Tania arrived at Cordelia’s bedchamber to find the door locked against them and Bryn hammering on the white wooden panels.
“Let me in, Cordelia – you are not well. Hopie is coming.” He paused, but there was no reply. He banged the flat of his hand on the door. “Cordelia? You must open the door.”
“Hopie has been sent for,” Edric explained to Tania. “But the Princess won’t let anyone into the room.”
Bryn looked at Tania. “She is alone in there – she will not even speak with me.”
Tania pressed her ear against the door. “Cordelia?” she called. “It’s me. What’s wrong? Open the door, please.”
There was no reply.
There was a rustling sound along the corridor. Hopie had arrived, her brown dress crumpled and stained from her long labours, her face careworn.
“Thank heavens,” Tania said. “We can’t get a word out of her.”
Hopie rapped on the door with her knuckles. “Cordelia? What nonsense is this, sister? Come now, open the door and let me in. I shall not harm you.” She listened for a few moments then shook her head and turned to Bryn. “Does she have the symptoms of the plague?”
Bryn’s voice shook as he replied. “All was well, but then she became pale and complained of a tightness in her chest. She collapsed onto the floor, clutching at her stomach and coughing. There was blood on her lips. I tried to help her, but she screamed at me and tore at my face. I ran for help. When I returned the door was barred against me and Cordelia would not speak.” His eyes were full of dread. “I fear she is too sick to respond.”
“But why bar the door?” asked Hopie. “No matter – Edric – Bryn – use what force you must.”
The two young men hurled themselves at the door. Once it resisted, the second time Tania heard wood splintering, and the third time the door burst open. Hopie was the first into the room, Tania close behind her.
They came into a white chamber with open windows and silk curtains flying in the wind. But there was no sign of Cordelia.
They moved quickly into the bedchamber.
“Cordelia!” called Hopie. “You must let us help you.”
Tania noticed that the bedclothes had been torn from the mattress. An odd, sick feeling grew in her stomach as she walked slowly around the bed.
She swallowed hard. “She’s here,” she said. Cordelia was huddled in the corner of the room wrapped in sheets and blankets so that only her face was visible, flushed and running with sweat. There were flecks of blood on her lips and chin. Her eyes were strained wide open.
Tania knelt in front of her and reaching out very slowly.
“Cordie? Don’t be scared. It’s only me.”
The feral eyes focused on her and Cordelia’s mouth twisted into a bloodstained snarl. She shrank away, pulling the covers closer around herself.
“Why is she like this?” murmured Edric. “No one else is showing these symptoms.”
“None other have animal spirits so deep in their souls,” said Hopie. “Think you that her gift of empathy with the beasts of Faerie is a thing of the mind – of the intellect? No, it runs through her like the blood in her veins. The sickness has set it loose – she is lost in it.”
Now Tania understood.
She’s acting like a sick animal would. She’s hidden herself away in a private place – and she’s waiting to die.
“Cordelia, my love?” Bryn moved closer to her, a hand reaching tentatively out. “Have no fear…”
Cordelia snarled at him and raked the air with clawed fingers.
“Touch me not or I will rend your face to the bone!” Cordelia’s voice was guttural and savage.
“No, Cordie,” Tania said. “Don’t be daft – it’s Bryn. He won’t hurt you. He loves you, remember?”
Cordelia’s face turned to her.
“Tania…?” she said hoarsely, a glimmer of recognition igniting. “Leave me, dearest sister – leave me now. I would die alone.”
“Listen to me, Cordie, you’re not going to die,” Tania said. “Hopie will give you some medicine – and if that doesn’t work quickly enough, the King will come and put you in a lovely deep sleep.” Cordelia still stared at her, but her lips had relaxed and the manic snarl faded.
“You stay…” Cordelia rasped. “It is acceptable. You are not of Faerie born. But the others must go…” She spread her hand over her face. “They cannot see me die.”
“No!” cried Bryn. “I won’t leave you.”
Cordelia’s mouth opened wide and she let out a shivering, wailing howl that chilled Tania to the heart. There was nothing human in that howl – it was the wretched screaming of a trapped and dying animal.
“You’d better go,” Tania cried. “All of you. I’ll make sure she’s okay. Get Oberon.”
