The Seer’s Sister
Melissa E. Beckwith
Just as the seer had said, the whole Rudhaian army was now positioned in front of the high walls of Sàibhreas in the northern duchy of White Buck. The sweet smell of cooking meat drifted across a black sky and up into the rock crevices where she hid. A cool mist started settling in the valley and made the spring night chilly. She could not make out any movement on the rampart walls, but knew the grand duke’s soldiers were there just the same. Lights were burning in the windows of the citadel; orange rectangles breaking up the darkness. The massive, domed roof of the citadel was an arcing dark patch in the night sky discernible only by the lack of twinkling stars. The citadel sat in the center of the large city to better keep an eye on everyone and their business.
The castle, a smaller, less ostentatious building, was closer to the dark, churning waters of Abhainn River. This is where the Grand Duke of Sàibhreas and his family lived, and where the king would stay when he visited. Sàibhreas was the seat of power for the Baobh Priests. The king did not visit often since he did not get on well with the priests. White Buck Duchy was a part of Sasunn however, and as such, fell under the protection and rule of King Nathaniel. The Baobh Priests were extremely rich and powerful and resented King Nathaniel’s interference. Ha, she thought, I bet those old priests will be thankful when the Sasunn army arrives tomorrow! The grand duke’s army was as weak as the old man had been, they could not hope to defend Sàibhreas and could not hold out a siege for very long. If not for the warning sounded by the seer, and the might of the king’s army, Sàibhreas would fall to the Rudha; those red-skinned savages from across the Great Sea to the east.
“High Commander, the children are reaching the camp now.” A young man appeared out of the darkness.
“Thank you, lieutenant.” They silently crept through rocky outcroppings and up a grassy rise to their camp that was hidden under the black shadows of a thick stand of trees.
“Too bad the Seer could not have given more warning,” the young man said.
She smiled at him. “Ah, Daveed, at least they had a fortnight to build up their stores and send for help before the Rudha arrived. And he is young still, he’ll hone his gift as he grows.”
“Still Anna, is he worth all this risk?”
“The king believes so. The priests say he is the most powerful seer they have seen in generations. And they want to control him, that’s why they wouldn’t let him leave Sàibhreas, even if it would save his life. They are so blinded by their power they can’t reason for the greater good.”
“Then ‘tis good we had some in the grand duke’s household that were still loyal to him and could help sneak the children out of the city.”
“Yes, the fighting will be fierce tomorrow. The Rudha are strong and numerous.” Anna sighed and looked east toward the occupied valley. “It’ll be a hard battle, but we couldn’t take the chance that some Rudha might penetrate the walls and the Seer would fall into the wrong hands. That young boy not only has the distinction of being a seer, but the responsibility of being the Grand Duke of White Buck now that his parents are dead. That’s a lot of responsibility for an eight-year-old boy.”
“Children in my country have always had a lot of responsibility.” Daveed took Annabelle’s battle scared and calloused hand in his. It was too dark to see the differences in the coloring of the young lieutenant’s dark skin and that of her own pale skin.
“You are a third generation Sasunnian. Your grandfather and father both fought in the king’s army. Your country is my country, my dear boy.” She smiled at him again and he took her
in his arms and kissed her passionately. They did not conceal their affection, others knew of their affair and neither took ribbing for it.
“There are still differences between our people, Anna. You see it amongst civilian and soldier alike,” he whispered into her bound hair, pale as the moon.
“Yes Daveed, I see it. But it doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Your grandfather was pledged to Sasunn after his country was conquered and he came to our green shores as a young solder—a Sasunnian solider now. Both you and your father were born on holy Sasunnian soil, and so will your children. These things take time. Look, King Nathaniel even took a young queen from your native country and she has been soothing relations even further between our people.” Annabelle looked into Daveed’s young face; he seemed lost in some distant memory of a country that he had never even seen except in his grandmother’s stories.
Suddenly an argument broke the silence. She and Daveed quickly walked towards the raised voices, ducking between scrubby bushes that tugged at their clothes as they passed. The musty smell of mushrooms floated in the air, released from the crushing tread of their boots.
