Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 2
War of the Firefly Child
When Master Malcolm returned from the battlefield at sundown, the household assembled to welcome him. He rode surrounded by his elite warriors, and at his side rode the priest who tended the master’s sacred relic. Among these hulking men in armor, the petite figure riding in the saddle before the priest went virtually unnoticed. She too wore armor sized to her delicate frame and so needed help dismounting to the cobbled courtyard. The master himself reached up for her; the priest had slid down without a glance at her. She clutched a flat polished wooden case to her chest.
Master Malcolm called out to the chief of his guard, “The line holds firm; the foe weakens. Tomorrow we route the accursed invaders for good.”
The assembled servants scattered to their posts with alacrity, leaving the master’s wife and her children to greet Master Malcolm. In contrast to their swarming, the master’s petite attendant stood motionless and mute until the master addressed her. “Put the relics up, Lucy, and attend me at table.” Then she turned away from the boisterous familial scene. Her deadened gaze made it impossible to tell whether she felt any awareness of the contrast.
Lucy made her solitary way to the chapel at the center of the castle. She laid the wooden case on its pedestal among the golden candle stands, whose candles were never allowed to burn out beneath the gaze of the wooden crucifix that dominated the wall. Her armor she unbuckled and put away in the far corner. Behind the linen partitions was her humble chamber, consisting of a cot, a basin and pitcher, and a basket that held all she could call her own. She stripped, washed, and dressed in a fresh version of what she had worn beneath her armor: a plain peasant gown in muslin, belted with a worn length of ribbon.
Master Malcolm was in good spirits at that night’s feast, setting the mood for the rest. His freeborn warriors boasted of all their master’s accomplishments on the field of battle that day, each regaling the household with stories of how the master had commanded the sacred relic skillfully against the enemy invaders. Among those who had returned from battle, only Lucy spoke no word. In the shadow of Master Malcolm’s ornate chair she stood and waited, as pale and remote as a statue.
Their feast lasted almost two hours, until the children were given over to the care of their nurses. Then Master Malcolm’s brow furrowed. “Bring Alistair before me.”
This dampened the mood. Two of his men left the great hall to bring the prisoner from his room. To the rest, Master Malcolm said heavily, “I know now what must be done. The lad has grown too sly. His ambition is clear, yet he denies it at every turn. He cannot be trusted. He is a serpent in our midst.”
The two warriors returned. Ahead of them, unrestrained by any physical bond, strode a comely youth of seventeen. “Welcome home, Father.” Alistair dropped to one knee
“Could an angel speak crooked words, so would he sound,” murmured the master. He raised his voice so that all could hear him. “Yes, I return unharmed. I doubt not but that it disappoints you, boy.”
“By no means, Father. I am pleased, very pleased. While you yet live, there is hope for your soul.”
Malcolm turned to his wife. “What do you make of our son, Euphemia?”
But his wife averted her face from Alistair and replied, “He was never mine, my lord.”
“Yes. He was the death of his mother as he entered this world,” Malcolm said, “and he would do the same to his father if offered the chance. Enough!” he shouted as Alistair opened his mouth to speak. “Too long have I endured your prattle, boy, knowing the malice that lies behind it. I will hear no more! You are no son of mine. I declare that you shall no more be welcome within my realms. Any man who shelters you does so as an act of war against me.” Master Malcolm calmed himself. “But I will show you this mercy: because you were my son, no man shall raise a hand against you until you act openly against me.” He nodded to the guards standing to either side of Alistair. “Take him to the chapel and bind him. He may have the night to pray for his soul. Then, at dawn, cast him out. See to it that he does not stop until he reaches the border, whatever direction he chooses.”
At a gesture from the master, the remainder of the household dispersed for the night. Malcolm’s wife Euphemia stretched out her hand to him. He kissed it but then released it and turned from her, so she went alone to her own chambers. Only Lucy followed him to the recesses of his apartment. She took from him his outer garments and laid them out for the servants to collect. When the master was ensconced in his feather bed, he reached out awkwardly to Lucy like an imitation of his wife’s earlier gesture to him.
Lucy remained glacial. Even her breathing was imperceptible.
Malcolm dropped his hand to his side. “If you will not help me, then leave me.” He watched her departure in the wavering candlelight.
Lucy passed through the castle as its inhabitants settled in for the night. She made her way to the servants’ quarters and thence to the kitchen, where a door still stood open to allow the cool garden breeze passage. There in the high-fenced garden, the fireflies were beginning to bob among the shadows. Several of them veered to investigate her as she stood in the doorway. Lucy stiffened. She gazed upward at the sky with eyes suddenly open wide. On light feet she ran to the stream where it entered through the fence. What she sought was not there, so she let herself out through the wicket gate and followed the stream to a massive grate in the castle wall. Trailing her fingertips in the water, Lucy watched the reflections left by the fireflies on the surface of the stream. A ripple disturbed the glassy stream. After a sharp splash, the water settled back into its regular flow.
This proved enough for Lucy. She ran back to the garden, through the kitchen, and straight to the chapel, where Alistair lay prostrate before the altar. Lucy knelt beside him and touched his back.
Alistair raised his face. “Lusierna, what can I do? He won’t hear me.”
She closed her fingers around his arm. Though her fingers were small and slender and did not encompass even half the girth of his forearm, her grip forced him to rise to his knees. Then she stood so that their eyes were at a level. Deliberately she turned from him to take the relic case from its pedestal.
“No,” said Alistair. “I do not seek to supplant Father, truly. I hoped you would believe, even if no one else did.”
But Lucy remained before him, holding the case out toward him.
“What do you want from me?” Alistair gazed at the depthless eyes bent upon him. “Yes… as long as I remember, you were with me. I understand. I will trust you as I did then.” He extended both hands toward her. The thick chains on his wrists clinked.
