|Night Secrets by Shirley Martin|
A slight tug released Keriam’s soul from her body. She floated to the ceiling, amazed as always that she could look down at herself in bed. With a certainty born of past experience, she knew this was no dream. Ever since her mother’s death two years ago, preternatural powers had evolved within her, and she often wondered why. Was it her mother’s way of watching over her from the Otherworld? These night journeys were even more recent and something she must learn to control, if only she knew how.
She drifted through the bedchamber walls, then once outside, flew over the maples and oaks that bordered the royal domain of Emain Macha, approaching the open countryside. Heading north, she traveled over the many farmsteads nestled in small groupings with their wattle-and-daub houses, the herds of longhorn sheep dotting the open fields. Here and there a hillfort guarded the country. Although it was deepest night, everything looked clear and luminous.
Maintaining her leisurely flight, Keriam approached the capital city of Moytura, its shops and stores closed, its many taverns and inns dimly-lit but alive with noise and laughter.
A heavy mist swirled around her, the night air cool and damp. She headed westward to the Plain of Sorrows, a vast land preceded by a meadow and transected by the winding Nantosuelta River. Through the fog, she drifted down among the thick clusters of oak trees lining the riverbank and smiled at the fairies who slumbered in the branches. To her heightened hearing, the rippling water of the Nantosuelata echoed like a waterfall.
The sound of hoofbeats jolted her. As quickly as her spirit form would allow, she took refuge within an earthberry bush, afraid someone might see her, even in the dim light.
Two men gathered by the river, their voices audible as they secured their horses to tree branches. Focusing her gaze in the hazy light, she recognized them as officers in her father's army, although she didn't know their names. What were they doing here at this late night hour? One bald and the other blond, they wore simple tunics and short boots.
"Gamal just returned from a mission," the bald one said. "He should arrive shortly."
Was that Major Roric Gamal, her father's courier?
Aimless talk ensued for several minutes, army gossip and tales of female exploits.
They became silent when Roric Gamal rode up, an officer she'd seen at the palace many times. He dismounted and looped his horse's halter around a tree branch, then approached the others. Younger and taller than the other two, his gait was steady and confident, like one accustomed to authority.
"Where's General Balor?" Gamal asked. "He should be present." His clipped accent told her he came from one of the southern provinces, Mag Aurfolaig, perhaps.
"Couldn't come," the bald officer explained. "The general sent me to represent him."
"Very well," the newcomer said, his baritone voice clear and resonant. "Let's get this business over with, so we can return to our quarters before dawn." Gamal raised his booted foot onto a tree stump and leaned forward, resting his hands on his knee, and lowered his voice. "No dissension now! We have already agreed we must kill him."
Kill whom? Keriam’s spirit body turned cold. Merciful Goddess, these men are plotting
The bald man stepped forward, shaking his fist. "Do it and get it over with!"
"Think before you speak, Dothan! We must proceed with caution." Roric paused. "First, we must bribe a few government officials. Blackmail others. That will take time. The Lug Festival would be the best opportunity for killing him,” he said, looking at the other two. “Don’t you agree?” Receiving affirmative replies, he continued. “Gives us months to plan. And all the crowds there will make it easier for the assassin to disappear among the people and escape.”
The Lug Festival, only four moonphases away. Keriam drew back, pressing her hand to her mouth, then gasped when her hand passed through her face.
Roric Gamal recaptured her attention. "We know the king intends to invite King Barzad of Elegia to Avador soon to discuss forming an alliance between the two countries. Last thing we need. If we can keep Avador weak, we should have no trouble gaining control of the realm." He set his foot on the ground and drew himself up to his full height. "But if Avador forms an alliance with Elegia, there go our plans. We must kill the king!"
Keriam sank to the ground. Her father! They were talking about killing her father! Goddess, no! They must not get away with this evil.
"Agreed," the blonde man said. "But how do we accomplish this assassination? Remember, General Balor has the final word. Anything we decide must have his approval. Got to have the army behind us."