“My brother requires a tent for us and also a brazier and hot food. He can not become sick. Is there no hot wine, and why is there not a fire? The air is quite chilly. Do you wish him to become ill?” Her voice was demanding and confident for a girl of only seventeen.
“Lady Abigail, how nice to see you have arrived without harm.” Annabelle walked up to the girl but in the moonless night she could only see shadows.
“It is Duchess Abigail Tyne. And who are you?”
“I am High Commander Annabelle Joss of King Nathaniel’s Royal Guard and leader of your escort to Alba. This is High Lieutenant Daveed av’Lun of Queen She’rah’s Royal Guard.” Annabelle bowed.
“Well, High Commander Joss, We will need a tent. We can not sleep outside in this freezing weather.”
“Unfortunately Duchess Abigail, you and young Grand Duke Jacob must sleep in the weather tonight. We cannot take the time to put up tents and we certainly cannot risk lighting a fire this close to the Rudhaian army.” The small boy was standing very close to his sister, both of them only dark smudges in the night. Behind them Annabelle made out the figures of a man and woman, probably hand staff.
“This is outrageous! My brother is not only the Grand Duke of White Buck but he is the Abair Seer, the most powerful of all the seers! He will not be treated as a dirty solder!”
“That may be, duchess, but tonight you and his royal seer will sleep in a bed roll like the rest of us. Tom, get these kids some food…and liquor, that will warm them up, but not too much, we need them to stay on their horses. Milady, please get some sleep because we are leaving in a few hours. You won’t want to be around when the king’s army meets the Rudha in the morning.”
Several hours later their traveling party crested a crumbling ridge as the sun sailed up from a slumbering horizon turning a black world to gray and then from gray to gold. The earth smelled of damp clumps of wet sod that were churned under the iron-shod hooves of the war horses. The sweet smell of heather mingled with the pungent smell of mud hung in the air. No one talked; they were all bone-weary from their frantic flight from the capital city of Alba where King Nathaniel and Queen She’rah resided. What would normally take three and a half days of riding only took them two, and now, with only a few hours sleep, they had turned around and were heading back. The horses could not keep up the same pace and neither could the children, so their journey home would be considerably longer.
Down in the green valley, still shadowed from the tall mountains and hills, were several thousand men and women marching and riding toward the encamped Rudhaian army at Sàibhreas. They still had a few hours of marching ahead of them before they would reach the invading army. Annabelle felt a tinge of envy. She was the commander of the Royal Guard and at the Autumn of her years she was thankful for the less physical post, however sometimes she thought about those days of battles fought—some lost, but most won—and truly missed the emotion and white-hot energy that coursed through her veins while she took up her sword. She was now too old to enjoy such service to her king. She, like most of the women in the king’s army forwent having a family and children. She was too busy fighting battles and keeping Sasunn safe. But now that I am old, what do I have to show for my honor and service?
“They will meet the Rudha soon.” Daveed reigned up his horse next to Annabelle, his bright face was eager with the anticipation of the ensuing battle.
“Yes, and I feel they are evenly matched. Let’s pray to Kyem that we don’t lose too many good soldiers and that the battle will be over quickly.”
As the sun rose higher in the dreary sky people began talking quietly amongst themselves as they warmed up. The air was crisp and smelled of rain. Winter was trying to hold on to its domain while it fought back spring. The snow was long melted, the Crocus and Aconite wilted and disappeared, but the icy rain was still a reality. Heather, daffodils, and tulips now bloomed and Cottonwoods along riverbanks sent out their seed upon the fickle wind.
Fertility. Something Annabelle could not promise Daveed. Though she thought of her affair with Daveed as nothing permanent, she found herself wishing she could give him a child. It was nothing that she had given much thought to before this affair. She had always been busy with her military career, she did not want to be tied down like those women who birth many babies and grew plump and lazy. But he was young and would most probably send for a woman from Dùthaich, the country of his people, as was their custom. She sighed as it started to rain and Annabelle pulled her coat closer to her skin. She kneed her midnight-black mare on towards Alba.
