Spells of A Mortal’s Weaving
By Erika Gardner
Meg Hollenbeck’s day took a drastic turn when the ground tilted beneath her feet. Things had started out so well, thought the imp in the back of her head.
Twilight fell as she ran through the tree-covered hills above Santa Rosa. The path she chose was a familiar one, frequented by hikers and joggers. Meg took deep breaths as her body adjusted to the melding of pleasure and pain of her typical workout. Her arms labored as the blaring strains of Iron Maiden’s “Brave New World” drove her burning leg muscles up the hill. She checked her watch, reassured to be on a steady eight-minute-mile pace. Meg allowed her mind to wander while she climbed.
The setting sun’s brush painted the summer sky a thousand colors. Her mind drifted along the events of the day, things done and things she intended to do. Meg was on automatic pilot.
That was when the earth shifted.
She tripped and stumbled. Jerked back to the here and now, she caught herself. Trying to regain her balance, Meg felt an odd, tilting sensation beneath her feet. Dizziness and light-headedness threatened to overwhelm her. She felt the ground shift once more, as her stomach turned in response. This time Meg could not catch herself, sprawling to the ground.
Meg sat up, startled, knees scraped. Was that an earthquake? Getting up and brushing herself off, she adjusted her ponytail, out of habit, turning to gaze at the view of Santa Rosa down the hill.
There was no city.
The sun was higher in the sky than it should have been. It shone on a valley much like what Santa Rosa must have once looked like. Scattered oak trees grew on golden hillsides. Meg’s mind reeled. It was lovely, but impossible.
Standing there, she found it difficult to swallow and fought to keep her breathing even. Okay, Meg thought, close your eyes and count to ten. Then look again. The little imp that lived in the back of her brain whispered, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” She counted and checked again. There was still no town, no subdivisions or no streets.
“Okay, get a grip,” Meg said out loud. There were a couple of possibilities. One, she’d hit her head in an earthquake and was now in a state of unconscious delirium. Two, Meg had lost her way in these hills she’d roamed since the age of eleven. Since it seemed impossible that she could be lost, a bump on the head was the winning answer. Part of her wondered how much her head would hurt when she woke up, but most of her was scared. She slowed to a walk, gazing at an unfamiliar trail before her, aware of how close she was to panic.
Meg heard raised voices. Relieved that she wasn’t alone, Meg saw a clearing ahead. The slope evened out to a flat hilltop. Her surprised gaze took in a large group of people. Meg paused, counting under her breath with a perplexed frown. There were more than sixty in the open space. What on earth are they doing out here, she thought?
Those before her were dressed in archaic clothing, most wore a uniformed livery, and carried swords. The majority of them were dressed as soldiers and the rest seemed to be their prisoners. Really, Meg thought, distracted by the eye-catching outfits, they look even better than the actors at the Renaissance Faire. There was an attention to detail and a level of authenticity to their costumes. Meg marveled at the work involved to create attire so believable. Most, but not all, of those in uniform were men. Meg’s eyes were drawn to the young people she assumed to be playing the part of the prisoners. Their clothes were ragged and dirty. The restraint chaining them together was a slender cord.
It’s SCA, Meg thought, her frown clearing, it has to be SCA. The Society for Creative Anachronism was renowned for its realistic reenactments of medieval court and battle scenes. Perhaps this was another part of their activities. Once Meg identified the group, she felt better. Maybe the simplest explanation was the right one; she was disoriented and lost.
Relieved to be able to ask for help, but also feeling embarrassed to have lost her way, Meg’s pace increased. Approaching the assembly to inquire which trail she needed to follow home, she froze. The prisoners’ clothes were streaked with dirt and sweat. Wrinkling her nose, she became aware of the smell emanating from them. It was the stench of uncared for humanity.
As she hesitated, one guard raised a fist to cuff a prisoner across the face. The boy’s nose bled freely. Meg gasped and moved back, off the trail to crouch behind some mazanita bushes. What the hell? Were these kidnappers? Was this some extremist group?