“Come,” said Hopie. “Do as she says. Master Chanticleer – fetch the King, and quickly!”
Hopie and Edric went, but Bryn stood hesitantly in the doorway, reluctant to leave his new bride.
“I’ll look after her,” said Tania. “I promise.”
His face misshapen by grief, Bryn turned and left. Cordelia’s howling died away to a harsh, grating panting, but her eyes still brimmed with a wild light.
“There you are, Cordie,” Tania said, her voice soft and low, using a tone she would have used on a frightened cat or dog. “They’re gone now. Come on, there’s no need to be scared. I’m here. No one’s going to hurt you. It’ll be fine.”
Very slowly she drew the covers back. Tania saw that she was still wearing the blue and gold wedding dress. Fear filled Cordelia’s eyes. She was taking quick shallow breaths now, her whole body trembling. Tania shifted so that she was beside her sister, holding her against her, pressing Cordelia’s head to her shoulder.
“That’s it, Cordie,” she crooned, wrapping her arms around her. “Nothing to be scared of. Everything’s going to be all right.”
But although Cordelia allowed herself to be held, her body was rigid, every muscle tense as a bowstring. And the trembling did not stop.
“How fares my daughter?”
Tania looked up at the sound of Oberon’s voice. Her arms were still around Cordelia, but her sister’s breathing had calmed to a low rasp. The eyes were closed now and her head was resting on Tania’s chest.
Tania looked into her father’s face and saw his agony as he gazed down at Cordelia from the doorway. She understood what he was feeling. It was only a few short weeks since Zara had been killed, and now death threatened another of his children.
“Can she be lifted to the bed?” asked Oberon.
Tania nodded. She kissed the top of Cordelia’s head and smoothed her hair.
“Cordie?” she crooned. “I need you to get up now – just for a moment or two. Will you do that for me?”
Cordelia’s head snapped up. Her eyes were insane and her body rigid. She hissed, her fingernails digging deep into Tania’s arm. Tania winced but tried not to flinch away.
“It’s all right. It’s me.”
“Tania?” The voice was puzzled. “Have you walked with me into death?”
“No. No one is dead. I need you to get onto the bed. You’ll be more comfortable there.”
Tania got slowly to her feet, drawing Cordelia up with her. Suddenly Cordelia lifted her face and sniffed the air. A confused, startled look came into her eyes and she turned her head to the doorway where the King stood.
“Ahhh!” she breathed, her eyes widening, her body trembling from head to foot. “My Lord…the Noble Beast…eagle of the mountain, lion of the vale, stag of the forest…he has come for me…he will lead me safe into the Great Darkness where my furred and feathered and scaled brethren await me.” She pulled away from Tania and stumbled towards Oberon, her hands reaching out for him.
He opened his arms and gathered her to him, holding her against his broad chest, lowering his head to kiss her hair.
“Daughter, mine!” he murmured. “I am not the harbinger of death – I am your father and while I have breath in my body I will stand forever between you and that deadly portal.” His arms tightened around her for a moment. “Sleep now, Cordelia, and awake to the eternal bliss that is your birthright.” His voice rumbled. “Sleep!”
Tania watched as the golden light came threading out from his fingers, writhing and braiding in the air, encompassing Cordelia’s quivering body, surrounding her with its gentle glow.
Cordelia’s feet lifted from the ground and she turned slowly as the cocoon of the Gildensleep knitted around her. Tania saw the desperate animal light fade from her eyes; tranquillity suffused her face as her eyelids peacefully closed.
The golden cocoon floated to the bed. Tilting and adjusting so that Cordelia was lying now on her back, it came lightly to rest on the mattress.
Tania ran her fingers through her hair, staring at her father. “Will she recover?” she asked. “I mean – will she get completely better?”
She was thinking of what Hopie had said about Cordelia’s animal spirit - the sickness has set it loose – she is lost in it.
“I know not,” said the King, walking into the room and standing at the bedside. “I have done all that I can for her.”
Tania turned as she heard others coming into the room. Bryn and Hopie, with Edric close behind.
Bran looked at Cordelia, and tears ran down his cheeks. “Be well, my darling, in good time,” he murmured. “I will not leave you again.”
They stood in silence around the bed. Hopie was the first to speak.
“I must away,” she murmured. “Farewell, Cordelia, for the moment – I go to seek a cure.”
