Narcissa's Julian: Chapter Two (Queen among the Narcissi)
Chapter Two: Queen among the Narcissi
Blood stained Julian’s clothes, and he could do nothing about it. Caked mud had helped until it dried and fell away in chunks.
Goodness knew Julian had spent enough time in mud, trying to bury the old one with all the mourning rites he remembered. He had memorized quite a few in the time he had had to think about death—too much time out of his life.
I never asked his name.
The thicket had protected him long past the marauders’ exit. Scratched badly, Julian had crawled out and found the old man’s trampled body. When he had laid his hand on the old one’s stomach, fury and adrenaline pounded in his blood. Heat and light had spread from his pressing hand. With some power outside himself but still himself, the wound filmed over with scar tissue, but the old man remained without air in his lungs and pulse in his heart.
I healed the wound, but not the life. How—? Even now, faring his way out of the highlands and deeper into his new country, he could not fathom it.
The torrent had not slackened as Julian tried to bury the old man. Standing knee-deep in mud that slithered back into every hole he tried to dig, he had grown angry. “What would you have told me?” he had sobbed, wanting to scream it but too hoarse, afraid of the killers, and respectful of the dead.
The old man did not choose to die. Apparently… I condemned him.
Julian shuddered whenever he remembered that. Whatever the significance of Julian’s opening the stone door, Julian guessed and became sure that it had portended the irrevocable coming of “the chosen” and gotten the old man killed.
By the time the rain let up and Julian could dig a grave, he had to leave it too shallow for the stinking body. Julian had collapsed and slept for a long time right in the soil. When he awoke, the focus of his toil had evaporated. He was just tired, tired, tired and purposeless.
He forced himself to go back into the paths behind the skin curtain and found nothing—neither provisions nor belongings. Whatever the old man had lived off of was vanished like the magic of the stone room.
Only stale air abided with the inscription in the stone. Only once, Julian stood in the doorway, reading the words again and again. His dissatisfaction increased the longer he stood there. The chosen could have been a person, beast, or some unknown creature, if the old one had not… seemed to think Julian was it. The power he had used to close the old man’s wound could be a sign, a gift—
No! That thought scared him. Besides, he had not been able to reuse it for his own injuries. It had come once and done him all the good of a raindrop on a sand dune.
The rest of the corridor was a glorious array of artwork of which Julian had never beheld the like. But it offered no clues or no hints. Julian didn’t know whether he was most angry, most lonely, or most lost. This was more than a continuation of the first time life had thrust him out the back door and into the expanse.
So he left.
After two days, he had still to shake the feeling of being followed and watched. He knew what haunted his steps: that dark chamber underground which had changed him forever. From lack of nourishment, he began to hallucinate about the blind man groping for him along the ground. But when this old one caught up and grabbed Julian’s tunic, he seemed to totter on the verge of uttering the words of the guidance Julian needed.
But even the hallucinations will not speak to me. He remembered every word the old man and the murderers’ had actually spoken, but none of it did any good.
Then, when the country flattened, everything changed again.
From the top of the hill, Julian felt he could see for miles. Where are the trees? he wondered uneasily. The sparse, bare heather beneath him waved forlornly.
Pockmarks on the land might have been livestock grazing; not far away at all, something that looked like a walled (or at least picketed) settlement lay to his right by a river. But at the extreme of the horizon, a tower notched with stairs asserted itself on the forever-stretching grey sky like a gigantic fingernail chipped and bruised.
“Where am I?” he called to no one, swaying. He felt as if the whip-like wind completely swept away his parched voice, so he certainly hadn’t expected the non-entity he had addressed to answer.
“Cwmfal,” said a shaky voice.
He nearly tumbled down the hill in surprise. If he had, he would have knocked over the maiden at the foot, who was frozen and staring as if she feared he would draw a sword and run her through. Will she scream? What if she does?
“Coomval?” He failed to say it as she did, despite that her lowland speech was less cryptic than the old man’s had been. Julian thought he had never seen a more beautiful creature. Though clad in a long, plain cream-colored dress, she had a plaid pinned to her shoulder, periwinkle-blue like her eyes, with bold stripes of apple green and deep violet and thinner veins of sky blue between.
She watched him closely a minute longer and finally relaxed, hastily twisting her long, rippling golden plait around her head as if to compose herself.
“Aye. Do we know you?” She half ascended the hill, her movements like that of a flower in the breeze. The faint smile she had mustered faltered. “Are sar—that is, do you need help?”
As if in answer, Julian’s knees buckled. He reached out, but no one can uphold himself on the wind. The ground dropped away under him as his grasp on consciousness slipped.
* * *
“There is a boy,” Narcissa panted, tripping over a rock in the gate of her walled village.
“Speak clearly, lass,” said the first man to see her. With his huge hand, he pulled her up by the plaid before she could sprawl in the dirt.
She had to push the plaid down before she could speak. “I was in the hills, Dugald, and a boy was there. He came from the west, but he speaks not as a highlander, and I think he may be injured.” She gasped for breath against Dugald’s chest.
