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The Least of These--Part Five & Epilogue

Started by Evie, April 10, 2011, 02:03:05 PM

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   Part Five

   July 31, 918--Night
   Somewhere in Sostra, Torenth

   One moment I was suspended in darkness; in the next, I found myself standing on a cobblestone in a dead-end alley of some strange town.  Nora (for it was she who had brought me through the Transfer Portal) gently led me to one side.  No sooner had we moved out of the way than the next pair of Deryni—an elderly woman carrying a sleeping child—came through.  She in turn stepped off the Portal stone quickly to allow the next evacuees to arrive.

   There was a doorway close by, set into one of the alley walls.  It appeared to be the rear entrance to some establishment, and as I watched a door opened and a woman of middling years urged us to enter.  We filed through and found ourselves in a courtyard not too unlike the garden at Ivygreen.  After a moment I realized that this corner of the garden was mostly planted with medicinal herbs, though a bright profusion of ornamental plants flowered in the plant beds on the other side of the courtyard.

   Nora reached over to tug the mask off my face.  The cloth was almost completely dry now, and as she handed it back to me, I noticed it was of the same fabric as her gown's skirts, now ripped to tatters, although her chemise and most of her undergown remained intact.  Another woman's clothing was in similar disarray.  I gathered that they had sacrificed the strips of fabric that had been used to create our makeshift masks to guard our lungs from the harsh smoke of the warehouse fire.

   Others came to greet us then.  I recognized some as the Deryni who had chosen to leave Stavenham the previous evening, but the rest appeared to be locals, dressed in the colors of some household's servants.  They shepherded the new arrivals into a nearby building, where they began to tend to those among us who were more severely injured.  As my dazed mind took in my new surroundings and began to make sense of what was happening, one of the strangers approached me.

   "How badly are you hurt?"  The man's voice was strongly accented, and I had to listen carefully to understand him.  It dawned on me that I had no idea where I was now, or even if I was still in Gwynedd.

   "My skin and eyes sting a bit from the heat and smoke, but I'm just thirsty and very tired," I heard myself saying, though my voice sounded oddly distant and slightly slurred.  Nora turned towards me, a look of concern in her eyes, and said something to the man that I couldn't understand.  I thought she might have been speaking in Torenthi—I had learned a smattering of the language from watching my father negotiate with some of the Torenthi merchants and their factors whose business ventures brought them to Stavenham Port, and a word here and there sounded familiar—but before I could puzzle out what she was saying, I felt my knees give way from under me, and my world faded to black.


   When I revived from my swoon, I found myself on a pallet.  Master Rylan was seated close by, speaking quietly with Nora.

   "...too dangerous to return for the time being.  Maybe in a few more evenings it will be safe enough to risk a quick hop back to Stavenham to find out what's happened there, but the Custodes know that they're missing a member of the family, and they'll be sweeping the neighborhood quite vigilantly trying to find her.  She's safest here for now."

   "For now, yes, but she can hardly remain here forever!  What's to become of her?"

   Rylan sighed.  "I imagine that will depend in large part on what she chooses.  She may prefer to travel with her former neighbors south to Corwyn, but as for myself, I think that's still too close to Gwynedd to be worth the risk of trying to re-establish a life there, despite its somewhat autonomous state.  I could take her on with me to Tralia, if she's willing."

   "A young unmarried woman traveling through Torenth and Tralia in the company of a widower, unchaperoned, is bound to raise eyebrows, Rylan.  I'm not sure you'd be doing her much of a favor."

   "I know.  I'd offer for her, if it comes down to that.  She hasn't many options before her, though, and she's too bright a lass not to recognize that.  I'll not force her into marriage—God knows I don't want an unwilling bride!—but I'll put the offer before her.  Others might be willing to take her in as well; we all owe her father a life debt."  He paused, as if suddenly aware that I was awake and listening, and turned to face me.  "Ah!  Mistress Elena, how are you feeling?"  The Healer rose to move towards me, crouching beside my pallet and taking my wrist in his gentle yet firm grasp.  His eyes looked beyond me, somewhat unfocused, as if listening intently for something.  After a short while, he nodded and turned his gaze upon me with a sympathetic smile.