“And I must also go,” said the King. “Sickness stalks the corridors of this place, and there are others who need release from the turmoil of the plague.”
They departed together.
Tania was acutely aware of Edric, standing at the foot of the bed with his head bowed. She glanced at him, hoping that maybe he would look at her and hold out a comforting hand; that he would offer her some small moment of love or shared grief or understanding.
But it didn’t happen.
He walked silently from the room.
Bryn knelt at Cordelia’s head.
Tania heard him singing softly to her.
“…and I will guide you there, beyond this shallow land
What lady is more fair, what lord to take your hand
As ever on we dance, among high heaven’s host
And I see at every glance the one I love the most…”
Tania couldn’t bear the sorrow that bled through the lovely melody.
There was a pain in her chest like stones grinding her heart as she made her way out into the corridor. She went back to her own chambers and lay on her bed, utterly exhausted. When had she last slept? Not for two nights now – one long night with Mallory, the second aboard The Cloud Scudder.
But how could she sleep, when all around her people were succumbing to the plague that she had brought on them?
How could she ever hope to sleep again…?
When she awoke, the bedchamber was full of shadows and there was the hiss and rattle of teeming rain.
She sat up – beyond the tall open windows the sky was dark. Not the beautiful starry velvet blue of a clear Faerie night, but the deep, brooding grey of rain clouds. She got up and walked to the window. The sill and the floor were wet from the wind-blown rain. It pricked cold on her face and tasted like tears on her lips.
Not for the first time, she wished they had watches or clocks in Faerie. It was disorienting never to know the exact time of day – and for all she knew, she may have slept half the night away.
She lit a candle and caught her reflection in a circular mirror above the washstand. She leaned close, looking into her weary eyes. The sadness in her face startled her.
She remembered her Dad’s words: What happens on the morning after happy ever after?
“Well? We’re there now, that’s for sure,” she said to herself. “So, what’s the answer? What happens now?”
Her reflection shook its head and said nothing.
She straightened up, listening to the endless rain. She could hear no other sound.
Out of nowhere, a sudden panic gripped her – the terror that she was the only person left alive in the whole of the Palace – the overwhelming conviction that the plague had taken everyone else in Veraglad. That she was surrounded by corpses.
She ran for the door. The candle fluttered and went out. She paused, breathing heavily, trying to calm herself. She turned to the nightstand and relit the candle. This time she moved more slowly, cupping the flame as she opened the door to her chambers and stepped out into the corridor.
The long hallway was bright with candles set in crystal sconces all along the walls. Someone must have lit the candles – someone must still be alive.
She snuffed out her own candle and walked to the end of the corridor – to the curved gallery that overlooked the main entrance hall to the Palace, five floors below her.
Voices drifted up. Almost breathless with relief, she leaned over the banister. The hall far below her was awash with candlelight and movement. Figures were gathered there.
She saw the King and the Earl Marshall Cornelius, as well as several other folk of the Royal Court. They were greeting a tall, silver-haired man clad in a heavy rain-soaked black cloak. His deep, powerful voice came up to Tania; it was a voice she recognised and the sound made her shiver.
“Ill met on a storm-wracked night, my Lord Oberon,” said Lord Aldrich of Weir, father of the Great Traitor Gabriel Drake. “Are all yet gathered? The summons of the Queen was most urgent – the Great Lords of Faerie have stern work ahead, I deem.”
“Greetings, Lord Aldrich,” replied the King. “Not all the Earls have yet arrived. Lady Kernow came with us from Dinsel, and Lord Tristan is with us, as is Fleance of Gaidheal. The Marchioness Lucina and Lord Brython are also in attendance.”
“How fares Earl Valentyne?” asked Aldrich.
“I have bound him and many another in the Gildensleep,” said the King.
“Then time presses hard on us – let us to Conclave ere all is lost.”
“We await the arrival of Lord Herne and Lady Mornamere,” said Cornelius. “Conclave cannot commence until all are present.”
“Then let us wish them good speed in their journey,” said Aldrich. “Who will deputize for Earl Valentyne?”
“Princess Eden, if she can be spared,” said the King.
“That is well. But I have given thought to our plight. I have summoned one who may be the surcease of all our woes.”
