Note—Liam doesn't refer to Lilibet as 'mum' because she is his mother, but because that is a peculiarity of the dialect he speaks. It's the same thing as Nye saying 'miss' or 'ma'am.'


Chapter Eight


Quinn gazed a moment longer at the thick, scarlet thread, relishing the depth of color against the white linen on which she had been practicing her embroidery for long hours. Her hands against the linen were pale, as well, though etched with the unnaturally pink whorls and smooth expanses that served as a painful reminder of the autumn's culminating events. As searing as bile, resentment and pity rose in her throat, and she turned her face away from her hands, which had once been one of her many prides. Had not Sir Godfrey himself complimented her on having such delicate, graceful hands, and such deft fingers? Now, she could scarcely hold a needle without causing herself pain, and her stitches were large and clumsy, scarcely better than a child's first attempt at needlework. And ever and anon, those hideous scars brought themselves to her attention, not allowing her to forget herself, no matter how often she willed it to happen.

With a sigh, she shifted her gaze to the frozen landscape beyond the window, edged with an obscuring, hoary rime. The earth was cloaked beneath a heavy mantle of snow, and in the moments when her mind wandered away from her tasks, she amused herself with comparing the tall evergreens behind the barn's frosted skeleton with a noblewoman, cloaked in ermine. The early morning sky was strung out like a banner behind this most regal lady, all washed-out gold and blue of a shade like light on water. The muddy wheel tracks cut across the snow at her feet like the border of a carpet, and for a long moment Quinn found herself unable to shake off the impression that this striking mental image was more than just a wool-gatherer's feat. She did not realize that she was holding her breath until a knock on the door startled it from behind her closed lips.

"Awake and dressed already, Miss Quinn?" Lilibet asked as she entered, pleasure coloring her voice. Her young mistress had taken to moping about in silence a great deal in these past months, and it did the aging servant's heart good to see the child up so early. Abruptly, the light left her face, and her brows knotted together. "You are not unwell, are you?"

"No, thank you, Lili," Quinn said, her voice lacking inflection of any kind as she looked back out the window. The sun had risen further, and the queen's ermine mantle sparkled in the yellow light. "I'm quite well."

"And you've been practicing! Your stitches are growing finer each day, Miss."

Quinn could not voice her gratitude, as she felt none. The woman's words were hollow, and they both knew it. To placate her patient nurse, Quinn inclined her head towards her, lifting her gaze with great difficulty from the opalescent scene beyond the rippled glass. Here, within her chambers on the Olweths' farm, everything seemed dark and heavy; the furniture was old, crafted by her grandfather's father, and even the white-washed walls seemed dim and lackluster. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dearth of light, and watched Lilibet stir up the fire in the little brazier that heated Quinn's chamber.

"The lads are up and working, already, but I've saved you some porridge and fresh bread with honey butter. You'd not believe the lengths to which those two young rapscallions would go to get another serving," Lilibet snorted, shaking her head as she turned her attention to the rumpled bed.

"They are growing boys," Quinn murmured, understanding that some reply was necessary.

"Bah. I had six brothers when I was a girl, and if my memory is not faulty, not a one of them could eat as much in a day as that Nye can in one sitting. And Liam! Seems to me, we should be receiving coin for providing him with meals, rather than him pocketing the silvers for romping about the grounds with that ne'er-do-well of a brother of yours!" she huffed. Quinn looked up at the woman and gave her a limpid smile.

"They do not romp, Lili. They are out felling trees each day and making boards, so that when spring comes and the mud and rain subsides, my father and brothers can rebuild the barn," she said, regurgitating Caradoc's words. "I might imagine that is why they are always hungry. It seems a hard sort of work."

Lilibet finished turning down the edge of the quilt and looked at her young mistress. She was positively sprightly today, compared to her behavior over the past two and a half months. Ever since, late in September, Quinn and Lilibet had relocated out to the farm, that brilliant smile had been a foreign expression on her pale face. Indeed, betwixt Quinn's moodiness, Aneurin's bad temper, and the farmhand's inanity, Lilibet had been hard-pressed to keep her usual optimism in full force of late.

