Oraiáphon Sample

by Marian L. Thorpe

Chapter 1

"The scouts report no Marai within Linrathe," the soldier said. "There are still skirmishes along the Sterre, but those are diminishing, and appear to be mostly defiance and bluster, Teannas'óg."

"Thank you," Ruar said, dismissing him. Teannas'óg, they called him, young leader, after his calm and thoughtful leadership during the fighting against the Marai. Hard to believe, I mused, that he was not yet fourteen. Donnalch had taught him well.

His regent, his great-uncle Liam, grunted. "You need to ride north, Ruar. Be seen by your people," he said.

Ruar turned to me. "Will you accompany me, Lord Sorley?"

I should. This was my country's leader asking me. He hadn't been formally recognized as Teannasach, but there was little doubt that would happen. The Marai were in retreat, so we must have won, but the rumours from the Empire were confused and contradictory; nothing official had reached us yet, here in the camp hidden among the hills and valleys of Linrathe. Almost everyone I loved was somewhere in the Empire, and I did not know if they were safe.

"You do not need me, Ruar," I prevaricated. "I cannot even play for you, just now." I had taken a sword wound to my left arm; nothing serious, and already healing, but it did prevent me from holding a ladhar comfortably.

"But you are my friend, Sorley," he protested. His great-uncle scowled. The Raséair did not approve of me, although he had grudgingly praised my efforts in bringing Ruar north, and in the fighting. Talk of my choice of men as my bedmates had reached Liam's ears, I assumed. I wondered, sometimes, if it was one of the reasons my father had supported the Marai, knowing we would be on opposite sides, and ensuring our family's lands went to my younger brother Roghan, and not to his channàdarra oldest.

Distant shouts reached my ears. I looked up, frowning, just as the tent flaps parted and a soldier entered. "My pardon, Teannas'óg," he said, "but there is a rider come from the south, looking for the Lord Sorley. He has dark skin, and speaks no Linrathan, nor much of the Empire's tongue. He is very agitated."

Druisius? Fear rose. "Excuse me, Ruar," I said, following the soldier toward the perimeter of the camp. I saw Druisius with the guard, pacing impatiently, and broke into a run. "Druise!" I shouted. "What has happened?"

"Cillian," he called. "He is badly wounded. Lena needs you. Why are you still here, Sorley? Did not the messenger sent from the Taiva reach you?"

Cillian. He should have been safe. If he was wounded— "No messenger," I said. "What of the Emperor?" I'd reached Druise now.

"The Emperor Callan is dead," Druise said, frowning at the bandage on my arm. "Traitors, within his own army. Cillian would be dead too, except the Emperor blocked some arrows with his own body. But not all. Come, Sorley. There is no time to waste. You are hurt?"

"Just a cut," I answered. "But what happened?" A twisting, inside: I'd liked Callan.

"I will tell you as we ride," he said. "Gnaius says he will die from infection. Lena will not sleep, barely eats, will not leave him. She is making herself ill."

"Dear gods," I said. Cillian, dying? No, my mind said. No. "She is pregnant, Druise."

He swore. "She will lose the baby," he said bluntly. "We must ride, Sorley."

"Find us fresh horses," I told the guard. "Now. And food and water, enough to get us to the Wall. Ten minutes. Druise, come with me. I must tell Ruar what has happened."

Fifteen minutes later we were riding south, at speed. Ruar had given me leave, immediately. As I turned to go, he stopped me, a hand on my arm. "Lord Sorley," he said, his young face serious. "I swear to you I will do all I can to regain Sorham and your lands. Believe me in this. I will right the wrong my uncle did."

I didn't really care, at this moment, but a response was needed. "I do believe you, Ruar," I said. "I wish you success."

"There may be a place for you in that fight, some day," he replied.

"If I can be of use, I will be," I said, rote words. My mind was not in this wind-shaken tent, but long hours south and west, at Wall's End. I would have said almost anything to speed my leaving.

~

Druisius shouted the story at me as we rode: Kebhan's treachery, the Lestian archers within the Empire's army swayed by his promises, the betrayal of the drum codes to the Marai. "Lena killed Fritjof," he told me. "Her arrow, in his neck. Junia had killed his son, minutes before. It was all that saved us, those two deaths."

"Is Cillian really dying?" I asked. I could not bring myself to believe it.

"He is not in this world, and his skin burns to the touch," Druise answered. "Gnaius says only the gods can save him."

Cold fear battled with dull resignation for the rest of the long ride. We switched horses at the first guard post we reached on the Wall, and twice or three times again. I half-slept in the saddle, once we were on the road that paralleled the Wall, rousing only when my horse slowed.

