Friday, November 04, 2005

The Root and the Way - Prologue - Part II

Rafella screamed --

-- and awoke in her own chambers, to darkness and the drumbeat pounding of her heart in her chest and the slow, steady breathing of Poul sleeping under the blankets beside her.

Queen Rafella III of Roon propped herself upon her elbows and took a deep, shaky breath. Her skin was clammy with night sweat, and the bed linens were snaked around her legs like a truss - she must have done quite a bit of thrashing. It was a wonder her nightmare hadn’t woken Poul, as well as her.

Nightmare. That’s all it had been. She was in the here and now, two weeks from her third Binding, just under two years into her reign as Roon’s Queen. She had had a particularly vivid nightmare of her first Binding Day, her own memories twisted and turned, no doubt, by the stress of the rumblings from the Continent and the possibility of open war with Altessa. That was all. Her mother - Sakinael keep and protect her - had never said such things. Had never done such things. “Just a dream,” she whispered, with more than a little relief.

“You’re having nightmares again.”

Rafella twitched at the unexpected voice, and she involuntarily let out a little yelp. “Poul!” she hissed. “Don’t do that! I thought you were asleep.”

“I was,” Poul cer Livan DarClamant, Prince Consort to the Queen of Roon, answered, without rolling from the side on which he’d been sleeping. “Until, that is, you screamed bloody murder. Something about your mother, I believe.”

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” Rafella apologized. “You should go back to sleep.”

Poul ignored her. He had a habit of doing that. “It’s been nearly a year,” he said, turning over onto his back. In the gloom, her dark-adjusted eyes could just discern the outline of his features; by the way his strong nose and chin were pointing, he still wasn’t looking at her. “Is it the same one as before?”

“Poul,” she said, in a tone that made it clear she didn’t want to continue in this vein. “It’s of no concern. Go to sleep.”

Her husband was silent for a long while, though she could tell by the nature of the silence that he had not fallen back into slumber. “It is almost complete, Rae,” he said finally. He shifted so that he was on his side now, facing her, and gently traced the curve of her shoulder through the thin fabric of her night clothes. “I know I’m new to this, but, as I understand it, the Third Binding is the toughest, and it’s almost over. If that’s what’s worrying you.”

Rafella snorted and let her body fall back to the mattress, turning so the she faced him, as well. She reached out and unerringly took his face in her hands, and have him a quick, tender kiss. “I love you, Poul,” she said, with a small grin. “I love you until the ends of the world and back again. But you’ve much yet to learn about me.”

“Ah,” he said, and she could hear the self-deprecating smile in his voice. “Then the Third Binding is not, I take it, what’s worrying you.”

“I’ve been training for the Bindings nearly my entire life, Poul,” she answered. “Honestly, it will be a relief when this Third is over.” She paused, then smiled. “Besides, it’s the First Binding’s that’s toughest.”

He stroked her hair gently, brushing errant locks from her forehead. “Only you DarClamant women would be crazy enough to go through this three times,” he said softly.

Poul’s voice was so heavily laced with sarcastic gravity that Rafella actually laughed aloud, her nightmare all but forgotten.

“Careful, my Queen,” he went on, now chuckling himself. “You’ll wake the dread babe Graecanna.”

“She sleeps through anything now,” she replied, matter-of-fact, her laughter winding down. “We could take her to Dorn in the height of winter and she’d only wake up if she was hungry.”

“She gets that from your side,” Poul teased. “Dead to the world when you’re asleep, the lot of you. And why in the world would we want to take her to Dorn in winter?”

“If I’d known you talked this much in the middle of the night, I never would have married you, Poul cer Livan.”

“Of course you’d have married me,” he retorted. “I’m a charming rogue. None can resist the charming rogue.”

Rafella laughed again, helplessly. “You’re right, of course,” she said, and kissed him again. “I’m powerless against your many charms.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying these last three years.”

“I’m going to check on Gracie,” Rafella said, bracing a hand against his chest to lift herself to a sitting position. He gave a little grunt of mock pain, for which she gave him a playful tap of admonition. “Do you think it’s grown cold in here? The brazier seems to be out.”

“I thought it seemed too dark in here. Didn’t Manse replenish the coals before we retired for the night?”

Rafella frowned as she stood and found her robe by touch, hanging from the head-post on her side of the bed. “I guess he didn’t,” she said, shrugging on the light satin garment, tying the belt loosely around her waist. “Though I could have sworn that he did.”

Poul propped himself up on his elbows. “Do you want me to see if I can re-stoke it?” he asked.

“I’m perfectly able of stoking some coals, my brave Prince Consort,” she said playfully, though with the slightest note of irritation riding under that playfulness. Poul still slipped back into what Rafella privately referred to as “Continental thinking” without realizing it, which she had found annoying to the point of anger in the first months of their marriage. Though she had learned to deal with the annoyance – Poul couldn’t help his upbringing, after all, and it wasn’t his fault that the so-called enlightened Altessans on the Continent treated women like the most fragile of crystal, to be put out only for display and never to be touched lest they break – and though Poul was getting better about checking the instinctual chauvinist reactions instilled by more than twenty years immersed in the upper echelons of Altessan society, it only made the times when he did let his “Continental thinking” get the better of him stick in her craw that much more.