Tania leaned further out, listening intently. She had begun to get used to the courtly manner in which the Faerie folk spoke to one another. Surcease of all our woes meant Aldrich believed he had found a possible cure for the plague.
“Of whom do you speak?” asked the Earl Marshall.
“His name is Hollin – he is a Healer, a wise and skilful apothecary.”
“I have not heard of this man,” said Cornelius. “Whence comes he?”
Aldrich’s voice was sharp as he replied. “I will vouch for him, Earl Marshall,” he said. “And if the Lords and Ladies of the House of Aurealis travelled more often in the north, then perhaps his name would not be unknown to them.”
“And if Weir showed a warmer welcome to wayfarers on the northern roads, then perhaps it would not be perceived by many as a nest of darksome secrets,” said another Lord.
“Hush, Fillian,” said the King. “Weir is our ally.” He turned to Aldrich. “Speak on, my Lord, what of this man?”
“I have bidden him and those acolytes that follow him to come here with all despatch,” Aldrich replied. “They are upon a swift ship and if the wind is fair, they should be with us by dawn of tomorrow’s tomorrow.” He gave a formal bow. “It is for you, Lord Oberon, to judge his merits. If you find him wanting, then despatch him whence he came.” He put a hand to his chest. “But upon mine honour, I do believe he may find a firm footing in the mire upon which we stand.”
“So be it,” said the King.
“You are sure that this man has the craft to battle the plague?” asked the Earl Marshall.
“Nothing is certain till it be tested,” said Aldrich. “But it may prove so, my Lord Earl. The knowledge of Hollin is deep and subtle.”
“Then may the Spirits of the wind and of the sea speed his arrival, my Lord,” said Oberon. “But, come, you must be weary after your long journey – there is food and drink in the Star Chamber.”
The King led Lord Aldrich away out of Tania’s sight. She stood, still leaning over the banister, the rail digging into her stomach. She tasted blood and realized she had been biting down on her lip all the time she had been listening.
The last time she had heard that sepulchral voice, had been in Caer Liel in Weir; the Lord Aldrich had been speaking to his son and agreeing not to come to the King’s aid in his fight against the Sorcerer King of Lyonesse. Queen Titania had insisted that Aldrich was not a traitor – but all the same, Tania still feared and mistrusted him.
But he had spoken of a Healer. Could there really be someone in Faerie who would be able to prevail against the illness?
She heard footsteps along the corridor.
It was Rathina.
“You look as pale as aspen leaves, Tania,” Rathina said, scrutinizing her face. “What’s the matter? Why are you not abed? Has sleep deserted you as it has me?” A flicker of fear crossed her face. “Or are you unwell?”
Tania shook her head. “I’m not ill,” she said. “Lord Aldrich has just arrived.” She shuddered, “I’m sorry, but he gives me the creeps.”
A bleak smile curled Rathina’s lip. “’Tis a good phrase,” she said softly. “Aye, there is something about the Lord of Weir that makes the skin crawl, I cannot deny. But you should not fear him – were our Father in any doubt, Weir would have been excluded from the Conclave.”
“I heard him say something about a Healer – a man who might be able to deal with the illness. He’s already on his way.”
“Glad tidings, indeed, if it proves so,” said Rathina. “But I shall not dance the polka on a needle’s point till the deed is done.”
Tania looked into her sister’s face.
“Rathina – I know this sounds really weak,” she murmured. “But I need a hug…I need it really badly right now.”
Wordlessly, Rathina moved close to Tania and folded her in her arms.
It was a comfort to close her eyes and rest her head on Rathina’s shoulder, to feel her sister’s long thick dark hair against her face, to smell her scent and to relax into her embrace.
“These are hard times for all,” Rathina murmured. “The disease strikes us down like a quarter-ball at pitch-pin, and none may feel safe.”
Tania lifted her head. “Like a what at what?”
“A quarter-ball at pitch-pin. ’Tis a game, Tania – the purpose is to roll a wooden ball and strike down the pins. We played it often as children.”
Tania nodded. “Ten pin bowling, I get it.” She straightened up and moved out of Rathina’s arms. “It does feel a bit like that – except that I’m the one who rolled the ball. This is all my fault.”