“Saw you sarks?” called another man as the tribe gathered around her. The man’s fist tightened on a spear.
“Nay, nor blood, but the boy crumpled to the ground as if someone had stabbed him. You know me ill if you think I could leave him to sarks!” She forced her flash of anger down. A dull pain throbbed in the pit of her stomach. “But they very well may come, and the lad is helpless.”
“Narcissa, be calm. We will find your braw lad.”
She bristled. “I never said he—”
The indignity ended when Niall embraced her that moment from behind. “Why did you go out?” he growled, dropping her again and turning her to face him.
“I just got restless,” Narcissa protested, pushing her brother. “I hate the confines of the village sometimes. It’s stifling, but I didn’t go far. I happened to end up ghost-hunting.”
Niall leaned in as if to be secretive, but if he had lowered his voice she couldn’t have heard him. “Between you and me, did you find one? It would explain the brouhaha.”
“Well, he will be a ghost if we leave him there,” Narcissa said, tipping her head to the side.
Niall paused as if he wanted to ask her to explain, but to deprive her of the satisfaction he merely said, “You could have been killed.”
She winced. “I know. But you must forgive me this time, because I think I have saved someone’s life. There was a boy at the edge of the hills, and he looks starved.”
Niall started. “That is news. Someone heading into Sark’s country?”
She shivered, her enthusiasm slipping away. “I’m afraid, Niall. No one has even come from the outside to Cwmfal before.”
“Yes, they have,” Niall countered, rubbing her shoulder. “You wouldn’t remember, because Sark was one of them. And then our world ended.”
Narcissa hated thinking about that, but the subject was hard to avoid with Niall’s determination to remind her of their parents she had barely known. “Does this arrival mean it is beginning again?”
Dugald pushed the settlement gate open, a few hunting knives in his belt. Niall went out with him. Narcissa paced around others’ wives’ wagging tongues until the gate flew back and the two men appeared. In Dugald’s arms was the boy with prominent ribs and a shock of hair that couldn’t decide what color it was.
Dugald shook his head at the boy, passed the slim, bony form to Niall. “Finding him alone is like some ballad,” the bard said. “No one claims him.”
“I’ll take him to the bothy,” Niall told Narcissa, “but the rest of us have work do to. You had better take care of him.”
Narcissa did just that.
As the pot of water over the peat fire boiled, she cast frequent glances at him over her shoulder. Dried mud slathered the boy’s oily dark skin and otherwise colorless tunic and pants. Finally she removed the pot to let it cool and wet a cloth to wipe the filth from his face and hands, unable to stand the blood that mingled.
By a close glance at his deeply scratched brown skin, she knew he couldn’t be a highlander. If he had been—well, that would have surprised the lowlanders enough. Sark had driven most of the fierce, blue painted highlanders northward; Narcissa supposed they went because they were enough their own enemy without him.
Dugald had the right thought. The boy was cousin to no one, kin of no one’s mother-in-law, no one’s family returning from a hard life on the moor. Stranger even than his being there at all was that this boy from the hill was alone.
* * *
“Do you hear me, boy?” a lovely voice asked. When Julian opened his eyes, he was unsurprised, but relieved, to see the girl from the hill.
“You aided me? Why?” he said, his voice so hoarse he thought she would miss it.
“How could I have left you with sarks on the loose?”
That word sarks sounded familiar. He knit his eyebrows, trying to remember. Of course—the old man’s murderers had mentioned someone called Sark.
“Do you hear me?” the fair-haired girl repeated, since he had fallen silent. A delicate flush made her graceful, even in the near-darkness
He nodded, taking in his surroundings. He was in another hovel—this one with a proper fireplace dug into the ground at the end. A steaming cauldron sat near the fire. Julian hoped it was food.
The girl smiled, exhaling. “Praise the Most High.”
He began to hack with his dry throat, turning his face into the straw of the bed. From the corner of his eye, he saw the girl bolt upright, the tender concern on her face becoming alarm and embarrassment. “I am sorry. I should have gotten you ale before now.”
She hefted a jug from somewhere behind the loom and poured its contents into a cup, holding it out to him. He hoped she did not notice how his hand trembled as he took it.
“The water has been unsafe to drink on its own for sometime; again, I am sorry,” the girl said.
“As long as I can wet my tongue.” He immediately cut off his raspy laugh with surprise that he still could. He had not laughed for a long time.
After he had drained the cup, she took it back and just looked at him. He felt acutely uncomfortable, wondering if she would transform into something terrifying. Sometimes sparrows and wrens in the hill country had, not entirely out of fever, become falcons of prey diving for him.
Finally, she pushed him prone again. That’s how he thought of it: prone. Helpless.
She crossed her arms, eyebrows quirking in thought. “You’re in Cwmfal now, you know. My elders tell me you collapsed from sheer fatigue and starvation. As you are much too weak to eat, I command you to rest. I will watch over you.”
That, thought Julian, his fears dissolving into the sleepiness of weight in his stomach, is how love begins.
* * *