"Of course," Roric said. "Now, I've given the plan much thought. Here's how we'll proceed."
The warble of a bird alarmed Keriam, daybreak graying the trees.
A tug pulled her spirit back. No, not now! She must discover more of their plan.
Within a heartbeat, Keriam found herself falling into her body, as if from a great height. She lay stunned, unsure where she was. At last recognizing her surroundings, she wanted to weep, so afraid for her father, her mind awhirl with panic. Somehow, she must discover details of the plot and warn him.
No one knew of her spirit travels, but what if someone found out? She'd be accused of witchcraft, a practice forbidden in the kingdom. And no one was aware of her other mental powers, of her ability to discern a person's past or see into the future by touching that person. Unfortunately, this talent often didn't work when she needed it most. By the Goddess, why couldn't she see into her father's future?
As she heard her maid in the next room, a new fear crashed through her. What if Maudina found out about her nightly trips? Superstitious girl that she was, would her maid report her to the druids? Keriam prayed she wouldn't, hoping she could count on the maid's loyalty. Like all the servants at the palace, Maudina received a sufficient wage, and well-paid servants were more trustworthy than poorly-paid ones. Surely that fact would ensure the maid's faithfulness?
The druids held great power in the kingdom, and religion ruled the lives of all of the country's inhabitants. Keriam closed her eyes, imagining her punishment should she be reported to these wise men. If found guilty, she'd be burned at the stake as a witch. Not even her father could save her, assuming he was still alive to try. Keriam said a silent prayer to Talmora, the Earth-Mother Goddess, to keep her father safe. Shifting her position, she thought hard. She must warn her father of the plot against his life without revealing her means of discovery. Would he believe her? He had to. She pushed her woolen bedcovers aside and slid out of bed, tired and groggy but determined.
No one must ever learn how truly different she was.
* * *
Keriam joined her father for the midday meal in the vast dining room with its flagstone floor and high, majestic ceiling. As was the custom in Avador, they’d left an empty place for the Goddess. Keriam enjoyed this time with her father, and she knew he did too, when they could share thoughts and concerns, a time when she could learn more about the kingdom, its people, resources, and government.
"Since I have no other children,” King Tencien had once said, "you will inherit the throne. Best you learn about the country you will govern--its customs, languages, everything."
The plot against her father sent her heart pounding and drove every other thought from her mind. By Talmora, she would not permit those officers to get away with murder. She'd always found comfort in this room with its beautifully polished wooden walls, where each board was painted a different color from those above and below, so that the sides of the room presented a radiant variety of bright colors. But she found no solace this day.
"Father, you should have an official taster," she suggested as he sipped his white wine. Twisting her hands in her lap, she tried to look nonchalant, but fear for her father burned inside her. And hatred for the men who planned to kill him.
"Why, Kerry? You think someone would try to poison me?" He gave her a sharp look. "Why do you make this suggestion now?"
"It's a constant worry." Aware of her lame reply, she dipped her spoon into the spiced potato soup. Goddess, she prayed, help me save this man who means more than life to me. “You’re too trusting," she said, resolved to lead into warning him of the plot.
"Not trusting, just realistic." He pressed his fingers to his temples. "A headache coming on," he murmured, then straightened up. “If someone wants to assassinate me, they'll succeed. There's nothing I or anyone else can do to prevent it."
"But of course you can! Arrange bodyguards, and--"
"Won't matter. There have always been skilled assassins, paid well, I might add.. I flatter myself that I'm popular with my people, but remember, there are those who crave power. They’ll stop at nothing to get what they want.”
Yes, I know! Keriam wanted to say. Tell him of the plot now, her heart urged her. She licked her lips and swallowed hard. "But what if someone--"
“Enough!” He slashed his hand through the air. "No more talk about assassination. I have a splitting headache and King Barzad is expected any day now. I have enough on my mind about the treaty."