   "Well, your color is much better now and your pulse is no more rapid than one might expect from one who must be frightened half out of your mind.  Mistress Galina—she's the Healer who invited you into the courtyard earlier—has treated your burns already, so hopefully you'll feel much better now than when you passed out."

   I glanced around at our makeshift shelter, noting the rows of pallets along the wall, with most of the other refugees already sleeping off the fatigue of the last several anxious hours, despite the relative earliness of the night.  Or at least it had been early evening the last time I'd been aware of the passage of time.  "How long have I been out?" I asked, feeling self-conscious.

   "About two hours in all," the Healer said.  "You weren't unconscious all that long, but you needed rest, so the first time you began to stir, Mistress Galina went ahead and put you back to sleep for a bit.  She was already working on healing you at the time, and you were still in shock.  She thought it best that you sleep until your physical injuries had been healed."

   I glanced at my arms, noting that the fierce pink of the burns that had colored my skin earlier had subsided to my naturally fair complexion.  "Is this a convent infirmary, then?"  A religious house seemed an odd place to bring a number of Deryni refugees, yet I had heard that the Church of Torenth had a far more lenient view of Deryni than did the Church of Gwynedd, so perhaps it was not so strange in their eyes.

   "No, nothing like that."  The Deryni Healer seemed to blush slightly in the dim hearth light.  "We've been allowed to lodge for the night in the hall of a...Torenthi businesswoman of some means.  Mistress Galina is in her service as her personal Healer.  Both are in sympathy with the Deryni in Gwynedd and have offered up this home as a temporary refuge for those in need of a place to stay while fleeing the Custodes.  It's just for the night; most of us will be heading for other towns or kingdoms once we've had a chance to rest and consider all the options."  He paused, glancing uncertainly back at Nora, then back at me.  "You can't return to Stavenham now, Mistress Elena, but I'm willing to take you on to Tralia with me, if you wish.  I have distant kindred there, and Healers rarely have trouble finding a decent situation in any case, so I hope to be settled in somewhere in short order.  Though if you'd prefer to continue on with someone else, that's up to you.  There are some families who might be able to take you in, if you'd find traveling on with me...awkward."

   I forced myself to keep my composure, unwilling to give in to my grief before these kind folk who had done so much for me already.  "I know I can't return to Stavenham now, but...what of later?  Can't I ever return home?"

   Nora joined us, her eyes compassionate.  "I doubt it, not as long as the Custodes are so powerful there, at any rate.  There's too much of a chance you'd be recognized and arrested if you go back.  Maybe someday, if things get better for our kind, or once memories fade, you could see then if it's safe for you to return, at least for a visit.  Mistress Elena McTavish might be a name too well known to the Custodes right now, but perhaps Mistress Elena de Vara might not be."

   "De Vara?" I echoed in confusion. 

   The color in Master Rylan's cheeks rose.  "That...um...would be my surname.  And yours as well, if you decide you want to continue on with me.  That is...if you...."  He darted a nervous look at the woman beside him, and suddenly his meaning became clear to me.

   "Oh!"  My gaze dropped to my hands, unwilling to meet his.  I had nothing against the Deryni Healer—certainly I knew my father had held him in high respect—but I was not yet ready to consider a marriage to anyone.  As if guessing my feelings, the man stood, bowing respectfully.  "You don't have to decide tonight.  I'll be here tomorrow, and possibly one more day beyond that, if you need the extra time to decide—though you do need to make some choice as quickly as you can."  He smiled down at me with an awkwardly boyish smile that made him suddenly look years younger than the nearly three decades I suspected he had already lived.  "I know this must be rather uncomfortable for you, Elena—it is for me as well—but I would do my best to give you a life you might find some measure of contentment with, someday...." 

   "I am...honored by your offer, Master Rylan," I whispered.  "Please don't think me rude if I need a little time to think it over.  It's just that...I didn't expect any of this...."  Despite my best intentions, I felt tears prick at my eyes.