We rode into Wall's End not long after dawn. I slid off my horse, my injured arm aching. I could barely stand. I realized that Druisius must be in agony: he was a foot-soldier, not cavalry, but he had been riding at speed for over three days.

I turned to Druise. "Go," he said.

"Where?"

"The sick rooms." I turned to the guard who had opened the gate.

"Where?" I asked again. He pointed, explaining. I tried to run, forcing my legs to move.

More questions, inside the building, and then I was in the room. Lena slumped in a chair, her hand holding Cillian's. His chest rose and fell shallowly. She did not look up. "Lena," I said.

She raised her head. Huge dark shadows swallowed her eyes, and her face was thin, far too thin. Her hair spiked and clumped on her head. "Sorley," she whispered.

I knelt beside her, trying to hold her. She shook her head. "Talk to him," she rasped.

"Help me hold on to him, please, Sorley. Please." I put my hand over hers, and Cillian's. His fingers were white and his flesh cold, but the flush of fever stained his cheeks.

"Cillian," I said, my voice catching. "Cillian, it's Sorley. I'm here. Can you hear me?" Tears pricked at my eyes. Oh, gods, Cillian, I thought. Don't die. Please don't die. I felt Lena's hand clench mine, and heard a deep, racking sob.

"Sorley," she moaned, turning suddenly to hide her face against my shoulder, sobs tearing through her. I pulled her close with one arm, the other still holding Cillian's hand.

"I will fetch Gnaius," I heard Druisius say. I hadn't heard him come in. He and the doctor returned in a few minutes. Lena still wept.

"How have you let her get to this state?" I growled at Gnaius in Casilan. "She is pregnant. Did you not know?

"I did," he replied gravely. "But she has refused whatever I have offered, and even an order from her Princip was ignored." He bent to her. "Tell her," he said, "that she must think of the child. His child. She must sleep, or risk losing it."

I translated. She shook her head. "Lena," I murmured. "I will stay with him. I promise. Druise will find an instrument, somewhere, and I will play music for him, and talk to him. But you must sleep."

She shook her head again, but less vehemently. "You promise?"

"I do. Let Gnaius give you a sleeping draught." There was a cot against the wall. "You do not even have to leave the room."

"See if she will let someone take her to the baths," Gnaius whispered. "I will give her a mild dose of poppy now, and a bit more after, to make her sleep."

"No," Lena said, when I suggested it.

"Tell her I will take her," Druisius said. Highly irregular, I thought, but what did it matter? I relayed his offer. She looked up.

"Just for a few minutes," I said. "You do need the baths, Lena." She stank of sweat and fear.

"Oh," she said. "All right. No one but Druisius, though."

"Who is here that can permit this?" I asked Druise. "The baths will have to be closed to all others." I kept glancing at Cillian, watching for each breath.

"I will find someone," he said. Gnaius, at a side table, prepared the first dose of poppy.

"She is to drink this." He held it out. Lena took it, her hand trembling. She swallowed it, making a face. Druisius came back, with, of all people, Casyn.

"General!" I said in surprise.

"I was on my way here to see how Cillian did, and Lena, this morning," he said gravely. "What is it Druisius is asking?" I explained. He turned to Gnaius, making writing motions. The physician gestured him to the table. Casyn wrote a note, quickly. "Take her," he said to Druisius, holding out the note. "He is in good hands, Lena," he said to her softly, as Druise led her to the door.

Casyn's eyes went to Cillian. "The hands of the gods, the physician says," he murmured. I turned to Gnaius.

"How is he, truly?" I asked.

"If the gods love him, he might live, but I doubt it," he said. "I can do little." My heart clenched.

I told Casyn what Gnaius had said. He nodded, reaching out to touch Cillian gently. "I will pray," he said simply. "He is a soldier, too. I am glad you are here, Lord Sorley. I must work, now."

Work. I remembered something Druise told me as we rode. "Princip," I said. "I apologize, for how I greeted you earlier." He was Callan's heir, and now the Princip of the Western Empire.

"No matter," he replied.

~

I had barely slept for over a day, but I kept my promise to Lena. I sat beside Cillian, holding his hand when I wasn't playing the cithar Druise had found me. I played, and I talked and sang in Linrathan: if anything would reach him, I thought, it would be his own tongue. When I had to leave, for the minutes it took to relieve myself, Druise took over. Even when Gnaius or the fort's medics came to wash and turn him, and to drip liquids or poppy juice mixed with wine into his mouth, I stayed. I saw the terrible wounds on his back and thigh, and the red streaks of infection. I made myself endure it all, although the moans of pain Cillian made tested my self-control to its limits.