A cold lump settled in her stomach. What had she accomplished with her ineffective warning? For now, she'd let the matter drop, but she must face--and deal with--the danger to her father. She finished her buntata soup, resolved to conceal her fear. The dining table occupied a spot close to the large stone fireplace that dominated the wall, and although heat from the burning embers drew much of the chill from the room, fright tremors raced down her arms and legs.
"Tell me about this treaty between our country and Elegia,” she said, hoping to divert her mind. They both waited while the servants entered the room and served steaming plates of rice and chicken breast roasted with sage, thyme, and coriander.
"Pending treaty," he said after the servants left. "Since Avador is a land-locked country, we need a seaport to get our iron ore, lumber, and most important, our salt, safely to port and thus to markets. As it is now, brigands prey on our caravans, and we must pay Elegia for protection. A treaty to ally our two countries will benefit both."
"Can't our army provide protection for our goods?"
King Tencien shook his head. "Most of the robberies occur within Elegian territory, directly north of the border. King Barzad doesn't want our forces in his domain. He has a strong army, but often these brigands slip past his men. That situation will change if and when we sign this treaty."
"Tell me, what does Elegia get out of this treaty?"
He beamed at her. "Good thinking. The king needs a wife to provide him with an heir. My widowed sister should solve that problem. We know she can bear children."
"Father, using women as bargaining pieces between nations is an abomination of all the Earth-mother Goddess holds dear."
"I've discussed the matter with her." He reached for a bronze flagon and poured them more wine. "She has no objections."
A short period of silence followed. Desperate for distraction from her nagging worries and stymied by her father's obstinance, she let her mind flit from one subject to another.
Magic. The word crept into her thoughts like a snake slithering along the ground. Why did no one ever speak of it, as if it were a shameful secret to keep hidden away in the darkest recesses of the mind? She didn't practice the craft--the Goddess forbid! She couldn't practice magic if she wanted to. But was it wrong, and if so, why? With a cautious look at her father, she broached these questions.
"We don't speak of magic," he warned with a sidelong glance her way, "lest if, by our words, we bring the offense back to Avador."
"Why not? What's wrong with magic? Every time I've asked this question--and you know I have many times--you’ve put me off, told me I must never mention it. Why do we never talk about it?"
His gaze swept the spacious room, lingering in every corner. He lowered his voice, prompting Keriam to lean closer. "Wizards ruled Avador with their magic over one-thousand years ago, good magic, mind you, to heal the sick and promote peace and well-being." He sipped his wine and set the bronze goblet on the long wooden table.
"After a century or so, a few evil wizards gained power, and with their power, turned good magic to bad. They executed those who defied them, starting with the good wizards. Caused such havoc and wickedness in the country that life became unbearable for those who tried to live by the words of the Earth-mother Goddess. Even suspicion of treason would send the accused to the dungeon. Informants were rewarded, so neighbor told on neighbor. Children were tortured in front of their parents." He shuddered. "A terrible time. After hundreds of years of this evil and oppression, my great-great-great-grandfather--an army officer--led a revolt."
"Yes, yes," Keriam said, impatient to hear more. "I learned about this revolt in my studies years ago, but no one ever told me how our ancestor rebelled. No matter how many times I questioned my governess, she told me the manner of rebellion was not important. Of course, it's important!"
Tencien nodded. "Yes, you’re old enough to understand now. Our ancestor, Malachy, gathered a force of several thousand men, and in one final battle, defeated the evil sorcerers and their minions. The sorcerers’ rule ended, and the House of Moray was created. King Malachy united all the tribes and ended human sacrifice--"
"Human sacrifice!" She clutched her stomach.
"Beheading, garroting. Now you see what evil the wizards caused.." He dabbed his linen napkin across his forehead. "Since Malachy's victory, magic has been outlawed from the
kingdom, upon pain of death. Daughter, you know I am a merciful man, but anyone caught dabbling in witchcraft must be burned at the stake."
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