   "None of us did," Nora soothed, wrapping her cloak around me as the Healer nodded in understanding and retreated to his sleeping pallet.  "We thought we'd have more time to prepare, and that we'd be leaving Gwynedd in a far different way than we did.  And we certainly never expected that your family would suffer the wrath of the Custodes; we thought we'd all be safely gone by week's end, with the authorities none the wiser."  She gave my shoulders a squeeze.  "I know you're frightened.  I think we all are.  But Rylan's a good man; if you accept him, he'll do his best by you."  She smiled sadly.  "He was my brother-in-law, so I should know.  My sister loved him dearly."

   "Your...oh!"  I pondered her words, wondering how long the Deryni Healer had been a widower, wondering also how he'd lost his wife.  Had she died in Nyford, or had his family moved on from there before he'd even wed?  There was so much I realized I didn't know about this stranger who was offering me his name and protection.  "Then...will you be accompanying him to Tralia?"

   She shook her head.  "No, I'm afraid our paths part ways fairly soon, if not here in Sostra.  I travel with my mother who is in ill health and wishes to return to the land of her birth before she dies.  So we're off to find passage to the Ile d'Orsal in the morning, and from there to her kindred in Joux."

   Her casual reference to such distant lands startled me.  How highborn had her family—as well as Master Rylan's—been, if they both had family they could call upon in time of need in such distant lands as Tralia and Joux?  My father was a wealthy merchant and well traveled, yet most of my kinfolk on both sides of my family dwelt in Stavenham or the surrounding countryside, certainly no further beyond Stavenham than the borders of the Kheldish Riding.  Had these Deryni once been of the nobility, to have intermarried with families from beyond Gwynedd's borders?  Once again, I felt far outside of my element, completely displaced from all I knew.  But if my guess were correct, then how much more displaced must my new traveling companions be feeling now, with their entire lives overturned by the changes that had swept through the Kingdom in one short span of years, not quite a generation?

   "I'll let you rest," Nora said, leaving me her cloak and retreating to her own pallet nearby.


   August 1, 918
   Sostra, Torenth

   I awakened to the sounds of quiet discussions going on around me, and the household servants collecting pallets and blankets to store them away for the day.  I surrendered my sleeping pallet, watching as it joined the last of the items being carried out to make room for the trestles and boards that would make up the hall tables for the morning meal.

   "If you wish to freshen yourself, there are basins and ewers set out for the purpose in the withdrawing room beyond the dais," Nora informed me.  "Not much in the way of clean clothing to go around, unfortunately, though if you wish to hand me yours, I think I've a spare overgown in my pack that you can wear until your own clothing has had the smoke smell scrubbed out and has time to dry in the sun.  Or there are a few garments our hostess offered up on loan, but they're a bit...gaudy."  Nora's eyes sparkled with some hidden amusement, though I didn't know why.  "I think you'd prefer my overgown, personally.  Give me a moment to fetch it, and I'll bring it in to you.  The chamber is private enough; it's been reserved for the women and young children among us.  The men are stripping down and washing in the courtyard."

   Feeling shy, yet unwilling to go on smelling like a clogged hearth for another day, I allowed her to lead me to the withdrawing room, where I found not only fresh water for rinsing off, but also fragrant soaps and perfumed towels.  A small pile of odd garments also lay neatly folded beside the towels.  I unfolded one of the silky gowns.  It was quite lovely, though shockingly sheer; surely it was meant to be worn as an outer garment over some opaque gown!  I folded it and returned it to the pile self-consciously as Nora entered with a far more modest gown of sky-blue linen.  She noticed what I was doing and laughed.

   "No, don't wear that, or someone might assume you work here!"  She grinned.  "Here you are.  It might be a trifle loose on you, but it should serve the purpose until the laundress returns your clothes this afternoon."

   "What is this place?" I asked in confusion, looking around at the sumptuously appointed chamber.

   Nora grinned.  "Well, as Rylan told you last night, it's a private home.  But what he neglected to mention, fearing you'd had enough shocks for one evening, was that we're next door to a brothel.  This is the owner's residence."  She laughed at my shocked expression.  "Don't worry; the Birds of Paradise ply their trade in the house on the other side of the courtyard, not here.  As long as you remain inside, no passers-by will mistake you for one of the women-for-hire and offer you insult."


