A Visit (Part I)

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Philomena sank. Down, past grass and twigs, through the layers of rotting leaves and dirt, trees' roots and rock. Down, until she could feel Aea's heartbeat in the light pit-pat of the squirrels and the thunder of a herd of wild horses. The carts rumbling up the road and men, driving their pickaxes into stone. The tides and currents that carried men to far-away places and brought them home again like long, slow breaths. The winds as they made their way around Aea's great circumference.

She sank until she found the golden strand that touched the disparate parts of Aea, that kept all the creatures on Aea's surface and bound them together.

Hello, little sister, dreamed the sleepers.

Good afternoon, thought Philomena. I am sorry to disturb you.

We are not disturbed, they sighed. We dream of the world above. Flickers of images. The Priestesses and workmen building the temple. Others guarding the saplings pushing up around the denuded trunks of their ancestors. Folk pulling carts up the hill to Traumwald town. An attendant in the castle kitchens absentmindedly running her thumb across her darkwood bracelet. A carriage on the road to Traumwald; in it a woman with shining gold hair looking out the window at the forest.

The place you seek is here, dreamed the sleepers, and gave Philomena an image of a moss-covered cliff with a cave in its centre.

Thank you.

The clever princess is coming to see you.

Philomena opened her eyes, smiled at the sun on her face, and pushed herself upright. Next to her, the two hounds Adelmo and Garri waited, heads on their front paws. They perked upright when she stood. With a gesture, she brought them to heel: Adelmo on her left and Garri on her right. Just as he promised, Rainhart had sent her one of Briga's pups: but he said these two were such a matched pair he couldn't bear to separate them.

Adelmo nudged her palm and she looked down at him. It was clear from looking at them they were Briga's offspring, but the unknown sire had been a smaller, sleeker hound, and these two pups both had dark brown, shaggy fur, and a lean profile. Garri was the smaller of the two.

Philomena attempted to dust off the back of her shift, and pulled a twig out of her. Then she took the hem of her shift in one hand and picked her way back towards the point where the Priestesses waited for her.

"Baroness," said Elder Priestess Hannelore. On her nod, two white-robed initiates brought forward Philomena's dress and shoes.

"Dust me down first, I beg you," said Philomena.

One of the girls giggled, and was hushed by the other. While they tidied her up and helped her dress, Philomena spoke to the Elder. "I know where your prayer-site should be," she said.

"The Lesser Gods showed you?" said the Elder Priestess.

"They did. A cave that descends into the earth. Close to Aea's heart." She gave the Priestess a description of the place and how to get there.

"Praise the Sleepers," said Hannelore.

"Baroness Philomena," said one of the priestesses, "a messenger is coming from the Castle."

Philomena nodded. "I'll meet him on the way. If you've all you need?"

"We do," said Hannelore. "May the Great Gods guide and keep you."

Giving her an awkward smile, Philomena took her leave. The dogs trotted alongside her. She couldn't shake the feeling that the Elder Priestess found her disappointingly prosaic. No doubt they would like a prophetess with a more mystical manner.

She met the messenger running full-tilt towards the temple construction site.

Garri barked once and he skidded to a halt a few feet away. "Princess Holle Anheldis of Reuz is here," he panted.

"Yes, I know," said Philomena.

The messenger blinked. "Oh."

"Walk with me back to the castle," she said.

The messenger eyed Garri, who had sat back on her haunches on Philomena's right.

"The steward is sending a carriage for you, Baroness, lest we keep the Princess waiting."

Philomena snorted, causing the messenger to give her a startled look. "Let the Princess wait," she said. "No doubt we'll find her ordering her usual chamber to her liking, and directing my cook on what to serve for dinner."

As they climbed the steep streets of Traumwald, Philomena revelled in the strength of her legs and the capacity of her lungs. She felt sturdy and strong, and not at all the little mouse who had sought the corners and stumbled over logs four years earlier.

She found Holle sunning herself on a bench in the courtyard—one that Philomena was sure Holle had demanded be brought out especially for her. The sun caught in her golden hair and the drapes of fine fabric covering her rounded form, and sank into the darkwood cane leaning against the bench.

Adelmo, who liked Holle, trotted over and butted her hand with his nose. Holle's hand twitched, then she put it out to scratch his ears.

Garri, who did not like Holle, stayed beside Philomena.

"Good afternoon," said Philomena. "What an unexpected pleasure."

Holle cracked open one eye. "If it isn't the Forest Witch," she said. "I am awestruck by your, ah, presence."

Philomena brushed down her dirty skirt. "I am mortified," she responded dryly. "I beg you will allow me a few hours to make myself presentable to your highness. And then of course there's the state of the guest rooms—has your highness brought her furniture and linens? If not, I can of course have some fresh-woven with your highness' monogram."

"No, no," said Holle, levering herself upright. "I am a woman of simple needs. Just try your best with what you have, and I shall be contented."

Philomena stifled a snort. "Come inside then," she said. "Should you be travelling in your condition?"

Patting her rounded belly, Holle said, "Oh, I am a fanatical adherent to my physician's instructions, I assure you. He tells me the child is firmly wedged somewhere between stomach and liver and in no danger of being shaken loose by a carriage, even a poorly-sprung one."

"Were those his words exactly?" said Philomena as she followed Holle inside.

"At any rate, I and my unborn babe are humble servants of the crown, and I bear a message that could not be entrusted to another."

Holle held out the darkwood cane. Philomena took it, putting her hand over Holle's so they were both touching the darkwood and each other.

So close to the Darkwood, reaching the still place was as simple as pushing aside a curtain and stepping into an alcove. She saw Holle's mind before her, vivid and sparking with energy, and drew it closer. The darkwood acted as a conduit, linking her to Holle. She and Holle had perfected this trick when Holle had stayed at Traumwald after the war. It gave her the gift of reading Holle's mind.

She set aside Holle's surface thoughts—about her sore muscles, and the bumps and mysteries of the new life inside her—and found the memory Holle wanted her to see.

She looked out through Holle's eyes into the Palace at Breg, into a room she had never stepped into while she lived there: the King's privy chamber. Tancred stood before her, all brocade and gold and shadowed eyes.

Philomena, he said, The Empress plans to move on Merot in the spring and has demanded my complicity. He ran his hand through his hair. The situation with the barons is such that—and besides I am no longer sure that my uncle was right. Which is to say, I think the Clan Kingdoms must stand together against Jovan, but—

Holle's interruption: Tancred, my dear man, get to the point. My memory is finite.

Tancred nodded. The long and short of it is this. The Empress expects to see Deusetatsan troops alongside her legionaries when she invades Merot. When they do not appear, Rainhart's life will be forfeit. He paused. Unless you go to Monsilys and free him.

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