The prisoners were outnumbered ten to one by their captors. Meg was confused. The chains looked too thin to prevent escape. Why were the restraints so light? The soldiers watched their charges with wary eyes. The captives’ faces were pathetic, etched with lines of despair and pain. The contrast between them and their well-equipped captors was striking. The guards were dressed in handsome red and gold uniforms. A few were on fine horses with clean lines to their graceful legs and curved necks. All of the soldiers wore the badge of a rampant lion on their breast. What freaky group wears costumes like these? Meg would have expected cammo, maybe fatigues, not bright red and gold.
Meg stayed hidden, close to the assembly; sweat trickling down her back both from her running and nerves. There was an intense consultation going on among a few of the soldiers, not far from Meg’s hiding place. From the differences in their uniform and the fact that they were on horseback, she thought these might be the leaders.
One guard, a man with sandy hair and earnest brown eyes, said to the woman across from him, “Gillian, for the love ‘o the Twin God, they canna’ break their bonds, can they?”
The woman, Gillian, turned cold, appraising eyes on the other soldier. Both looked older than Meg. “Josh, you are either more of an idiot than I thought or a coward, or both. There’s enough iron in those chains to kill them if we left them on long enough. As it is, they’re so out of their minds in pain that the bastards can’t hurt us.” She smiled as she spoke, but it was a smile that did little more than stretch the skin of her cheeks and never touched those piercing blue eyes.
Gillian added in the same cool tone, “And if you ever address me in public without using the proper titles and respect that my rank demands, then, my dear childhood playmate, I will have the scourge used on you, though it would pain me so. Perhaps, as an example to the others, I should wield it myself.” The soldier tilted her short-cropped blond head to one side in a gesture that should have been charming as she caressed the handle of the whip tied to the side of her saddle. “You understand, a matter of policy and all that. Nothing personal, of course.”
Josh shrank back from her, stammering, “I, I beg y-y-your forgiveness, my Lady Captain. I was f-f-far above myself.”
Gillian nodded. The captain appeared pleased by his discomfiture as another small smile crossed her fine-boned, lovely face. The guardswoman’s clinical gaze scanned her troops and the surrounding hills. Meg’s heart sank at the idea of trying to escape mounted guards, even if she knew which way to run. She wished she had her cell phone. If ever there was a time to call 9-1-1, this was it. A renegade militia group in the hills? Controlling a shiver, Meg wondered how she could leave without being seen.
If she panicked, crashing through the dry grass, she reasoned, they’d be sure to see her. She swallowed as her eyes traveled over the soldiers’ whips and swords. At least there weren’t any guns.
Meg’s frightened eyes returned to the prisoners. They seemed young. The youngest was a girl in her early teens, whose face beneath the dirt and pain had a delicate, birdlike quality to it. She wore a bedraggled dress that was once rose. Meg thought it must be made of velvet, but it was difficult to say given the garment’s current condition. Close beside her was a young woman of about Meg’s age whose brown dress had never been fine. She seemed to have fared better than her young companion, managing to raise her head and gaze about. From under dark auburn hair Meg caught a glimpse of brilliant hazel eyes. Through the glaze of pain and weariness, they shone with an intense gold in the late afternoon sun.
The rest of the group of prisoners comprised of four men. At least three Meg guessed were in their teens. Two of them were twins, marked by their identical slender, sensitive faces and dark hair. The third, a blond-haired young man, loomed large enough to play linebacker anywhere he chose. While he did not look like someone that one would want to make angry, in his present cowed position he was not threatening. The last prisoner was closest to her, and the oldest of the group. Even through the filth, Meg eyes were struck by his features. He was tall with shoulder length dark blond hair. His eyes appeared to be a bluish-gray, though dull with fatigue.