Of course, if she was honest with herself, it certainly didn’t help that she had inherited her father’s famous short temper. The rows she and Poul had had during the first year of their marriage had become the stuff of legend to the Keep’s servants, if Manse was to be believed. She was getting better about that, though there were still times when she wanted to take Poul’s overprotective attitudes and stuff them down his throat.

Not that she’d ever admit that aloud.

“I’m up, anyway,” she went on, the hint of irritation now gone from her voice. “No sense in you getting up, too.”

“You have the right of it, as always, my Queen,” Poul said, affecting the pronounced accent favored in the Altessan Court in Cinten. He sat up fully in the bed and somehow managed to execute the sweeping bow also favored in Cinten, his hand spinning thrice as it came down from above his head in an exaggerated arc before tucking neatly into his midsection as he folded over. From this position, and in the same affected accent as before, he continued, his voice muffled by the blankets, “And might I be the first to say that you possess a keen intellect and a sparkling wit!”

Rafella laughed in spite of herself. He may still be a chauvinist boar, she thought with a smile. But at least he’s a self-deprecating chauvinist boar.

Aloud, she said, in mock exasperation, “How you can manage to be so amusing in the middle of the night is beyond me. I guess I’ll have to keep you around a while longer.”

“And mercy, too!” Poul exclaimed, still using the ridiculous accent, still bent over at the waist in faux obeisance. “Surely, you are the perfect specimen of woman!”

Now she giggled, unable to stop herself, hating the way it made her sound like an 8-year-old girl. “Shush,” she said, still giggling. “You really will wake Gracie if you keep carrying on like that.”

She made her way slowly around the bed, bare feet padding silently on the cold stone floor, finding the big brass brazier in the center of their large sleeping quarters by the instinctual direction of one who has become accustomed to waking in the dead of night. True, Graecanna had been sleeping through the night for the better part of two months now – ever since she’d passed her first birthday, in fact – but Rafella had eschewed a wet nurse after her daughter’s birth (unusual, but not unheard of in the history of DarClamant women on the throne of Roon), and so had grown used to the feedings in the middle of the night. A part of her, larger than she was willing to admit, missed those intimate moments in the dark with Gracie, just the two of them in the ancient oaken rocking chair that had been in her family for as long as anyone could remember. Sharing a closeness that could not be adequately explained by words alone, Gracie suckling at her breast quietly, half-asleep, one small, perfect hand curled into Rafella’s auburn hair, the warm weight of her in Rafella’s lap more comfort than burden. This part of Rafella quietly despaired at the disconnection of that bond; even though Gracie would not be fully weaned for months yet, she felt that the secret closeness of their midnight times was gone, that her daughter was now somehow further from her than before. She’d not been prepared for the power of this bond, nor the shallow emptiness that the separation of that bond had left in her. She supposed her own mother had gone through something like this when Rafella had been Gracie’s age, but this was intellectual knowledge. The part of her that so keenly felt that separation was convinced she was the only woman in the world who knew this loss.

She’s growing so fast, Rafella thought, and the logical part of her winced at the naked anguish in the tone. She’s growing so fast, before I know it she won’t even need me anymore.

Rafella shook her head, silently chiding herself for her selfishness as she reached the brazier and reached down a hand to hover just above the brass. Sure enough, barely any heat radiated from the metal – its surface would be lukewarm at best, cool enough to touch. Manse must not have refreshed the coals before they retired, after all.

Kneeling, she reached out and found the latch to the brazier’s door by touch and opened it. Inside, the nearly-spent coals lay in a desultory heap, only barely glowing, casting a faint, pale orange-pink glow on her face. She clucked to herself in disapproval, reaching under the brazier’s main compartment to the hopper that contained small logs and kindling, vowing to have a quiet word with Manse in the morning – spring may have come, but spring was still a cold time on Roon, especially here in the North, and she did not want her daughter to catch a fever at this late date.

Distracted, she nearly fell into the open brazier when Graecanna let out a sudden, terrified shriek.


That single word, torn so clearly from her child’s throat, sent a spasm of fear down Rafella’s spine. She was up on her feet and moving before she could even consciously think about it, quickly crossing the remaining distance to Gracie’s cradle in the blackness with sure steps.

Gracie was just learning her words, could speak only a handful, and those only fitfully; more often than not she would babble gibberish incoherent to all save herself. “Mama” was one of the words she knew, but Rafella could count on one hand the number of times she had actually uttered the word before this night, and never had her daughter said it so distinctly, without the mushiness of a young mouth still learning to form itself around the strange sounds of speech. If Gracie hadn’t sounded so utterly frightened, Rafella’s heart might have swelled with love to hear it.