As the sun started set she pulled her horse to a stop. “We will stop here for the night!” Annabelle called and then dismounted. “Start a fire and put up my tent so the grand duke and duchess may have some privacy tonight. Start a fire and get some wine warmed up!”
After everyone ate to their full and warmed their bellies with hot wine they drug themselves to their tents, less the four soldiers who were guarding the camp. The evening was cold and the absence of stars was an ominous threat that rain would once again start falling. Annabelle fell asleep to the sound of a night bird singing its mournful tune to an imaginary lover. She awoke to a piercing scream. Annabelle and Daveed jumped up at the same time, grabbed their swords and sprung from their tent. Abigail was standing outside the tent she was sharing with her brother and their servants and even in the darkness of the night Annabelle could see the crisp whiteness of the girl’s gaping eyes.
“He’s gone! They’ve taken him!” she screamed. Someone put a lamp into Annabelle’s hand and as she cautiously entered, the golden light pouring into the tent, she saw the bodies of the children’s servants peacefully slumbering in death, darts (probably poisoned) sticking from their necks. Jacob’s bedroll lay empty and dark.
Daveed yelled from the edge of the camp and Annabelle hurried to him. A soldier’s body lay crumpled on the ground like someone in his cups, but Annabelle knew the man was dead, as dead as the other three soldiers who had been on watch must also be.
“He is gone,” Annabelle whispered in disbelief. Annabelle turned and looked at the camp which was now vibrating with activity. “Have the soldier’s and the servant’s bodies buried quickly and then we must find their tracks.”
“How could this happen? Where you not supposed to be protecting us?” Abigail’s voice was trembling with fear and anger. Tears ran down the young girl’s dirt-streaked face.
“Our soldiers were killed by assassins.”
“That is no excuse for losing the Abair Seer!” Abigail’s voice shrieked across the camp that suddenly grew quiet.
“Morgan, please find the duchess some wine and a quiet place to wait until we are ready to leave.”
As the sun hesitantly crept up into the clouded sky they finally picked up the trail of a small band of people and horses: the lighter indentations of the grand duke’s small, piebald, pony surrounded by six other sets of prints leading into the countryside.
“They won’t hurt him, will they?” Abigail’s voice was uncharacteristically small and lost. Daveed discreetly dropped back to give the women some privacy.
“He’s worth more to them alive.” She looked over at the girl’s face, her ice-blue eyes now red and puffy from crying. She was a striking beauty with her fire-red hair and pale skin the color of cool milk. The king would find her a respectable husband from a noble family when they returned to Alba.
“He is all I have in this world. I could not bare it if he were harmed.” Abigail’s yellow gelding reached out and playfully nipped at Annabelle’s polished war horse which gave a warning snort.
“We will find him, I assure you Duchess Tyne.”
“Abby. Just Abby,” she said quietly.
Annabelle took a deep breath, suddenly pricked by a feeling of empathy towards the young noblewoman. “Do you miss your parents?”
“Yes, very much. I miss my mother’s laughter and unbearably happy spirit and my father’s warm hugs and soft voice. It has been very hard on my brother; he was especially close to our mother.”
“I lost my parents when I was young too.”
“Yes. I was raised by the priests and priestesses at the citadel in Alba.”
Abigail’s face grew dark and she turned her cool eyes downward. “The Baobh Priests killed my parents.” Annabelle was silent; the king had suspected that was the case. “They want to control my brother.” She looked back up at the older woman. “My father was going to defy them and send us to Alba at King Nathaniel’s latest request. That was why they had them killed.” Her face was eager for revenge.
Annabelle sighed. “We thought as much, but could not prove it.”
Suddenly one of her scouts came riding up to them with another rider trailing behind her. Annabelle immediately recognized the woman as an Àileag assassin. “I should have known the Àileag were behind such a heinous thing as child stealing,” Annabelle said as they met and reigned in their horses.
The woman was very small and wiry. She wore the customary green tunic and leggings of her country and had a short bow and quiver full of green-feathered arrows slung across her back. She wore a small rapier at her hip and a large dagger at her thigh. Her slightly slanted, brown eyes peered back at Annabelle. She placed her right hand on her chest, over her heart, and bowed her head to Annabelle.