"Well. That may be so," the older woman said, conceding her point easily. "Now, come along, Miss Quinn—you scarcely touched your supper last night, and I'll not have your mother after my head because you wish to make yourself a scarecrow!"

She bustled out of the room in a din of swishing fabric and deliberate footsteps. The mornings were so silent in those precious two hours flanking dawn, that Quinn decided to stop staying abed so late and awaken earlier, so that she could properly enjoy them. Certainly, the rest of the day was none too silent, despite the fact that only four people currently inhabited the farmhouse. With a sigh and the specter of a smile, she set aside her embroidery and reached for the rough crutch that Liam had carved for her, limping out after the housekeeper. To her surprise, she realized that for the first time in months, she truly did have an appetite—and the tantalizing aroma of Lilibet's bread was wafting into her chamber. With her good humor growing steadily, Quinn made her slow way to the kitchen.

To her surprise, it was more than just bread in the making, there. Lilibet was steadily rolling out a variety of sweet-smelling pastries, and a pile of potatoes loomed on a mat of burlap in the corner, waiting to be peeled. Quinn's eyebrows lowered and met in the middle as she scanned the kitchen. Carrots, apples, breads—even what looked like a pudding! "Lili, what is this feast for?"

The housekeeper turned on her heel, a streak of flour across her cheekbone highlighting her wide eyes. For a long moment she gaped at the younger woman; when she finally found her tongue again, it was to laugh. "May the god have mercy on us all!"

Quinn frowned. "What are you on about, Lilibet?"

"The world must be nearing its end!" she explained, rubbing away a gleeful tear with the heel of one dough begrimed hand.

Quinn expressed her dislike for this game by petulantly pounding the end of her crutch against the floor as she limped over to the fire, settling down in the chair that Liam had placed there for her use. "You are an exasperating woman, Lilibet," she said, then pressed her lips tight and glared haughtily into the hearth.

Lilibet's laughter faded into a joyous cooing, and she wiped her hands on her apron as she traipsed over to the upholstered chair. "Oh, you've no sense of laughter, child, and even less of a memory!" she chided amiably. "Tonight is the Midwinter Feast, and the celebration of your birthing-day!"

The younger woman's raised eyebrows and startled squeak were enough to tell Lilibet that, in the sluggish passage of day into night and back into day, her charge truly had lost track of the time. "My birthing-day!"

"Indeed! You are eighteen today, sweet Miss!"

"And is my family coming?"

"Verily, they are."

"And what of Nye and Liam? Are they out chopping away on Midwinter's Day?"

Lilibet chortled. "Nay, Miss! I've sent them out after some fowl for the dinner table. Master Nye says there's a ruck of snow-geese over by the pond. I fancy he and Liam have made a bit of a game of it—I only hope they do not bring back dozens of the poor things! Now, come, Miss, trot yourself over here and help me make these tarts."

Only a few moments after Quinn first set herself to molding the little pastry shells, the kitchen door swung open and a draft of frigid air wended its way around the women, who both gasped and scolded. Nye tromped in, stamping the snow from his boots, and Liam pulled the door shut behind him. In the sudden silence and warmth of the kitchen, Nye grinned and lifted one hand, displaying his prize—two plucked and gutted geese, bereft of head and feet and ready for the housekeeper's ministrations. "Will these do, Lili?"

Lilibet left Quinn at the table and took the fat fowl from Nye, beaming. "Perfect, you young lout."

Nye grinned crookedly at the housekeeper's affectionate insult, and then turned to Liam, who had dropped his own burden and was warming his hands at the fire. The podgy boy looked up, then flushed and stuttered, fumbling to open the burlap sack that lay at his feet. "We—we saved ye th' fawthers, mum," he said. "So as ye can make 'nother pillow. 'Tain't enow for a mattress..."

"That's fine, lad, and I thank you," Lilibet said, smiling as the boy scowled at the twine that held the bag closed, his thick fingers struggling with the knot. Finally, he muttered an expletive and pulled at it with prodigious force. The twine broke and the bag flew from his hands, spilling the feathers out in a small, snowy flood at Quinn's feet.

"Beggin' pardon, mum—" Liam said, flushing harder as he fell to his knees before his friend's pretty sister and began to scoop the downy feathers back into the bag.

