throne of Arven to be in with a shot at it, if he successfully united with Fiddlehead, the clan to which Fernreame belonged. This made him a superlative catch, according to Celestaine's aunt, and a fine fellow according to her uncle, the present Clan head, who couldn't wait to unite the fortunes of both houses and hand it all over to someone else in order that he would finally be free to go fishing.
Celest couldn't wait for Starich to arrive so that their attention would divert onto something they wholeheartedly approved of — something without suspiciously strange frenemies in tow that they must learn to treat nicely instead of beheading. Starich, and not she, could properly occupy the role of the warrior-at-home, thunderously embellishing every tale of battle, relishing feasts, sparring with his fellows and enacting scenes of valor for the amusement of those too old and too young to be sent to fight. Starich wouldn't be grabbing his coat and heading for the hills unless they told him to, not with all that responsibility to weigh him down. They could fawn over him and fuss over Caradwyn and their plans for a rosy future full of ferocious children so that Celest would be able to slip away without further ado.
"I ..." she said, but there was nothing. She looked at Caradwyn's face, older now, pale from lack of sunlight, freckled and looking at her with such a longing that was easy to read — only a few days more now of the freedom to be herself, before duty and motherhood came to take the time. She looked exactly as she had looked when she visited years before, hunting out Celest, demanding they continue the adventures of the summer before. But now there would be no more of that. Celest had gone and had one without her. And was now leaving her forever.
"I ... wouldn't miss it," she said. "I was just making some preparations. For later."
Caradwyn's despair lightened a little and she gripped Celestaine's arm firmly, the lie there so plainly to see, the mail freshly oiled and ready. "Good. We must ride out together. I have something I must tell you and you must tell me the truth of everything. I want the whole story." Seeing Celestaine start to demur she shook her firmly, "No! You will not dare deprive me! Celest. Tomorrow. Tomorrow at dawn we ride. Meet me at the stables."
That enthusiasm, that energy, that sense of how much Caradwyn had always liked her — not always returned enough. "Yes," Celestaine said. "All right. At dawn."
"Alone," Caradwyn shook her finger in Celestaine's face. "Nobody else. I want you all to myself."
"Alone." Celest managed a smile.
"I must go see to the chicken man and his money," Caradwyn sighed, rattling the collection of silver keys and trinkets she wore at her belt to mark her as the head of the clan households. "I have missed you. And here you are now. Exactly as I always imagined."
"I'm not what you imagined at all," Celest said, thinking of Heno compared to Caradwyn's suitor and at the same moment realising that she was not at home here, and would never be.
"Yes, you are." In ignorance of Celest's thoughts Caradwyn made a motion of buttoning Celestaine's mouth shut.
Celest shook her head insistently, feeling like a joy-killer.
"You did what we always dreamed of." Caradwyn buttoned Celest to silence more firmly and pointed at her as she walked away, picked up her skirts to hurry off, cast a final smile over her shoulder like a ray of sunlight.
Celest stood, her saddle over her arm, alone in the hall. She felt a thousand years old. Beside her was the old portrait of her dead father which had looked down when two girls had schemed to run the world. Now she was on eye-level. He looked straight at her and she met his gaze and felt she looked in a mirror. Beside him, her mother's wry humor fought with a stern attachment to duty. She was glad they had not lived to see her now. It made things easier.
She'd used to hate adult portraits that looked so stern, so disappointed.
She still hated them.
She sighed and went to tell the others they were staying.CHAPTER 2
IT WAS TWO days since Deffo had appeared with news of his fellow Guardian, Wanderer.
Celestaine had a cautious trust in Wanderer, which she didn't extend to any of his fellow demigods who had been left by the gods themselves to take care of humankind. Reckoner's transformation into the Kinslayer had pretty much done a hatchet job on a lot of people's trust in them. But Wanderer had given her the sword that could cut through anything. She had cut off the Kinslayer's hand with it, besides killing a dragon. It had allowed her to take him down, along with the others; and now it was gone, buried deep in a rock after breaking against Wall's hammer and flying off. Fate or godly intervention? She didn't care to know. But there was an urgent appeal in Deffo's claim.
"Wanderer's near. He knows where the gods are!"
The Kinslayer had severed the gods from the world. Their temples and their followers were everywhere bereft. Only the Guardians remained. Celest was ambivalent about the gods. A god could have restored wings to the Aethani and not left it to her to attempt the journey in some gesture of reparation she wasn't entirely up to but which had to be done. It had not ended as she had hoped. Some things were not undoable. Maybe the gods were responsible for that impulse to improve and mend that seemed to fill her with the urge to action she felt now. So much had been made ruin and the alternative was to lie in the cherry orchard in a drunken stupor, avoiding people and watching the days pass by unchanged. She couldn't dredge up sufficient self-pity for that.
"But you are going," Deffo said, hanging onto the stable door as a way of half-hiding. "When this is done."