Meg contemplated the prisoners with such intensity that she almost missed the orders the captain gave. At her command the guards were spreading out, preparing to set up camp. Perhaps as they were distracted, Meg could sneak away? She stood and began to back away, her movements slow and careful.
The oldest prisoner looked around him with eyes that in a trick of the light shone silver. Were they silver or gray, Meg wondered, in spite of herself. With a horrified gasp, she realized he was looking at her. Their eyes met in an instant of shocked connection.
“Wh-who are you?” he asked. His voice sounded rusty from disuse.
A whip cracked out of nowhere and a bloody welt appeared through the dirt on the prisoner’s face. “Havens, who are you talking to, you dirty animal?” Captain Gillian reined in her horse at his side. “I can’t believe that you still have the energy to speak. No matter, I will take great pleasure in righting that oversight.” Her voice purred. “You there, chain this one’s legs, too.” Meg was thankful the man held Captain’s attention. She didn’t even glance in Meg’s direction.
The man screamed, a raw, hopeless sound, when more of the thin chains were put on his ankles, all the while his eyes bored into Meg’s face. She backed away, transfixed by the sight of his suffering, wanting to help, yet disarmed by the violence of the scene before her. Meg turned, blinded by fear, running back through the scattered woods with no thought of hiding, only of getting out of there.
The ground shifted under her again and Meg collapsed to her knees. Dizziness seized her once more and she felt disoriented, unable to depend on her footing. When she straightened up, choking back shuddering sobs, she turned in fear to see if the soldiers had seen her stumble, if they had followed her. Instead, Meg saw that she was alone, back on the path of her favorite run, under a sky that was almost dark with the bright lights of the city below. What happened? Where did everyone go? What had she seen? Were they even real?
Her eyes raced over the familiar landscape. No strange views, it was not afternoon. The ground was steady beneath her. She stifled a relieved, gasping cry. No soldiers, no prisoners; she was safe.
That night it was not easy to sleep. Meg tossed and turned, torn. Those people, the captives, needed help. Who could she call? How could she leave them?
Yet, a whisper in her mind said it couldn’t be real. The landscape had shifted from evening to afternoon and back, even as the hills transformed from familiar to strange, returning to her own well-known haunts. Sixty-odd people were gone, without a trace, as if they had never been.
When at last she slept, Meg dreamed with lifelike intensity. She was in a damp, cold place where hard stone chilled the soles of her feet. Frightening shadows flickered all around her. With a wry internal grimace, Meg realized it was her own shadow reflected multiple times in the faint light given off by several torches down the passageway. Glancing down; Meg saw she was still wearing the Twilight, “Team Edward” nightshirt she wore to bed, a gag gift from her sister. This mundane bit of normalcy was reassuring.
She found herself drawn towards a faint light coming from down the corridor. Meg crept along the dank hallway. The torches illuminated damp stone walls. A musty smell hung in the cold air, and soft, rustling sounds filled the dark around her. She did not want to know what made those noises.
It was as still as a proverbial tomb and the mental imagery made her wince. Her ears picked out new sounds, two soft voices speaking nearby. Clinging to the shadows, she rounded the corner and came to a chamber. Inside, Meg saw two men; the first chained by one wrist to the wall. Drawing closer, Meg thought she recognized him. The second was an older man wearing a magnificent robe of rich burgundy velvet that shone in the torchlight. He stood unbound over the blond-haired prisoner. The older man’s face showed lines, not just of age, but also of pain and an overbearing arrogance. He spoke and moved like an actor on stage, aware of how each act and phrase he uttered might be received by his potential audience. With one hand he stroked a splendid, white beard.
“You must realize, Malachy, how stubborn you’re being,” the robed man said. “In the long run you will only cause more pain and suffering to yourself and those whom we both love.”