Quinn stared down at him, her limbs frozen and her eyes wide. A small sound—half a kitten's cry, as Bryn might say—escaped her lips, and the other three stopped in their scolding and scrambling to look at her. Her gaze was wild and panicked, and her hand grasped convulsively at the fabric just below her neck.

"Miss? Are you ill? Tired?"

Her lips moved soundlessly, staring in horror down at the mess at her feet. Liam's cheeks burned as dark a scarlet as the thread Quinn had fumbled over not half an hour earlier. How had he managed to so utterly offend this sweet angel?

"Quinn," Nye said, his frown black and his voice concerned. "What is wrong?"

Feathers... I see feathers...

"I'm that sorry, mum—forsooth, I am!" fretted Liam, stuffing the feathers away even faster.

"It is—" Quinn mumbled, looking away. Her brows were pinched, and she licked her lips, apparently searching for the right words. They never came. Instead, she gave what might have been either a mirthless laugh or a muffled sob, and limped out of the room, moving as quickly as the crutch and her own dismay allowed. Lilibet called after her; Nye crouched and slapped one encouraging hand on his best friend's back. Liam was completely distraught, and in an attempt to put himself back in his darling's good graces, picked each feathery barb from the floor; it would take him another hand and a half of time to remove them from the narrow cracks in the flagstone floor.

Quinn did not respond to the housekeeper's call, but continued with wide-eyed determination down the corridor, placing as much distance as possible between her and the downy avalanche. Despite the fabric that formed a barrier between it and her palm, the fortune stone had grown warm within her tight grip. She was so caught up in her own jumbled thoughts that she did not even realize she had reached the end of the hallway, and stood staring into the empty bedchamber, unseeing. Awakening from her reverie long enough to orient herself, she turned back and limped the length of the corridor again, occasionally mumbling.

"Feathers... silly child, Quinnwy! Do not be so daft—it isn't as if diviners always tell the truth, in any case. He was most likely a fraud...." She hesitated, frowning. "If he were a fraud," she continued in a less certain tone, "why would he give me such a gem, which is worth twenty times the meager price he charged?"

She could find no answer for the self-imposed query, and so resumed her pacing. Soon her healing leg wearied and her furious pace slowed to an awkward, pained hobble. Her mind, however, had not yet exhausted its adrenaline-born energy, and she pushed onward, hardly aware that she was physically exerting herself. She chewed her lip until it was sore and quite red; her brow furrowed itself so deeply that had the circumstances been any less nerve-wracking and uncertain, she would have quickly desisted so as to avoid incurring untimely wrinkles.

"Desa'do'dera," she whispered to herself, stroking the smooth, hot surface of the stone with her thumb; she had, in her absentminded wandering, removed the pendant from beneath the neck of her gown. Could her lackadaisical musings be closer to the truth than she guessed? Was it possible that her Brynwy—her dear, vain, gallant, utterly charming brother—could be none other than the prophesied legend? Would the wizards come to take him away, as the diviner foresaw? Or was he more interested in her coin than the truth? And why, in the god's name, would he give a strange maid such a costly gift?


Bryn Olweth rubbed his thumbs over the embroidery in the collar of his tunic, frowning contemplatively. The interior of the carriage was nearly as cold as the air without, and stuffy as well; none of his companions seemed any more comfortable than he. All four were men, and all from the university, like him—all returning home for the Midwinter's Feast. His frown eased at the thought.

Four months he had been absent from the table at supper; four months, he had been slaving away over books and sweet-smelling parchment at the university in Brassal. Four months, and despite all the complaints he made while at home, he'd missed his siblings terribly. The morning was somehow incomplete without having to arbitrate an argument betwixt Aneurin and Rhys, without Griffeth's incessant patter about figures and the dropping price of grain, without the affable madness that followed the girls about like a terrier after a fox. He had missed the heavy fall of his father's booted foot, and brief whiffs of the court ladies' perfume made him long terribly for his mother. Even Lilibet had been sorely missed.

But if there was one face he had been yearning most to see, it was that of his Quinnwy.