Heno and Nedlam, gathered here under the pretence of looking after the horses, looked meaningfully at her. She fancied there was a twinge of wistfulness in Heno's face, but he was always hard to read. She figured he was getting better at dealing with emotions, but he didn't like to show it.
"We're going. After the wedding. Soon as it's over." She nodded firmly.
"Does that mean I get to sing?" Ralas asked. He was sitting on a hay bale, picking hair out of the horse brush using the iron comb. His movements were slow, pain-filled but executed with great determination and grace. A large ball of horse hair was gathered at his side. "I noticed some rather nice instruments around the place. In the halls. Gathering dust."
"You can have them. And yes. We need musicians. If you want to play, that is. Though you don't have to play 'All Black and Silver Fire He Came'." She named the song he had been working on to celebrate Deffo's musteline heroism in the defeat of Wall — a song fraught with the most expansive lyrics and melodramatic chords, not to mention a role of daring-do which stretched the imagination almost to breaking point. She looked at Ralas with caution. He could be so self-deprecating and sarcastic at times that she wasn't sure he intended to be taken at his word, but he looked cheered. "No 'Castle Mourn'-ing," she added.
"Oh, I think I have to play whatever the bride requests," he said with a smirk and flexed his right hand, looking critically at his long fingers, pale and weak. They were filthy and the nails black with grease from the brushes. "Maybe I could have some new clothes? A bard should not appear as a tramp." He gestured at his rough travelling gear, much of which had not been washed for weeks. "In fact, some of us are in serious need of bathing and grooming." He glanced at the Yoggs.
Nedlam bared her huge teeth in a grin and patted Celestaine's horse, whose hide was gleaming softly in the sunlight coming through the door. She clapped it on the neck, gently, and rested her hand on its withers, managing to make it look small though it was a war-steed and a high one at that. "All finished here. Shiny little horsie. Very nice work."
"He means us," Heno growled, shaking his head as he looked at Celestaine to see how bad it was going to be. There was a strange tension around his eyes, a sombre resignation waiting to be born.
She had honestly not given a thought so far to appearing at a clan gathering with him at her side. With them all looking at her she could see that they were all picturing it, aside from Nedlam who was busy licking a finger and applying it to a streak of mud on her booted knee. Celest looked at Heno, her lover and her most loyal companion. Slate blue of skin, white of hair, tusked, moustached, taller by a foot than any human she had ever known. And Nedlam, eight foot and then some of massive power, topped by a spiked black coxcomb. She had a brief vision of Nedlam in a dress, holding Wall's gigantic hammer with a ribbon tied around its haft, the bloody handprint of a human child on her bodice, laced with the guts of her enemies to join the human and the Yorughan traditional formalwear. She blinked to get rid of it.
Even without that there would be some kind of explanation required. But then, what explanation could she possibly offer?
Hello, everyone. Yes, it's me, Celestaine the Fair, of Fernreame. I know the song says I killed the Kinslayer but really it was a group effort and the people you should thank are these two here. He did breed them in a pit under the earth for the specific purpose of channelling his power to wipe out all humankind but in a turn-up for the books they decided to stick the knife in his back first. So, I know they look like every nightmare you've been having for the last few years but if it hadn't been for them letting me go after I got captured and helping us all to reach the inner sanctum at Nydarrow none of this would ever have happened and you'd all be topsoil by now! Isn't that amazing? And yes, this one that does the death-lightning is here with me. On my arm. We're together. I hope you'll all join us in offering a toast to the bride and groom ...
"Maybe it's wiser if we don't go," Heno said. His tone made it clear he was prepared to wait, unhappy about it, but accepting of their place as scum in this scenario — and she hated it, realising only then that she'd just assumed they would all be going, that they were all welcome. They must be welcome, it was only fair after all that had happened, but she knew that her idea of history and the one already making the rounds in the mouths of minstrels and couriers were very different things.
"I'm going to sort it out," she said at the same time. "I'll make it right. But just in case make sure everything is ready to leave at a second's notice." She put her saddle down on the bale beside Ralas.
"What's a wedding?" Nedlam asked suddenly, frowning down at Celestaine, as what had been said ten minutes ago finally reached its destination.
SHE RODE OUT with Caradwyn the next day after little sleep, wondering how to broach the subject. They took their most common route away from the estate by the river's edge, cantering easily along the green hollow, the stems of flyworts and parsleys breaking as they passed and lending a sharp, herbal scent to the dawn air. This hour and the one before sunset had always seemed the most magical, full of unmanifest desire and the possibility of anything being around the corner. They slowed as they approached the rocky ford and Celestaine started to draw breath but before she could speak Caradwyn turned to her, standing in the stirrups to haul back her spirited grey stallion, her long white-gold braids flying around her shoulders as she expertly wrestled him into a submissive prance.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Salvation's Fire"
Copyright © 2018 Justina Robson.
Excerpted by permission of Rebellion Publishing Ltd.
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