When Shadows Fall
Location: Penhallow Camp, Outside Battle Fort, Yr’Meddrodau, D’hassa
Timeline: Early AM, 14 Medi 3550 - 5th Year of the Thunder Eagle.
It was early and much of the Gathering encampment was still asleep. After the events of the previous day, the day of the Ceremony of Oaths, few people had packed and left due to the lateness of the hour. The injured had been moved to the Medical Corps’ building inside the massive fort and a tent had been set up some distance from the camp so that people could identify and/or claim the dead. No one spoke of the fate of the surviving Black Order Knights, as they were now known by those attending the Great Gathering. Too many had seen the High Lord Commander Virdain and Prince Galahed of Aquitaine fighting the Black Order and defending Cymerians to now equate the Templars with their dark counterparts. A few, particularly those of y Carthu persuasions, would condemn the entire incident using it as more ammunition against the arcane races.
None of this was of much concern to Riordan Penhallow as he made his way through the camp. He had ascertained the location of the camp where the young woman, Renestrae, was staying before those of the cleansing circle had dispersed the day before. Ynella had wanted to speak with her immediately the working was done, but Riordan had objected. She was exhausted and needed time to center herself before going further, so the agreement had been reached that he would fetch the young woman that had assisted them and guide her to the Penhallow camp early the following morning.
Locating the camp he sought was not difficult. Once in its proximity, he simply extended his arcane senses and let it guide him in the right direction. The sense of her aura would fade with time although he would likely recognize it if encountered again in the future, but for now, so recent after the previous day’s high working, it was as fresh as the scent of the bread in their small camp. Reaching the small, single person tent, Riordan tapped the tent flap and called out, “Colli Renestrae, it is Riordan Penhallow here to guide you to speak with my wife.” He then respectfully stepped a couple of feet away from the tent so the girl would not feel he was lurking.
She might have emerged immediately; her belongings were already packed, her horse already saddled. She had begun her day early, despite her protesting, aching muscles; she was eager to be on the road and return to her mother. In spite of that, she had decided the day before that she would honour the Lady Ynella’s request to meet. She had sensed Syr Riordan nearing, if only in the way that something about the air had changed, and he had materialised shortly thereafter. She was wearing her bow across her back, a precaution lest the previous day’s events were repeated. At his voice, she’d turned her head slightly toward him, long lashes hooding her eyes as she contemplated declining. Did she truly want to have a discussion with the Lady Ynella? Yes, she did.
“I’ll be along,” she called out, and pushed herself to her feet from her cross-legged position, rocking forward and detangling her legs before rising in a fluid motion. She emerged from the tent and regarded the man, who towered over her as much as many of the others did. “Please-- lead onward, Syr,” she said.
“No need for formality, miss,” Riordan replied, using the colloquial word for an unmarried female, rather than the Heniaith Colli. Riordan kept to a leisurely pace, matching his long, easy strides to the young woman’s. Beyond noting the odd House or Clan banner for her, he said little.
They soon came to the Penhallow tent with its gay banner depicting a dark colored ceffyl dwr, a water horse - also known as a kelpie, rising from the turquoise colored seas. It was flying from the structure’s central mast and snapped back and forth in the morning’s wind. The tent, like the banner was understated. This year only himself, Ynella and two of their house servants had a attended the Gathering. Whether it was a Moonsinger’s premonition or just needing a break, Ynella had insisted they leave their children at home in Coedwig. Outside the tent, a woman tended a cook fire and the smell of fried bread soaked with honey and hot spiced tea pervaded the area.
Riordan greeted the woman jovially and nodded when she told him his man servant had departed to get the horses before they began packing up although Lady Ynella had started on their personal belongings. He laughed and winked at Renestrae, “I think Breena lives for the drama implied by us traveling.” He shook the tent flap and led the way in.
Inside, the tent was spacious, but not overlarge. There was a main area separated from two sleeping areas by bright colored curtains. Fortunately, Breena and Riordan’s manservant were also man and wife. The rugs from the sleeping area had been rolled up and waited to be packed into the small horse drawn cart they had traveled with. A rug patterned in deep green and cream still lay on the ground of the main area and a few camp chairs were still set out. Ynella, clad in deep rust colored riding leathers sat in one of the chairs alleviating the need to stoop as she added items to a small travel trunk. She looked up from her task and smiled at Riordan and Renestrae, “Welcome, Renestrae. I am pleased you had the time and were willing to see me. Will you share bread with us?” It was an old fashioned greeting, but one Ynella preferred as the offer to share bread carried with it the implicit expression of no harm.
