No great shadow loomed above the well’s marble slab but, as Morella removed her silver bucket from deep within, she perceived on the water’s surface the face of a cloaked figure who had come to stand beside her.
The bucket full and secure in her arm, she furled the fingers of her left hand around the dagger hanging from her waist and whirled to look upon the stranger.
A woman at least forty summers her senior, she was clothed in a thin, gray, woolen cloak from head to feet. Tall, her poise stylized, her body holding a certain adroitness, she possessed deep-set eyes and a face whose lines seemed familiar with both great joyfulness and overwhelming grief as well as with the knowledge of the most secret of the secrets.
”By the love of all that’s holy, greetings, my Lady! Many apologies if I startled you, but I‘ve travelled a long way to reach you.”
”By the love of Olwen, greetings! Who are you, Mistress?”
”I’m called Annon Rhi, amongst other names, queen of the island of Alban Hefin.”
”I’m Morella of Rumia, daughter of the former queen Blodwen. How can I help you? What is it you seek here?”
”I’ll be happy to oblige you, but why come here for such a common request? Does your homeland lack swordsmiths?”
”If you can spare me but a moment, I’ll tell you my story.”
� � �
Annon Rhi didn’t become a temporary resident in the castle, quelling Morella’s concern by reassuring her that she never failed to provide for her own needs or replenish the sources of her nourishment.
Morella, having related the queen’s story to both Myrina and one of the swordsmiths—Luned—assigned them the processing of the task. Directing her words at Myrina, she said, ”Pour everything you’ve got into this blade. Magic is your gift, after all.”
Myrina complied. ”Yes, because language is my art. I fuse words into blood and gold.”
� � �
The swordsmith approached the small table and snagged two pieces of wax between thumb and forefinger, then lodged them within her ears and spilt forth a stream of prayer.
Myrina snatched the bag swinging back and forth from the edge of the table, and loosened the cord fastening its opening. Hefting the mandrake from the leather pouch, she threw all of it—from the yellowish-brown, branched root, five pale blue petals, violet flowers to shiny, green leaves—into the blazes. A rampage of screams belched as if thousands of bodies were being flayed alive by the scalding pincers of scorpions, and the flames shot to the furnace’s roof, locked in a deadly battle.
”By the blood that through me courses,
by the wash of tears the man has shed,
the priestesses shall be bound in a thread,
struck under the great queen’s forces.”
Shielded by the very magic that flowed in their veins, the plant’s piercing roar produced no effect upon the people of the arts in the castle while the artless of the household had mimicked Luned’s actions under Morella’s instructions, so as not to allow the unsparing fingers of madness or despair to seize and take hold of their soul.
As the mandrake yielded itself to the fire’s siege, Luned removed the wax and hunted with an iron rake for the new bloom that had made the bottom of the furnace chamber its bed. Heaving a few amorphous lumps, she placed them on the anvil’s surface. The newly smelted metal received endless strikes. Luned turned it over again and again, peeling away with her hammer the scorching spurts of slag. Ash and soot gradually fell away, the bloom constantly flattening.
Until the steel coruscated like a swarm of fireflies caught in a child’s net.
‘‘Very singular plant this mandrake, isn’t it?” Luned stood admiring their combined efforts.
”Yes, and deadly to those who lack the knowledge to master it. Legend has it that a man had fallen for a fae and, when she perished to continue her journey, he asked to be buried next to her while upright. Slowly, his body shifted and sprouted roots deep inside the earth and, when one’s hand tried to pull him out of the soil, he gave out a scream that rendered one mad beyond any hope of returning to sanity, for he couldn’t bear the thought of separation.”
� � �
At the coming of the purple hours, the sky splashed the whole of Rumia—its plentiful hills, mirror-bright waters, wheat fields and dewy forest—with the juice of pressed oranges and sanguine strawberries. The evening dripped away as the gloaming bled through the heavenly fabric, and the dusk welled up all over the land.
As soon as Morella stepped into her chamber, her senses became electrified as a fiery shimmer flared up from across the room. Gown-clad in cobalt blue, Myrina was reclining on the bed, her lovely, cherry head ensnared between the dying embers of the flaming sun and the approaching darkness, her right hand propping her chin, the fingers of her left hand resting on her thigh.
Disrupting the serenity of her posture, she landed on her feet with a leap, sauntering towards Morella. Her lips mellowed, drawing apart in a smile like an oyster’s hinged shell.
”Drink up, sister.” She picked up a chalice flowing with red wine from the mahogany table, and brought it to the edge of Morella’s mouth. ”See how your victory tastes. You have good cause for celebration tonight.”
� � �
Morella spread her palms on the table, upsetting the balance of the chalices remaining vertical when he knee knocked against the wood underneath. ”Still, why did the queen herself had to be the centre of attention? Why not another one?”
”Because strength is measured in union. The higher the forces behind a struck alliance, the greater the safety for the people. Whatever the nature of the challenges, don’t let your eyes stray from the target. Alliances are the end themselves.”
The faint light of a smile danced around Morella’s mouth. ”Then it’s just as well I forged a bond with her. I’m sure it won’t be an ephemeral one.”
”No, it won’t. Rhiannon is a strong-minded and generous woman. Her favour has never been in short supply.” Myrina eased out of the chair and kissed Morella on the crown of her head. ”And now I must seek my own bed. The mark of the darker half is upon us, and the following days friends and strangers will equally cross between thresholds.”
Excerpts from my mythic fantasy novel currently titled The Fruit of Passion.