   Once I had finished with my ablutions and was more or less decently dressed again, I made my way to the table where my former neighbor Jamie and his family sat breaking their fast.  They rose as I approached, Jamie's mother barely daring to meet my eyes, her face suffused with shame, as if she feared I might blame them for all that had befallen my family.  Jamie's eyes were red-rimmed.  I suspected he might be grieving for Rose, though I didn't know if he was aware of exactly what had befallen her.  There was no way he could have seen her violation, I didn't think, unless there was some means by which Deryni could see through solid walls.  I doubted it; even Master Rylan had required the peephole.  But he may have heard the same cries and pleas that I had heard through that grotto wall and drawn his own conclusions about what had occurred.

   "We're so sorry," Jamie's mother sobbed as I sat on the bench across from her.  I reached across the table to squeeze her hand, forcing back my own tears.

   "I'm sorry for your losses as well," I said, though my voice sounded a bit hollow.  "Where are you headed now?"

   Jamie's mother glanced uncertainly at her husband, who sat stone-faced beside her.  He started slightly, as if awakening from a bad dream, regathering his thoughts before answering me.  "Coroth, I think.  It's a port city, and more isolated from the heart of the current...troubles.  The Duke is Deryni himself, so unless the Custodes find a way to overthrow him, I imagine we'll be safe enough there for the present.  I think we could start over again in Coroth, but if not, it should be easy enough to find passage there on a ship to...elsewhere.  I don't know...."  His eyes looked haunted.  "I don't know, Elena."

   They did not invite me to accompany them, and I didn't ask.  I imagined that Jamie would hardly welcome a daily reminder of my sister traveling on their uncertain journey with them, and I was certain, now that I had seen them again, that I could not bear to continue on with the family my sister might have married into, had she been free to follow her heart.  There would be no hope of healing for any of us in that; best to make a clean break of it.  "I wish you all well," I told them, and rose to join Nora and her mother instead.


   "Have you decided yet?" Master Rylan asked me quietly later that evening, once my meager belongings had been returned to me. I had returned Nora's gown to her and was as ready to move on as I could be, given the circumstances. 

   I nodded, feeling my cheeks warm.  "I don't really know anyone else here well enough to presume on their good will, but if it won't be too much of an inconvenience, I'll follow you to Tralia."

   He bowed over my hand.  "I know this is no easy choice for you nonetheless.  I understand you will need a bit of time to get used to the idea of a husband you never intended to wed.  All the same, I think it would be best if we marry before we leave Sostra, if you're willing.  I promise I won't presume to ask for anything else from you until you're ready."  My face flamed even further.  He looked away, pretending to check that his bundle of goods was securely tied, giving me time to regain my composure before slinging the pack over his shoulder and offering me his arm.  "Will you join me?"

   I hesitated only briefly before laying my hand on Master Rylan's arm, allowing him to lead me into our uncertain future together.



   August 1, 928

   I rocked my son Andrew in my arms, singing quietly to him in my native Gwyneddan, though I had become fluent in the tongue of my adopted homeland Tralia as well.  He soon fell asleep, and I laid him gently in his cradle, tucking a light sheet over him before turning to check on the pottage cooking at the hearth.

   My husband entered our home.  I smiled in welcome as I crossed the room to greet him, allowing him to gather me in his strong embrace, hugging him back with an enthusiasm born of profound relief.

   "You're back!  I was worried for you."

   Rylan bent to kiss me.  "I told you I'd be back in time for our wedding anniversary."

   So he had assured me, yet such promises were far from certain whenever he took the risk of returning to Stavenham.  Yet return he had, and on more than one occasion, for he had made a promise a decade ago to my father that he would not stop until the day when no more Deryni needed safe passage out of Gwynedd.  The numbers had dwindled over the years—his race had never been numerous to begin with, and of those who had chosen to flee the kingdom, there had been a variety of routes they had chosen which did not require a journey to Stavenham along the way—but often he had managed to find at least a few of his kind in hiding, hoping to slip through the busy port of Stavenham past the watchful eyes of the Custodes.  News of the hidden Portal had been passed around among the fleeing Deryni by word of mouth, though few knew exactly where to find it, which is why Rylan returned from time to time to guide his people to freedom.