Despite having breakfasted on the dried fruits and meats that were part of her personal supply, Renestrae had felt her stomach grumbling at the scent of the fried bread and tea. It had not distracted her from Riordan’s jest, to which she replied with a slightly reserved smile. She was feeling a little more guarded, not knowing entirely what to expect from the coming conversation. Had it not been for the horrors of the previous day, she would have delighted in Riordan’s occasional word on the various pennants and banners.
“I will, Lady,” she replied, but stood respectfully until she was bid to sit. While her people were opinionated in regard to the Chimera, and nobles all the more, she had little desire to be disrespectful. If anything, they had earned her respect, even if their actions had caused tremors in her long-held beliefs.
Riordan gave both women a nod and held a chair for their guest to be seated in. “I will fetch food and drink and then leave you ladies to your visit. I am quite certain that Cerdic will need help loading the cart.”
Ynella sat up and regarded Renestrae for a few moments, but did not begin the conversation she had requested the younger woman’s presence for. Instead, she said, a smile tugging at her lips, “Breena and Cerdic have been with us for years and, no doubt, we should see to their retirement, but it is so comfortable having them close. They are kind, hard working and I trust both with our lives.” A hint of laughter entered her large dark eyes and she lowered her voice into a conspiratorial whisper, “Besides, Breena makes the best fried honey bread in the land.”
As if summoned by her words, Riordan entered with a tray bearing the tea, fried bread, a small urn of fresh honey, cups of butter, fruit jams, plates and small cups as well as utensils. Ynella closed the trunk and dragged it to rest between her chair and Renestrae’s. Riordan set the tray down, gave both women a friendly smile and sketched a wave before exiting.
“Please, Renestrae, help yourself and be at home. I promised you yesterday that I would explain what we had asked you to help us with, but first, let’s enjoy the honey bread while its hot.” She reached for one of the small pewter camp plates and began putting a selection of items on it, liberally dousing two still-hot slices of the thick fried bread with butter, honey and jam. Setting her plate aside, she picked up the steaming tea kettle and held it up with a raised eyebrow, “Tea? It is a honey and spice blend, heavy on the cinnamon, that Riordan makes up for me, quite delicious.”
Suspicion caused Renestrae’s mind to question the other’s motivations; and then, in turn, whether the tea was some witch’s potion. Looking into the other’s dark, thoughtful eyes, she immediately dismissed the thoughts as absurd. Truly, the Chimera of stories were a villainous sort! This was no snake disguised as a fairy, no. While the Lady Ynella did not have the vibrancy of the day before, there was still something that emanated from her being, something that spoke to the bard.
“I offer my thanks for your generosity,” she said, as she unthinkingly tucked a stray lock of inky hair behind her ear, an escapee from her braid. “If it would please you, I shall gladly take tea and bread both.” She was not the sort to divert her gaze, noble or not; she was, however, a little contained.
“It would please me greatly,” Ynella responded, true humor lighting her husky voice. Up close, the resemblance of Renestrae’s eyes to Mikhael’s was even more remarkable, but Nell once again dismissed it as none of her business. “A guest should always have the hospitality and protection of their host’s House, even if that House is currently a tent set on a sodden field.” She poured tea for them both, and gestured that Renestrae should help herself to the food. Ynella took a sip of her tea and then reached for her plate, balancing it on her knees. “Breena makes a wash of fresh eggs and milk for the bread before she fries it...quite delicious. And the cinnamon…” she sniffed the scent of the tea appreciatively, “it reminds me of home...my mother used to bake with cinnamon quite often and make cinnamon candles.”
There was the barest of hesitations before Renestrae drew gingerly from the steaming tea, being careful not to singe her lips. She was glad to have accepted; the warmth was quick to sink into her tired bones. She was a little uneasy as to the friendliness. She had more or less kept to herself at the Gathering, having the preference of being in her own company, if only because her patience had grown so short. She could certainly speak with pleasantries, but with the promise of a far more weighty conversation in the air, she was eager for it to be done.