"His eyes may open," Gnaius told me. "He may speak. It will not make sense. He may see things that are not here, but not that which is. But if he begins to thrash about, or tries to rise, do not let him, and send someone for me, immediately."

More than a day passed before Lena reappeared. She had slept the entire time, exhaustion assisted by the sleeping draught. Clean and rested, she looked marginally better than the day before. I stood up, swaying with my own fatigue, when she came in. She knelt, unspeaking, to kiss Cillian on his chapped lips, murmuring to him.

"Thank you," she said, looking up at me. "You should sleep now."

"Baths first," Druise said from the cot where he had been dozing. "Then some sleep, and then the two of you take turns, yes?"

"Yes." Her hand went to her belly. "Yes, all right. The cadet is outside the door, if I need someone to go for Gnaius?"

Druisius checked. The boy was there. I bent to kiss Cillian's forehead, feeling the heat of his skin. "Stay with us, mo gràhadh," I whispered. As I turned to leave, Lena put her hand on my arm.

"It is all right, Sorley," she said. "I need you to love him, and to tell him that you do. Maybe with two of us loving him so much, we can keep him in this world. Maybe the gods will see, and take pity on us."

I put a hand on her shoulder, and bent to kiss her cheek, fighting dizziness as I straightened. "Maybe they will." I couldn't find anything else to offer hope. I couldn't see any hope.

"Come," Druise said. I followed him to the baths, stumbling more than once. In the antechamber, he undressed me and sponged me down before leading me into the steaming water. Had he done this for Lena, yesterday? I supposed he had.

~

A wine flask and cups had appeared on the table in my room. From where? Wine must be in short supply; did I rate it because I was the lord Sorley, or because I was thought to need it? Did I care? I poured two cups, not watering mine at all. I drank it, quickly, and poured more.

"Sorley," Druise said, concern in his voice. We had been lovers in Casil, for a few weeks. I had told him the first night that I loved Cillian, but in our casual, temporary pairing, what had it mattered?

"Don't tell me not to," I said bluntly. "I need it, Druise. He is going to die, and there is nothing I can do, or Lena, or even Gnaius, it seems."

"Maybe not."

I drained my wine cup and threw the cup against the wall. It shattered, the sound clear and sharp in the still air of the room. It didn't help. I took a deep, shuddering breath. "I can't even be there all the time. Gods, Druise, I still love him—and I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't say that to you—and I can't take it. I must leave—Lena stays, sleeps there, eats there—and I've only been here a day. Why am I so weak?"

"You are not weak," he said, putting an arm around me. "Lena believes she can keep him alive by her will, her love. That is why she will not leave. You do not think that, in your heart."

I leaned against his solid strength. "No," I admitted. "I don't. Perhaps the music eases him, and it cannot hurt to talk to him, but will it save him? I don't think so."

"Sleep now," he urged.

"You must be exhausted too. Don't you need to sleep?" I yawned, hugely.

"I have slept more than you might think, this last day." A ghost of his grin came and went. "Maybe I stay?"

Fatigue and wine fogged my thoughts. "Stay?"

"The bed is wide. Better than the barracks."

"But..." I had just reminded him I loved Cillian. Why was he offering to stay? "Can you?"

"No one cares where I sleep."

"If you want." I couldn't work this out right now. I sat on the bed, pulling off first my shirt, and then the soft indoor shoes. That was enough. I lay back. Sleep claimed me before I had finished pulling up the blanket.

~

When I woke some hours later, the blanket was fully over me. In the blackness of the room I could hear soft snores. Where—? Memory asserted itself, and with it fear. I stifled a whimper with my hand. A moment later I felt fingers on my back.

"Sorley," Druise whispered. His hand moved, his lips nibbling at my neck. I felt the pulse of response. But I shouldn't, not now, not with—Druise bit my shoulder, not quite gently, and I whimpered in a different way and rolled over.

I couldn't call what we did making love. I gave into a need to extinguish fear and death in the demands of hands and tongue and sex, and there was nothing gentle or loving about it. I didn't recognize myself, not in what I did or what I allowed—anything not to think—and when it was done and I lay limp and breathless, hollowed out, Druise put one hand on my belly and kissed me on my lips.

"Did that help?" he asked. He ran his fingers down my cheek, a gesture that spoke of tenderness. Only a few minutes earlier that same big hand had held both my wrists in a trap-like grip. "Better to use anger," he said. "Even as we just did."

"I'm not angry." He chuckled, drily.

"You are," he said. "Sleep again, amané."

"I can't," I said, but I was slipping towards a welcome darkness. His hand still rubbed my back. "Druise," I murmured, "Why...?" I didn't hear an answer.