Sixteenth in our Heroes series, by our own Robert Rhodes. Art is courtesy of Andreea Ifteni.
Shadows always covered the entrance to the Grotto, and the black muslin of her veil made it doubly hard to see. She easily recognized, though, two of the beggars gathered before it. The first was an old man, thin and handless — a twice-caught thief who seemed to live beneath a particular willow and never failed to greet her. He bowed his head and called, “Hail, your majesty. I am sorry for your loss.” She went to him and carefully placed a coin between his toes.
“Thank you,” she whispered and, straightening, turned to another beggar, a wild-haired young woman with a dirty face, who sat and clutched a stained rucksack to her chest, swaying and humming an unknown tune — Elisa, her former handmaiden in disguise, whom she’d recently pretended to banish.
She turned her profile to the two guardsmen behind her and raised a black-gloved hand. “Await me.” And to Elisa, “And you, girl, come and pray with your queen.”
Elisa dropped her jaw and stammered, “M-me, your m-majesty?”, before standing and creeping into the cavern behind her. Cate breathed deeply the smells of cold water, stone, and the smoke of countless candles, their flames adorning the walls in a delicately shifting mural of pale gold, gray-green, and shadow-black. She followed a lit path from the large, public pool to a smaller cavern, descending more deeply into the hillside.
A priestess knelt on the path, hands folded on the dark silk of her robe, before the entrance to the Royal Pool. She stood without a word at Cate’s approach and resumed her position once Cate and Elisa passed inside.
As she moved away from the path, circling the gray mirror of the pool, Cate pulled off her veil and embraced Elisa, kissing her on each cheek. “I’m so glad you’re well,” she whispered. “I’ve worried about you. Do you have everything?” she asked, touching the rucksack.
“I think so. And a horse is waiting at The Magician & Moon. A gelding, like you asked. Three years, reddish coat, buff mane. The merchant wondered about me, I know, but swore to its health — as he should’ve, for the price.” She shrugged then set the rucksack down. “And you? Are you well?” She paused and bit her lip before adding, “You do have it, don’t you?”
Cate shook her head as she used a slim shaft of heartwood to transfer the flame from a lit candle to two more, an ivory for Elisa, a dark purple for Martin. “As well as any young widow, I suppose.” Her lips quivered, and she jabbed the shaft into its bowl of sand. The flames blurred before her. “Gods, I miss him, Elli. And yes, of course. Of course I have it.”
Slowly, she pulled the cold weights of the Sword from underneath her gown. First, the greater part of the blade, its strange purple metal seeming to drink the candlelight, ending in a jagged line where it had broken. And then the silvered hilt with an impossibly smooth golden gem in the rounded pommel.
Seventeen days ago, in the dead of night, the Seraph of the Sword had appeared in her bedchamber. Silent and gray-robed, it had held out the broken Sword on palms the color of polished redwood, waiting for Cate to claim it.
Which, for many minutes, she did not. Seraph and still-broken Sword could mean only that Martin’s quest had failed. That Calinor had lost its king, and she her husband, the man who had chosen her as Calinor’s queen.
She laid the pieces beside the pool. “Are you still game?” she whispered.
Elisa nodded quickly. “Of course, Cate. I simply wish there were another—”
“There isn’t,” Cate said, beginning to unfasten her gown. “Quickly now.”
Soon they faced one another, regarding the clothing they had exchanged. Cate set the veil on Elisa’s head and smoothed it into place. Then she knelt and tugged an old cloak out of the rucksack, wrapping it around the Sword. Finally, she gave Elisa a silver key and her signet ring.
“I’ve left the letter in the coffer beside my bed. Though you won’t need it. You know me. You know what to do.”
Elisa’s shoulders shivered, but she nodded. “Mourn. Stay reclusive and veiled, even to the maids. Act oddly, but not so madly that the council thinks of taking power. Don’t let them know the Sword’s missing. Give you time.”
Cate clasped her shoulders and embraced her. “You’ve known me forever. You can do this. Remember—you are the queen. Let no one forget that.” She stepped back and smiled grimly. “And above all, do not marry anyone.”
“Cate! I’d never—”
Cate urged her to silence and turned her to leave. “I know. Hurry now.”
Cate fell behind as they left the Grotto. Elisa spread her arms as she approached the guards. “The gods have spoken! Come, we must return to the castle. I have much to do. First, to the Winter Garden …”
Cate sighed and marveled at her friend’s mimicry of her voice. I suppose I do sound like that, she thought. As soon as the guards turned, she slipped from the entrance, rucksack shouldered, cloak tucked under her arm, and hurried away.
The handless man coughed as she passed him. She met his gaze, and he winked. At the beggar girl? At me? She quickened her pace and skirted the hill, heading for the town below the castle.
She had a sword to reforge and a seraph to find. And if the seraph could not answer for Martin’s life, she would demand an answer from its masters.
Thunder rumbled in the darkening north. She lifted her face in a gust of wind. I am the queen of nothing now, she told the gods.
And I am coming to you.
Caterina © Robert Rhodes, 2010. All rights reserved.
art used with permission: “Vicariously, I” by Andreea Ifteni
Author’s note: Caterina is the main character of a novel concept, tentatively titled The Fires of Calinor. RR
Caterina sounds like a great heroine (Elisa, too)! I’m looking forward to The Fires of Calinor!