It was madness, he knew—for at the same time, he was hesitant to find himself in her presence again. He had stayed in Sandon for barely a sennight after relaying the news of Sir Godfrey's impending marriage to his sister, and in that sennight she had hardly stirred from her chamber, and when she did, it was with the air of one walking abroad in their sleep. Her pretty eyes had become reddened and swollen, and his heart had ached physically to hear her weeping into the pillow at night, disconsolate. Even Gwenda's gentle ministrations had done nothing to mitigate her melancholy. It was selfish of him, he knew full well, but he was loath to expose himself to her wretchedness again. His heart could not stand it.

At the same time, the letters he had received from Gwenda and Mother were encouraging. She no longer wept in her sleep, the former maintained, and since her arrival at the farmhouse she strayed from her chamber more often, and with less gloom trailing after her. Her needlework, the latter wrote, was much improved, and she was regaining the use of her fingers far more quickly than the physician had intimated. Taken in all, it seemed that Quinn was finally recovering, and he longed to be at her side once more, especially today.

Midwinter's Day had held special meaning for the close-bound siblings ever since they were old enough to do simple mathematics, for it was then that they realized that the feast was the beginning of a brief fortnight of time in which they were the same age. He smiled, recalling the uncomplicated pleasure that knowledge had afforded them as children. This year would not be the same, and not merely due to the events of the previous autumn; Quinnwy was, indeed, a woman now, in name if not in spirit. Bryn would soon—he mentally imposed the word twenty over the proper nineteen—and would, if all went well, enroll full-time into the university, rather than merely visiting it sporadically.

We're all growing old, he thought, trying to imagine Quinnwy a mother and wife. The image was so incongruous that he was forced to dispel it before he laughed aloud. An irrepressible smile playing about his lips, he looked furtively around into the faces of his companions.

One, to his surprise, was looking back. He was a man of middling age with the recognizable golden hair (if shot through with veins of silver) that denoted a member of the family of Sedgewick, of which the redoubtable Sir Godfrey was a scion. The Family Sedgewick, as they were commonly known, had a finger in most every industry, craft, and circle of Midshire; the university, clearly, was no exception.

"Mister Sedgewick," Bryn acknowledged as the older man's eyes lingered on his face. He bowed his head deferentially.

"Master Olweth." The dark blue gaze was so sharp that it gave Bryn a sudden sympathy for an insect pinned to a bed of felt by a collector; surely he understood now how the poor creature felt. "I had heard you had won a place at the university. I must say, I am not surprised; I have always had a high account of your intelligence from my nephew."

Bryn willed himself not to betray his surprise; Godfrey was this Mister Sedgewick's nephew? As far as he knew (which was, admittedly, quite a ways), Godfrey's mother had no siblings; this, then, was the Governor's brother. Younger, if his features were any indication... Baran Sedgewick, the dean of the university. Bryn felt himself pale, and prayed to the god that the carriage was dark enough for the other not to notice.

"You do me honor, sir," he murmured, suddenly aware that several seconds had passed betwixt Sedgewick's comment and his reply.

"No more than you merit. I have had great report of you from your tutors; indeed, I had hoped to find a moment to speak with you on our little jaunt."

"Of course, sir."

Sedgewick smiled, a pale, skeletal expression like the curved blade of a thin knife. "It is quite an... unusual sphere of academic study you have chosen, as I understand it. There are enough young men willing to surrender their lives to the worship of the god, and the diffusion of the god's word, but it is rare to find one prepared to throw himself into the past to do so."

Bryn's answering smile was a good deal closer to matching the dean's than usual. "I find that the simplicity of our ancestors—the simplicity of their faith, rather—is refreshing in these troubled times."

"Do you." It was not a question, and neither was it amiably put; Bryn was suddenly aware that, though he may be Godfrey's uncle, Baran had none of the same genial, harmless air. No... to compare nephew and uncle was to compare a lad with his first wooden sword and a trained assassin. "I had not thought the times so unsettled."

Bryn opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. Several moments passed before he responded, his expression prudently ingenuous. "Comparatively speaking, of course," he said, his tone far smoother and unruffled than he could have hoped. "The relationships between the Six Realms of today are much more... volatile than those three centuries past. What with the unrest in Damis and Roydene, and the disturbing rise in the worship of pagan deities—you know, I am certain, sir, of the new temple erected to the heathen sun-god Nyewelen in the capital of Roydene—and the rumors of..." he trailed off.