“They are most fragrant,” she volunteered, and it was a true enough comment, although there wasn’t much heart in it. “Forgive me, my Lady. I do not mean to appear so ill-tempered when you have been nothing but generous.”
Ynella waved her hand in dismissal of the apology, “It is of no concern. No doubt you are wondering, as I asked you here, when I am going to get to the point. I should be the one apologizing. I have let myself become distracted with wanting breakfast and our packing. It is a bad habit of mine as we do not stand on ceremony at Penhallow Manse.”
“What do you know of y Un Cysgodi, the Shadowed One?” Ynella asked directly, although her voice was still light and friendly.
As though gauging whether she had asked in all seriousness, Renestrae levelled her gaze her, there being a heartbeat or two before she finally answered.
“That he is all the Light is not,” she said easily, as though they were learned words. “Although, with respect, he seems to be a thing to frighten children. Where I am from, we cannot afford to let foolishness cloud our senses. A shadow is simply what it is. When our days are dark, there is far too much to do for us to be fearful of what evil shadows may hold. We cannot trust the gods to keep us safe, only ourselves.”
Perhaps she had said too much, but then, so many of the mountain villages shared such an attitude. Whatever their thoughts on the Chimera were, the Chimera didn’t show themselves and tend to their sheep. It was only the people of the villages who did that.
Ynella finished chewing and swallowing a forkful of the crusty hot bread and took a sip of her tea before responding. “Many of the younger races believe y Un Cysgodi to be nothing more than a legend or myth used to keep people on the right path or to frighten children. The Chimera, however, believe that Arawn Cysgod was a very real being that existed in the time before time. Cysgod is now the creature known as y Un Cysgodi, the Shadowed One, and legend or reality, his influence is felt in this world.”
“In the time before time known as the Age of Dreaming, the Cymry were the guardians of the Great Talisman, the arcane convergence that held Ley, the great lines of power in check and kept the flow of magic in the world balanced. But the Cymry erred and the Talisman was arcanely shattered. The Ley-Lines, those pathways of great power that encircle and permeate our world, no longer had a means to remain in balance so the Light and the Shadow now war for dominance. Unless the convergence can be reestablished someday, Gaia will remain arcanely unbalanced.” Ynella smiled, “Sorry for the history lesson, but it is needed if you are to understand what we did yesterday.”
“Creatures now roam the night that were never spawned by nature alone. Creatures such as the Gray Ones who merge the mien of man and wolf and to whom we are nothing but prey. y Un Cysgodi now influences our world and his power has grown to the point where he can possess those unwary enough to allow him in. Under normal circumstances, he can only take up residence in the spirit of those that ask him to enter or that he can lure with his dark promises of power. But, sometimes, like yesterday, even a good man can fall to the Taint of the Shadow.”
“The men that attacked the High Lord and the Gathering were all Shadow Touched, they serve y Un Cysgodi, and once you agree of your own free will to serve him, you are lost. In Brán’s case, his wounding made him vulnerable and the Knight of the Black Order tried to infect him with his own Taint before he died. If Brán had not been so strong of will and had let his guard down, he might have been lost to the Shadowed One. But, he is strong and had training on how to resist such things. What I did was employ an ancient arcane ritual to draw the essence of the Shadow Taint from him and disperse it.”
Chimera! She was of the Chimera, also -- but she did not identify with the term at all. Renestrae listened attentively. She could hear little whispers of objections in her head, counters to the Lady’s explanation. In their tellings, the Mar’kathi had stressed the hubris of the Chimera, that they were drunk and terrible with power. To hear her so calmly explain it, so extensively, so openly...it further sewed seeds of doubt. She would have been more skeptical at the talk of the Grey Ones or the Taint of Shadow had she not seen the escaping shadow for herself. The Grey Ones were simply stories of wolves that behaved strangely, no doubt disease-ridden.
Both the Lady Ynelle and Syr Riordan would have surely seen the tiny twitches in her expression, the flickers of disbelief, and then reluctant acceptance that what was said might have been truth. Beware their silken words, she could hear one of the elders saying. Beware their ill intent. They speak with tongues of quicksilver, beautiful to behold, but poisonous.