Lucy laid the relic case on top of Alistair’s bound hands. The shackles fizzed at the touch of the polished wood. In another instant, the iron dissolved to powder, leaving Alistair freed and shaken. Lucy did not release the case until Alistair’s fingers closed around it. Then she looked up. A solitary firefly bumbled along the ceiling. Lucy grasped Alistair by the wrist and pulled him back along the path from which she had just come, back to the grate in the castle wall. Again she trailed her fingertips in the water, but this time she raised her hand afterward to trace a cross on Alistair’s forehead.
Alistair gave her a last, long stare. “If there is no hope for my father…” He laid his large hand atop the relic case. After a deep sigh, he lowered that hand into the water.
Coils of clear water rose along the bars of the grate, revolving with ever-increasing speed. The churning of the water was loud in the silence, but at that end of the castle no one stayed awake to hear. When the water receded to its smooth flow once again, the iron bars were but jagged teeth framing a tunnel that led out of the castle.
Alistair waded into the stream, holding the relic case clear of the surface. He turned back only once to look at Lucy. “Will we meet again someday?”
For once, a faint smile came to her face. Lucy curtseyed to him.
“No,” said Alistair insistently, “as friends, as equals.”
She gestured for him to continue on his way.
The young man hesitated only another few seconds before he yielded. His shadow was dark in the shadowed tunnel. Then he was gone.
Lucy passed through the castle to the grand hall and stood in the shadow of the empty throne. Like a carved image she waited, tireless, through the next watches of the night. The castle slept around her, until in the predawn hours the creak of the main gates signaled an arrival. Hooves resounded in the courtyard. Then a distant cry and a clash of metal split the night hush with violence.
The doors to the castle burst open. A jostling, clattering rush of armored men passed through the grand hall, but motionless Lucy went unnoticed. Noises of struggle were short-lived as the castle folk discovered their peril too late. The corridors resounded with the futile resistance of Master Malcolm’s warriors only a little longer. Then the victors began to march the servants into the great hall, some of the men bound hand and foot. One of the invaders wore blood-spattered black armor and a silver eagle on his shield. The others saluted him as he passed. “One is missing. Where is the old man’s heir?”
Malcolm’s steward was dragged forward. “Young A-Alistair the master disinherited. He— is in chains in the chapel, awaiting his banishment come dawn.”
“And the relic? Where is the relic?”
“Chapel a-also,” the steward said.
The black-armored invader stalked away. Within a few minutes, he returned, wrathful. “You lie, worm. The chapel is empty. Where is the relic?”
“But… but that is impossible. No one can touch the relic but the master—” The steward’s expression was one of bewildered desperation. “And her! There is a girl who can carry the relic; she carries it for the master.”
“Which one is she?”
Gazing around at the faces of his fellow captives, the steward grew more agitated. “She is not there… not there—” His gaze came to the empty throne and the petite shadow standing behind it. “There! That is she!”
The invaders dragged Lucy forward and forced her to her knees before their leader. “I am Thorne de Alban, Viscount Thorinton, now master of these lands. Where is the sacred relic that now comes to me?”
“Lord,” said the steward anxiously, “the girl is mute. She does not speak.”
“On the contrary.” Lucy’s lips barely moved, but her words were clear to all the transfixed onlookers. “I do not speak without cause, so I have not spoken until now. The relic does not come to you. It is no heirloom to be stolen by any man. Even if the relic were here now, it would not accept a rotting heart like yours. Only one who is clean of heart may command the relic. It has passed to a more fitting guardian.”
“This Alistair who fled?” Thorne bared his teeth. “Then I swear by this rotting heart that I will hunt him down and kill him. I will not yield my prize to another!”
“It will not come to you,” repeated Lucy. “Though it were here in my hands, you could not come near enough to brush it with your fingers— not that I would permit you to defile it.”
“You will change your tune.” Thorne drew his sword. Fresh blood dulled its burnished blade. He touched the edge to Lucy’s throat. “Whatever I desire, I will attain.”
“Though you take off my head, my words will not change. Test me and see if I speak truly.”
Thorne broke out in raucous laughter. “A slave speaks thus to me? You have courage!” His eyes narrowed. “Slaves do not need courage.” He swung his sword in a wide arc on a level with Lucy’s chin.
No blood gushed as the blade severed the girl’s head from her body. Rather, her body began to dissolve in a shower of sparks. One of these sparks, much larger than the others, flew upward toward the ceiling. It hovered long enough for the onlookers to see its shape: body humanoid, legs jointed backward, skin translucent with golden veins, wings a slender blur. Then it sped through the open doors out into the night.
“Firefly child…” Thorne stared after it as myriad smaller sparks died out on the floor at his feet. “Explain this!” he demanded, but the steward was too dumbfounded to obey. Then he summoned one of the warriors. “You! You have knowledge of this house, knowledge enough to get us inside. What was that about?”
The warrior bowed. “I do not know, Lord Thorne, but there were whispers. Some believed that Master Malcolm had used the relic to trap one of the naturekind as a pet to please his first wife. My lord, if that is the case, if we pursue the boy Alistair, the naturekind will declare war on us. The firefly children are beloved of the tree folk and the water folk alike. The countryside has eyes, my lord.”
“Yet all naturekind submit to a master of a relic,” mused Thorne. “We must strike quickly and take back the relic. Then they will pose us no threat. Take a company of trackers and pursue that firefly child. She will lead us to the boy Alistair.”
“My lord?” The warrior hesitated.
“Whatever I desire, I will attain. I fear no lusus naturae.”
His worried lackey bowed. “Yes, my lord. I hear and obey.”