Rathina raised an eyebrow. “You would speak to me of guilt?” she said. “Sister, I could trade you guilt for guilt ten times over and leave you groaning under the burden of my misdeeds.”
Tania didn’t have an answer to that. She pulled back the sleeve of her gown. There were four small crescent moon marks on her forearm – dark red with dried blood. The wounds of fingernails. “Cordelia did that,” she said. “She was so frightened, Rathina.”
“As are we all, sweet sister, as are we all.” Rathina linked her arm with Tania’s and drew her along the high gallery. “But we shall banish melancholy with naughty deeds.” She gave a sly grin. “Would’st visit in secret the Chamber of the Earls Conclave?”
“Are we allowed?”
“Nay – that is the whole point. ‘Tis a place most solemn and private, and none but the Earls may enter. Come.” Rathina began to run, towing Tania along with her.
They passed many closed doors. Tania wondered about the folk who filled those silent rooms. The Palace was full of people, but were any of them able to sleep, or were they all lying wide-eyed in the rain-filled night, dreading the coming of the plague?
She was sure at least that Hopie and Sancha and the Queen would not have taken to their beds. The most they would have allowed themselves was a brief nap to sharpen their wits. Tania wished she could be with them – wished she had some knowledge that would make a difference.
But she didn’t. Oberon had hoped she would be able to help – but so far, that hope had proved in vain. For all the use she was being, she may as well have remained in London with her Mum and Dad.
Tania soon lost track of where she was as her sister pulled her along the maze of corridors, but at last, they came to a pair of tall white doors of carved crystal.
Rathina lifted a candelabrum from its wall-sconce and pushed at the doors. They glided open into a large dark space, the sound of pattering rain echoing off the walls. Following her sister, Tania sensed immediately that this was a place where she should tread lightly and speak in whispers.
Rathina closed the doors behind them and held the candelabrum up.
The Chamber of the Earls Conclave was a lofty, circular room made entirely of glass. Tall pointed windows swept up to a high vaulted ceiling, their dark faces stippled and streaming with the rain. The thin spires that framed the windows were of a milky colour, hardly seeming substantial enough to hold off the pelting rain.
But most extraordinary and unnerving of all, was the floor beneath Tania’s feet. It was of a glass so clear that Tania felt as if she was standing on nothing.
“Oh!” She gasped and clutched at Rathina, suddenly realizing that she was looking down through fathoms of dark rain-lashed air to the dimly visible sea, far below. The Chamber overhung the cliff and there was nothing but the thin veil of glass under her feet to prevent Tania from plunging to her death.
Smiling at her unease, Rathina took Tania’s arm and walked her in a slow circle around the chamber. Set in crystal niches around the walls were simple, high-backed chairs made of smooth white stone.
“These are the Thirteen Sieges of Faerie,” Rathina explained. “Ten are reserved for the Lords and Ladies of the Ten Caers, and two for our Father and Mother.”
“You said thirteen,” Tania said. “Who sits on the last one?”
“No one,” Rathina replied. “It is always empty – it is called The Siege of The Lost Caer – but I have no notion why it is so named, for there is no such castle in all of Faerie.”
Tania noticed that there was a symbol carved in the crystal above each seat. She recognized the radiating sun of the King and the full moon of the Queen, but there were many others – a bird, a coiling dragon, a tree, a unicorn – a different symbol for every chair save one.
The Siege of the Lost Caer.
For some reason Tania felt a shiver run down her spine as she stood in front of the thirteenth chair.
“As soon as Lord Herne of Minnith Bannwg and Lady Mornamere of Llyr arrive, the Conclave will commence,” Rathina said. “Earl Valentyne will not be able to attend – Eden will take his place and represent Mynwy Clun, if she can be persuaded to leave his side. Lord and Lady Gaidheal are no more, so their son Fleance, a lad of but ten summers, will represent their Earldom. And of course there is no Lord nor Lady of Caer Regnar Naal, nor has been from time immemorial, so our Uncle the Earl Marshall shall sit in the Siege of Sinadon.”
“And where will Lord Aldrich sit?” Tania asked.
“Under the charge of the Wild Unicorn of Caer Liel,” said Rathina. “Dinsel is represented by the leaping salmon, Minnith Bannwg by the stag – each of the Earldoms of Faerie has its own charge. For Gaidheal, the oak tree, for Talebolion the sea-horse and for Sinadon the two crossed keys.” Rathina looked at Tania. “’Tis shame indeed that we come here on a stormy night – when the sky is clear the stars do shine so very bright!”