...But if she was Chimera, were her words not poisonous, also?
“I cannot deny what I was witness to, my Lady,” she said softly, almost ashamedly, as her gaze dipped to the honey-soaked bread upon her plate, a welcome distraction. “I know nothing of the arcane. I am certain you have spent your breath unnecessarily upon me; it is beyond my understanding.” Indeed, why would should they expend their words upon her, some strange outsider to their ways? Then, she wondered -- as she had known their presence, surely they knew of hers? Her blue eyes dipped upward as the thought startled her.
“Everyone lacks knowledge of one thing or another, Renestrae,” Ynella said kindly. “And one person’s truth is not always the same as another’s. As long as both people follow the Path of the Light and not the Shadow, then those differences should be embraced and not reviled or rejected out of hand.” It was not her place to bring up the girl’s Cymry heritage. That journey was hers and hers alone. Like with Mikhael, Renestrae had crossed the path of the Penhallows for a reason. Unlike Mikhael, however, her path was just crossing whereas he had been tossed on their doorstep by Gaia’s tempests.
Those words would surely remain with her. Renestrae could not help but think that there was a veiled message in the other’s words. A Cymry as powerful as she could not possibly be ignorant to the quiet seed of ability that resided within the bard. The Lady Ynella had her respect already, but now had it all the more.
“I shall remember that well, Lady,” she promised, giving a slightly more generous smile than she had before. She felt as though she would have liked to stay, but a wave of anxiousness ran through her, a reminder that her mother would be waiting for her return. “I am loathe to leave your presence, but I must be along. The road waits not for me.”
“I understand. Perhaps our paths will cross again someday?” Ynella answered, then gestured to the tray laden with food. “At least finish your breakfast while I ask Breena to pack you some fresh cheese and bread to take with you.”
“You are too generous,” Renestrae said. “I have nothing to offer in return for your hospitality, my Lady, and it shames me.” She curled her fingers against the heel of her palm, and released them again. “But...yes, I should hope that we cross ways again.” What surprised her the most was not that she said it genuinely, but that she said it at all. Without hesitating further, she mopped up the spilled honey on her plate with the bread. She had to admit to herself, it was a far more welcome meal than her previous prospects.
Ynella rose to her feet and led the way outside, pausing just beyond the tent’s flap, “Guests are not required to reimburse their hosts beyond providing the enjoyment of their company.” Her smile was gentle and her eyes warm, making light of the admonishment. In fact, her eyes positively danced as Breena came forward with a cloth wrapped package.
“I understand from Syr Riordan that the young miss has far to journey. I made her a packet of food that should see her through a portion of her travels,” the old woman said, holding the package out to Renestrae. “It’s naught but fresh bread, cheese and some dried fruit, but should do you quite well, young miss. My man made sure your horse’s shoes were tight and saddle leathers in good repair.”
The bard carefully set the plate aside, so that she could stand and clasp Breena’s wrists earnestly before she took the package.
“I will remember your kindness as well,” she said easily. She was starting to feel overwhelmed. As the Gathering had dismantled her worldview piece by piece, so had insult been added to injury by the sheer degree of kindness they exhibited. The Chimera were meant to be power-hungry, cruel, and reckless; she had seen them to be courageous, giving, and full of warmth.
When Renestrae turned from Breena, Ynella stepped forward and clasped her gently on the shoulders to place a light and very fleeting kiss on each cheek, “May your journey be safe under the Light.” By now, Riordan had arrived leading Renestrae’s horse. He gave her a slight bow of the head indicative of respect, “May the Four Winds guard you on your journey home, lass.”
“And...to you as well,” she said, as she took the reigns from Riordan, looking from him to Ynella. “Syr,” she added, despite his previous dismissal of formality. With as much control as she could muster, she led her horse away, only glancing over her shoulder to raise a hand in farewell. No, she was not running. She was returning home.
Was it home, though? Home was where one was welcomed, for all of their merits, for all of their flaws. If they knew her to be Chimera...
She repeated to herself: I am returning.
And yet, it felt as though she were fleeing.