   His people, now my own as well, for though I was human, I was linked by ties of marriage to a Deryni man and by ties of blood to Deryni daughters.  Our infant son, like me, so far appeared to be simply human.  I had feared Rylan would be disappointed if his long-awaited heir was not of the same kind as he and our other children, but he had merely smiled when I'd tentatively broached the subject, reminding me that it took far more than arcane powers or the lack thereof to make a man, and while he would like to bring a Healer child into the world someday, the Eleven Kingdoms have just as much need of the Andrew McTavishes of the world as well.

   "What news from Gwynedd?" I asked my husband, setting a bowl of pottage before him and joining him at our table.

   He began to dig in, relishing the first few mouthfuls of hot stew before replying.  "Fortune has taken yet another turn, though God grant this one will be for the better in the long run.  Rumor has it that some of the Statutes of Ramos have been repealed, for one thing.  The Custodes abbeys in Ramos and Rhemuth have also been dissolved and the Equites Custodum Fidei have been disbanded.  The Custodes Fidei order still exists, but their star is waning, and they've been placed under new leadership with the intent to reform them."  He took a swallow of ale to wash down his pottage.  "Not that it's safe for our people to return home yet by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a start."

   "Yes, it's a start."  I felt a twinge of sadness that my father had not lived to see this day.   Rylan had discovered, on his first return to Stavenham after our flight for our lives, that my father had survived the burning of his properties only to be executed for aiding and abetting "criminal" Deryni, burned at a stake in the market square for his apostasy.  My mother and little sister Pippa had both perished before that, in the initial flames that had consumed our home, for that had been the leverage the Custodes and the Bishop's soldiers had used to force my father into confessing his subversive acts against the Stavenham authorities.  And as for Rose, either there had not been enough evidence against her for her to share our father's fate or else certain men in places of authority simply found it more advantageous to lock her away in a prison cell for reasons of their own.  In either case, it was a mere shell of a woman Cousin Rory found when he finally managed to convince—or more likely, bribe—her jailers into releasing her into his keeping on his parole that he would not allow her to get involved in any further 'rebellion' or 'apostasy.'  Rose never recovered enough to wed him.  Broken in both health and spirit, she did not survive the winter.

   Not all my father's legacy had perished, however, in the Custodes' flames.  Cousin Rory managed to acquire what was left of Papa's former properties, and the Bishop, less suspicious of a Montrose than a McTavish, allowed him to rebuild on them and expand his mercantile holdings.  A fat annual tithe to the Bishop's purse doubtless sweetened the deal.  Rory dared not jeopardize his growing enterprises by any active involvement in the same passions and pursuits that had gotten Papa killed, but as Rylan soon discovered, he was willing to turn a blind eye to the occasional trespasser who happened to wander through his gardens late at night to pay their respects to the virtuous Saint Catulina.  The warehouse with its hidden sanctuary was too badly fire-damaged to be left standing and eventually had to be torn down and rebuilt, this time without a secret chamber, but the grotto itself remained intact and continues to stand to this day, the last reminder of the McTavish family who used to live in Ivygreen House.
"In necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas."

I have a vocabulary in excess of 75,000 words, and I'm not afraid to use it!


"If having a soul means being able to feel love, loyalty, and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans."

James Herriot (James Alfred "Alfie" Wight), when a human client asked him if animals have souls.  (I don't remember in which book the story originally appeared.)


"In necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas."

I have a vocabulary in excess of 75,000 words, and I'm not afraid to use it!


A very moving story.  Fate is not always kind, but I'm glad Elena was able to find a happy life.
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night...good Lord deliver us!

 -- Old English Litany


Definitely a great story.  Mostly sad, but with a silver lining.  At least Elena was able to survive.  That in itself is a great defeat for the Custodes.
We will never forget the events of 9-11!!  USA!! USA!!


Hope Jamie and his family did well in Coroth, too.  Any plans for them? ;)