As it was, her heart had constricted with an unexplained, icy dread.

“Was that Gracie?” Poul asked, his voice concerned. She was only distantly aware that he spoke, and couldn’t be bother with a reply.

“Mama’s here, Gracie,” she said, and marveled at how calm and soothing her voice sounded to her ears when she felt anything but calm and soothed. She reached into the simple wooden crib – again, another article that had been in her family seemingly since time began, the wood rubbed smooth by the restless searchings of countless little hands – and laid her hands on her baby, whose single cry of fear had descended into wordless whimpering. Gracie was thrashing about in her swaddling clothes, the soft linens crumpled and twisted up in her small legs. “Shhh, Mama’s here, baby, everything’s all right.”

“Mama…” the child whined softly. “Mamamamamama … NO!

This last as loud as her first cry, and as distinct. Graecanna was clearly scared, but she also appeared not to have woken up. Just a nightmare, then.

So why was she not reassured? Why was her stomach clenched with her own fear?

“Shhh, baby, shhh,” she crooned, stroking her forehead. Her fingers came away clammy with night sweat. “Shhh, it’s just a bad dream, Gracie, just a bad dream…”

She felt a hand suddenly drop on her shoulder and had to stifle a scream. She whipped around –

– to find Poul standing there, a half-seen outline in the gloom, the hand he had placed on her shoulder still raised in the air, as if he’d touched something hot.

She had not heard him approach.

“Poul,” she said, a little breathlessly. “Frightened me.”

She saw him give a little shake of his head – think nothing of it – though couldn’t see his face to read his expression. “Is she all right?” he asked, coming up beside her. He rested his hands on the crib rail and looked down at their daughter, still restless in the throes of her nightmare. “I think she’s still asleep.”

Rafella nodded and continued to stroke her daughter’s forehead. “She’s having a nightmare.”

“Some nightmare,” he said quietly, reaching his own hand down and caressing Graecanna’s downy strawberry hair. “Did you hear her say – ?”

“Yes,” Rafella said simply. “Scared me half to death.” She laughed weakly, without much humor. “And here I’ve been trying to get her to call me ‘Mama’ more often, instead of ‘Baba’.”

Poul put his arm around her shoulders protectively – and, this time, she was glad of his protectiveness. She still felt oddly uneasy, and his loose embrace was reassuring, began to calm her jittery nerves.

Which only made what came next harder on Rafella.

“Hair!” Graecanna said in a high, clear voice, and then, amazingly, she sat straight up in the cradle, the movement so sudden that it caused both of her parents to take an involuntary step back. The infant – almost a toddler, really – whipped her head around from side to side; Rafella could see the large white orbs of her eyes as they danced back and forth, seeming almost to float of their own volition in the darkness. “Mama! Hair! No! Hair!

The hairs on the back of Rafella’s neck stood on end, as her nightmare came rushing back into her mind, the thing with no face that her mother had become, cruelly grabbing a handful of her hair and yanking

“By the God,” she heard Poul breath from beside her. “What kind of dream is she having?”

“I don’t know.” Rafella’s voice came out barely above a whisper.

“We should wake her,” her husband said with authority. Then, more hesitantly: “Should we wake her? Is this like sleepwalking? My Nan used to tell me you could kill someone if you woke them while they were walking in their sleep.”

Hair,” Gracie moaned, and, to their horror, grabbed two handfuls of her own hair in her perfect little hands and began to pull.

“By the God!” Poul exclaimed again.

“Gracie!” Rafella yelped, and reached forward.

Poul shot out his arm in front of her. “Don’t – “

“I don’t care what your stupid Nan said!” Rafella was nearly screaming now, a hard, fast panic bubbling inside her like water about to come to boil. In the cradle, Graecanna was still sitting up, still trying to pull out her own hair, her moaning growing louder, almost a howl, now. “We’ve got to stop her! She’s hurting herself, Poul!”

She roughly pushed his arm away and, almost a continuation of the same movement, stepped forward and scooped her daughter up into her arms. Gracie didn’t appear to notice – she kept right on keening and tugging at her hair, tossing her head from side to side, her eyes staring sightlessly. Rafella began to rock back and forth, muttering wordless hushes and trying with one hand to untangle Gracie’s hands from her night-mussed hair, with little success.

Poul,” she hissed, in between quiet coos. “Help me!”

Hair!” Gracie shrieked, as if in answer.

Poul, who had been staring dumbly, unbelieving, at the scene for a handful of heartbeats, blinked at his daughter’s harsh cry. It seemed to wake him from a trance, for he shook his head (as if to clear it) and stepped forward, his hands reaching out to grab Gracie’s –

– and that was when the door to their sleeping quarters flew open, the large, carved oaken slab nearly ripped from its hinges, slamming into the wall with a jarring crash.

(To be continued...)

The Root and the Way copyright © 2005 by JP Brassard. You may use any part of this text freely, so long as you do not use it in a commercial enterprise, and do not intend to rip me off.

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