“Sorry? What was that?” Tania had been staring at the Siege of Weir, seeing in her mind the thin, dour face of the sinister old Lord.
“I see that I have not yet relieved your sour humour,” Rathina said. “This will not do. Come with me.”
Tania was glad to leave the Chamber; it was beautiful with its soaring walls of glass and crystal, but it was also a strange and uncanny place to be on a rain swept night.
Now Rathina led her up long winding stairways and through un-lit corridors until they came to a small door set in a wall of white stone.
Rathina put the candelabrum down and opened the door. Rain came spitting in. Smiling darkly, Rathina ducked in under the doorway and disappeared into the night.
Tania stooped and peered out. Rathina was standing ankle-deep in rain water on a wide circular roof-space, her head thrown back, her arms stretched out as the rain poured down on her, turning her red dress the colour of dried blood and flattening her long dark hair against her head.
“Rathina! Come back – you’ll get drenched, you total jackass!”
“No! Never!” Rathina shouted over the endless rattle of the rain. “Never! Never! Never!” She turned in a slow circle, stamping so that the rainwater went up in fountains all around her. “Come! Be cleansed!” She laughed and bent down, scooping up water in her two cupped hands and throwing it at Tania.
Tania spat out rainwater. “I’ll get you for that!” She ran out into the rain. Laughing, Rathina fled away from her, kicking up spumes of water as she ran.
Tania lost all sense of time as she and Rathina played tag out on the high rooftop in the bucketing rain. The storm consumed the night, and Tania abandoned herself completely to the elements. She and Rathina could have been children again.
Their game gradually slowed as their clothes became waterlogged and their limbs tired, but it was not until Tania managed to trap Rathina against the low wall that skirted the roof that they came to a breathless, laughing halt.
“You are out of your mind!” Tania shouted. “Look at us!”
Rathina blinked the rain out of her eyes, her smile fading. “Yes, Tania – I fear that you are right.” She turned suddenly and stepped up onto the lip of the low wall.
Tania moved towards her. Beyond the wall, there was nothing but the night and the rain and the few pointed rooftops of the highest towers of the Palace. “Rathina – don’t do that. It’s dangerous. You might slip. Come back down.”
Rathina looked back at Tania over her shoulder and now her face was strangely blank.
“They can never hate me so deeply as I hate myself, Tania,” she said in a dull, flat voice. “Do they not know that?”
“No one hates you,” said Tania, a fist of unease twisting in her stomach.
“Sancha has not spoken to me since Zara’s death. She cannot even bear to look at me. And I see only pity in Eden’s glance – no love – just pity!”
“It’s not easy for them,” Tania said. “You did terrible things – but that’s in the past now. You can’t let it get to you.”
“It is in my head all the time, Tania,” cried Rathina. “It gnaws at me. I cannot sleep for it. If feels as though my very soul is rotting in my chest. Oh, Spirits of Earth, Air and Water – I cannot bear it! I cannot bear to live with it.”
She turned again, opening her arms as if surrendering herself to the storm. She took a step and was on the very brink of the parapet.
“Tina, no!” Tania screamed.
Rathina turned slowly towards her, her eyes wide and amazed. “What did you call me?”
“I…I…don’t…” Tania stammered. “Tina. I called you Tina.”
Rathina stepped down off the wall and took Tania’s face between her hands. “That was your pet name for me when we were children,” she said, her voice full of sudden warmth. “Tania! You remembered your pet name for me!”
Tania felt a smile break out over her face. “Did I?” she gasped. “I did! Yes, I did.”
“You remembered something of yourself – of your true Faerie self!” Rathina exclaimed.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Tania said excitedly. “It just popped into my mouth. Tina. I used to call you Tina!”
Suddenly Tania was tight in Rathina’s embrace, and her mouth was close to Tania’s ear, her voice an urgent whisper. “Promise me something, Tania. Promise you will never abandon me to the darkness. Promise!”
“I promise. Of course I promise.”
For a long time they stood in each other’s arms while the rain continued to pour over them in a ceaseless, cleansing deluge.