Meg moved nearer, but could not hear the younger man’s reply. Her incredulous eyes rested on the man called Malachy. No, oh please, God, no, this can’t be happening, she thought, her heart pounding and her mouth gone dry. Meg was sure that he was one of the prisoners she encountered during this evening’s run. He was the one who looked straight at her and saw her. Numb, she leaned against the wall, staring at the impossible tableau before her, trying by sheer force of will to wish it away. Malachy seemed weary and his eyes were still filled with pain, but they did not show the abject misery she saw a few hours ago.
“If you would just cooperate,” the older man continued in a persuasive tone. “I know I could convince the Council that someone with knowledge such as yours could be useful. Perhaps some sort of accommodation could be reached. Out of regard for the man your father was, I would recommend mercy to my comrades. Surely, you’ll consider my offer, son. I know you are no fool.”
“Your offer,” Malachy said. “I hold in contempt, as I held my father in contempt. You offer me nothing, but the betrayal of those who need me and the addition of a few weeks at best to my life.”
“Those who need you.” The phrase was pounced on like a hawk snatches at a mouse. “What of Deirdre? Surely, you haven’t turned your back on the only family that, for all practical purposes, remains to you? Doesn’t she need you, too, alive and well, her own dearest brother?”
Malachy shifted his bonds, for a moment he seemed unsure of himself. “What, do you threaten Deirdre now, too? She’s never shown the least sign of being Kin. She is one of you.”
“You misunderstood me, son. Deirdre is my most prized student, the one who will carry on my glory, the tradition of my magic. I merely meant that you cause her so much suffering. She is fond of you, as am I.”
Malachy jerked his eyes upward to meet those of the man standing above him. “You are no friend to me, Nevin, nor have you ever been, whatever your relations with some of my family may be. You offer me nothing.”
“What I offer you, ingrate, is a life dedicated to the absolution of the stain on your soul. Failing that, a relatively quick and painless death for you and for those you profess to love so dearly. There are many, nay, the majority of my company who would love, even demand, that all Kin die by torture and then only after a recantation has been obtained. You know how the King has this growing nasty fondness for public executions and stonings. Really, I simply can’t imagine where he sees the appeal.” The last was said with his aplomb regained and a faint lofty insular superiority once again in the cultured voice. “Is that really what you want?”
Malachy was silent. He shifted in his bond, as though in pain. When he did so his eyes caught Meg’s in the shadows. Once again, Meg knew that he saw her, though, other than a slight eyelid’s flicker, he gave no indication of it. With a sharp intake of breath, she shrank back around the corner, ignoring the chill of the stones through her thin nightshirt. If Malachy could see her, then perhaps this Nevin could as well.
“Malachy!” snapped the old man. “Pay attention! You don’t still hope to save them? Or that possibly any of them could escape?”
Malachy was silent.
“You can and what’s more you do.” With surprising gentleness in his voice, Nevin knelt beside Malachy and looked him eye to eye. “But it has begun, Malachy, and it is no longer in any of our hands. There will be no stopping, no mercy; they will die. They will all die, with or without your information. You cannot change their fates, only the manner of their passing.”
“Nevin,” Malachy said, as the man in burgundy drew to his feet and swung his rich cloak in a theatrical gesture on what had clearly been an exit line. “If you are so certain of the Council’s victory then why do you want my help?”
“I made a promise. You’re a fool, Malachy. You always have been, just like your mother. I’ll be back tomorrow for your answer. Do give it some thought, won’t you?”
Nevin strode down a passageway opposite the wall that Meg hid behind. As he walked away a staff appeared out of nowhere in his hand and a glowing orb of light danced in front of him, illuminating his way. He did not glance back. Meg could almost hear a director’s voice in her mind say, “Exit, stage left.”
As he was swallowed up by the gloom of the passageway, Meg sank down to the floor. She let a shaky breath out as the sound of his footsteps died away.
“It’s safe now, ghost. You can come out,” she heard Malachy say. She peered around the corner again and saw he was regarding her with amusement. “He won’t be back tonight. Court wizards do not dirty their fine robes down here. Frankly, I was surprised that he came at all.”