"Of," prompted the dean with a wary eagerness that reminded Bryn quite horribly of a hound straining for the scent of some small animal.

"...Of rebellion," Bryn said finally in a whisper, drawing his brows down consciously into a frown. "You know what havoc the myths of the 'Wingless Savior' have wrought on the hierarchy of the Six Realms. I can barely imagine what the Governors and Seneschals must contend with daily, much less the High Sovereign!" He shivered, and was surprised to find it not as forced as he had expected. "When news reached the university of the abominable assassination attack, I put pen to paper at once to alert my father. The outrage! I only pray that the m'Lord and his counselors do not judge us all in terms of such zealots."

The dean's smile was much warmer. "You have my word, my boy, that he does not. The High Sovereign has a wise and a discerning eye; such promising youths as yourself are not overlooked in his wariness against fanatics. And you are quite right... but you were telling me of your chosen studies."

"Ah, yes," Bryn said, nodding. "The faith of men was so simple in our past—so simple and so pure—that I feel sure I may find some necessary element there. Was there, perhaps, a technique common amongst the priests at that time that is no longer utilized? Perhaps they were more gentle, and filled the folk with hope of a glorious afterlife; perhaps they reminded them of the horror of the god's wrath."

"I see," Baran said, thumbing his chin in thought, his eyes cast away from Bryn's face as though he saw something no one else could. "You hope to mitigate the unrest in the Realms through knowledge of history."

"As our own m'Lord's precursor said, 'The future oft lies in the past,'" Bryn quoted.

The dean's tepid eyes were bright with ruminations to which Bryn was not privy; he hoped only that the smile on the older man's face was a good sign. Please the god, he invoked automatically, determined to restrain any and all nervous gestures.

What would the Governor's brother think if Bryn admitted candidly his true intentions? The study of the god's past was the closest he could come, in the strict scholastic world of the University of Brassal, to what had become, in late months, his obsession....


Oh, it was prohibited. No; even that was not a suitable word for it. It was forbidden. The mere academic study of it was utterly outlawed, much less its practical use. Bryn had never been the sort of youth to flout the rules just because they were there—verily, his brothers often teased him for being such a pedant. But not even the highest and most unyielding of secular and holy laws could turn him away from it.

What little he had found—enticing snippets buried within tumuli of ancient dogma, mostly—had been anything but explicit. Murmurs of witchery, of fires that did not burn and unnatural plagues, of curdled milk and children's nightmares, were all he gained. Still he persisted, hoping beyond hope that this was not the extent to which magick existed. It could not all be as wicked as the stories told, he was certain. It could not be.

I am not evil, he had told himself many a time. I am not evil... and yet I heard my sister's voice in my head, I conversed with her though she lay as one dead.... I am not evil.

"Well." Baran Sedgewick's voice broke through the tumultuous press of thoughts vying for Bryn's immediate attention. "I see that the tales I have heard of your acumen and patriotism were not exaggerated, as I admit I had feared. I would like very much to speak with you further; it seems, however, that my stop is approaching," he said, motioning vaguely with his chin as the driver's call pierced the cold innards of the carriage. "We must meet again, Master Olweth. There are very great opportunities for such motivated men as yourself in today's world."

"I hope we may, sir."

Baran smiled. "I shall see you at my nephew's wedding come spring, shall I not?"

Bryn, feeling the cold much more now than he had before, could only nod.

"And perhaps, before then, we shall meet again at the university. Do give your father my regards," he said as the carriage began to slow.

"I will. Will you relay my own to Godfrey?"

"Assuredly, Master Olweth." The carriage stopped with a jolt that awoke their drowsing companions, and a moment later the door opened. The world without was dark; had the journey—the conversation—taken so long? "Until then."


Bryn shivered long after the carriage door closed out the cold evening, and even though one of his companions—a student of mathematics—attempted to start a dialogue, he could not pull himself out of his sudden ambivalent silence.

Desa'do'dera, he mused, tasting the word.