Then to himself, “Of course, one never knows what Nevin might do. It is part of his unique charm.”
Fearful, Meg hesitated to come out of the shadows, looking around for guards, but saw none. They were alone. Standing, she moved to the spot where moments before Nevin had been, her hands trembling as they twisted her nightshirt. “Shy, are you?” he continued, his voice tired. “Or can’t you talk? Are you real or are you some delusion brought on by my pain? I am Malachy O’Meire.”
“I know your name. I, um, heard the two of you talking for a bit.” Meg forced the words out. This was a dream, wasn’t it?
“Humph,” Malachy said. “Nevin would be heartbroken to learn that he could have been playing to an audience of two!”
“He did seem a little contrived. Sort of like an actor with the grand beard and the lofty voice.” Talking helped, her heart rate slowed.
“Yes, that’s our Nevin, a legend created in his own mind,” Malachy said. “Do you have a name perchance, ghost lady?”
“My name is Margaret, but everyone calls me Meg.”
“Well, Margaret, what are you doing in the dungeons of Rhea, or are you in my dream? Of course, if I am dreaming then I will have to ask what you are doing in my dream.”
“Now I am confused,” Meg said, with a shaky laugh. “This is my dream. What are you doing here? See, I am still in my nightclothes.” She indicated her Edward Cullen decorated nightshirt, which seemed the extreme of inappropriateness given the decor of Malachy’s prison.
“Yes, I had noticed that you weren’t dressed for imprisonment,” he said.
Meg concentrated on staying calm. It’s just a dream, she thought, only a dream. She tried to follow what Malachy was saying.
“In fact, I can’t help thinking that you were rather outlandishly dressed the last time that we, err, met.”
“I was out for a run, exercising.”
“How very… commendable.”
Two sooty torches lit Malachy’s prison. As Meg glanced around she saw the walls and floor were made of stone. There was dirty, moldy straw on the ground and rusted iron rings held sooty torches. “We don’t have dungeons where I am from.”
“Really. We also do not have magicians like him. Is that what he was?”
“A magician is more of a term of contempt, although I suppose it is technically accurate. Nevin Dornfest is a court wizard. He works spells and enchantments, in the human fashion,” Malachy said in a thoughtful voice. “My youngest sister is his greatest pupil, although I would only call her a wizard, not a magician. She learns from Nevin, but never emulates him, thank goodness.”
“A wizard? Do you mean he pulls rabbits from a hat, saws a lady in half, sleight of hand, that sort of thing?”
Malachy stared at her. “No, no, that is not at all what I mean. Nevin may not practice what I call true magic, from within, but he can call on various powers to aid him in his spells. He has no need of sleight of hand. That is what those flopsies in the King’s Court use to pass the summer days away,” he paused. “What do you do with half of a lady?”
“We don’t have magic where I live either.”
“Ghost, you are from no place that I have ever heard of. Everywhere there is magic.”
Meg brushed a lock of hair away from her face, her wide eyes staring at the stone walls of the prison. “Malachy, where I live there is no magic.”
“A place without magic, how strange; but then, how did you get here?”
“I am not here. I am dreaming this.”
Malachy smiled and shook his head. Then he reached out one thin hand and pinched her, hard.
“Hey!” exclaimed Meg. “What was that for?”
“Are you awake, ghost lady?”
“Well, yeah, that hurt!” answered Meg, rubbing her arm where he touched her. His hand dispelled any hope that this was indeed a dream. Where was she?
“Hmmm, I have heard of this, of dream walkers visiting other lands, other worlds, answering great needs and terrible troubles,” Malachy said to himself. “Margaret, you may be dreaming on your world, if indeed you are still there in any sense at all, which I doubt, but on mine you are here and awake.”
“What do you mean? Do you mean that I am really here? I am where you live, wherever here is?”
“Here is Terra. I don’t know what or where the place that you call home is. I do not know of land without magic. I cannot imagine such a thing. And yes, you are here. As I said, I have heard stories where dreamers’ spirits were drawn to areas where emotions waxed high, where turmoil ran deep and the need was great. Certainly, no land can be more torn than mine nor could any need be greater.”
“What do you mean, ‘need’?” Meg repeated, looking into those odd blue-gray, no, silver, eyes. “Your need to be free? Why are you here? Your chain, it is so thin. Can’t you break it? How is it that this one slender chain is all the guard needed for a man that was surrounded by fifty guards earlier tonight?”
“No, lady, I have been here for weeks, not hours. As for the chain, it binds me because it has iron in it. This particular chain has quite a bit of iron in it. The iron burns me and drains my life energies away. It leaves me weak and helpless.”
Meg’s eyes were drawn away from his face and to his wrist where the slender chain lay, like a bracelet against his pale skin. She remembered him as tanned. Perhaps he had been in this room a long while, but she had just seen him! There should have been a wound on his face, she thought; hadn’t Gillian struck him? As she looked closer, Meg gasped, surprise dispelling her fears for a moment. There were burns on his fair skin, painful looking blisters. It was raw flesh scorched again and again. Hesitantly, she put one trembling hand out to touch his chain. “No heat,” she said in wonder.
“It is not that kind of burning,” he said in a grim voice. “You, you can touch this chain?”
“Yes, of course.”
His eyes, gray and blue and silver, caught hers. Despite their beauty, Meg felt her fears returning in a wave. Who was this man? What if he deserved to be locked up? Starbursts, she decided, ending the internal debate at last. They were definitely blue and silver, not gray.
“Margaret.” He said her name with a hint of a lilt, with a bit of Irish brogue or Scots to it. “Margaret, will you aid me?”
“Can you help me get out of here?”
“So, you admit you’re here?”
“I don’t know what to think? If I help you, can you get me home?
“I think so.”
Meg hesitated, and, as she always did, let caution fly with the wind. “Then, I’m in. I’ll do what I can for you.”
He smiled at her. “Thank you,” he said. “I have just enough strength to break this chain if I can use your hands.”
“Tell me what to do.”
“Come closer, Margaret, please.”
Deciding to trust him, she placed her hands in his. After all, in for a penny, in for a pound, the little imp in the back of her brain said.
“Close your eyes, dreamer. Just relax and let me borrow your hands,”
Meg let herself relax, her head falling forward, hearing his words, she drifted towards sleep again. She wanted so much to wake up in her own bed. No soldiers, no dungeons. “That’s it, ghost lady.”
Meg, with her eyes closed, felt rather than saw the chain, sensing Malachy as well. She experienced his pain and exhaustion as if they were her own.
The chain wasn’t very strong. It didn’t need to be. There was iron in its makeup. Malachy and Meg could sense the iron, the pattern, the way the matter fit its puzzle pieces together. The element was out of balance. It was this portion that distressed part of Malachy and Meg, but soon they calmed. The piece of them that felt these patterns was Malachy. The portion that remained calm was Meg in her dreaming state.
Malachy and Meg were now moving her hands and power surged through them. She could feel the power, its color and texture. It was velvety dark like the world when she closed her eyes. There were silver droplets like dancing bits of quicksilver, stretching out before her in a long line, echoing the silver in Malachy’s blue eyes. The dancing lights fit themselves to the pattern of the chain and then coaxed, rather than pulled, the chain apart.
The cavorting lights separated from Meg, streaming out before her, flitting in front of her. It was a delightful, joyful display, like Tinkerbell’s pixie dust. Only Meg wasn’t going to Never-Never Land. She was going home. Meg dreamed of home and her dreams followed the silver path. She sank into her bed covers, her sheets soft and reassuring. As usual, Frodo, her cat, was sleeping on her feet, she heard soft purrs. As Meg slipped into more mundane dreams a voice she knew whispered, “Sleep safe, ghost lady.”
So, she did.