“High Commander, I must apologize. It is true that we were sent to capture the Abair Seer, for my king believes he will be useful to our people since we have no seers of our own, however it seems we have the wrong child.”
Annabelle coolly looked from the woman to Abigail then back to the Àileag assassin. “So your king decided to take one of our seers while we were distracted with the Rudha?”
She reddened a bit. “Our Mystic Priests are not as powerful as your seers and to posses an Abair Seer would be a great boon for us.”
“Then why are you here?” Annabelle asked, arching her brows.
“I realized as soon as we took him he was not a seer. They will kill him when they return to Àileag if he can not foresee.”
“Why do you care?”
“The others seek to deceive our king until they may slip away undetected. I know it will not work and we will all be put to death straight away for our treachery but they will not listen to me. It is better to come back without the Abair Seer than to bring back a forgery and lie to our king.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Annabelle’s voice seemed distant to her ears. They can not detect the grand duke is the Abair Seer? Perhaps it’s true their people have no magic at all.
“I want to help you retrieve your small grand duke,” the woman said and sat straighter in her saddle.
That night, under the tiniest sliver of a moon, Annabelle and her soldiers descended upon the Àileag’s camp, killed them easily and took the frightened boy from them. For her cooperation, the Àileag assassin was released and rode off into the darkness back to her land to tell her king what she may of the situation.
“Are you alright?” Annabelle asked as soon as her brother was brought to their camp some distance away.
“Aye.” The boy’s ruddy hair seemed to glow in the uneven, orange, light of the lamps. Shiny tear tracks made their way down his cherubic cheeks.
Annabelle had been standing quietly in the darkness watching the siblings but now she spoke. “Now tell me why the Àileag believe that the grand duke is not a seer?” She wearily sat down on a bed roll and took a long drink from a warm cup of wine.
“But I am the seer!” Jacob protested in a small voice.
Annabelle fixed him with a stare. “I want the truth. That assassin was from her king’s royal coterie. She would be trained the in Mystic Arts and would be able to discern a seer.”
Abigail started to cry again, huge tears rolled down her pale cheeks. “It is true, Jacob is not the Abair Seer.” She began to sob. “I am the Abair Seer!”
Annabelle looked from one child to the next in astonishment.
“I did not want to get sent to the citadel and become a puppet priestess for the Baobh Priests, or even the crown. If they knew, I would be cloistered away and not allowed to marry and bare children.” She was uncontrollably sobbing now, taking huge gulps of air between chopped up sentences.
It was true that female seers were given to the citadels and not allowed to marry whereas male seers could marry if they so chose. Since Jacob was a nobleman it would be expected of him to marry and produce an heir to the duchy. Annabelle rubbed her head and took another long drink from her cup.
“Jacob and I agreed that he would claim to be the seer but would not prophesy unless I was to serve as his herald. That way we would never be separated and I would be allowed to marry.” Her energy now spend the duchess flopped down on a pile of blankets, Jacob timidly took a seat next to her. She took him protectively in her arms. “Please do not speak of this to King Nathaniel.”
“But you are the Abair Seer. I am sure you can understand that your contribution to Sasunn is more important than the girlish wish to prance around in court and marry a nobleman! It is a well-known fact that women loose their ability to divine the future if they lose their virginity.”
“It might be well-known, but ‘tis not a fact.” Abigail’s face got serious and she lowered her voice. “I am not as young and innocent as you believe, High Commander. A young nobleman visited our court last summer and we fell in love. I did not lose my ability, but have only grown stronger after that night we spent in the garden! I knew the Rudha were coming months ago, but I said nothing because I wanted the Baobh Priests to pay for killing our parents.”
“There are innocent people in Sàibhreas! The whole city could have been killed!”
“I saw the king would send his army and Sàibhreas would be spared. I also saw our escape and knew we’d finally be freed from the Baobh Priests.” Abigail’s icy eyes grew darker in the flickering firelight; her thick, crimson hair fell down around her body like a mantel. Jacob’s eyes were wide as he held on to his sister tightly.
“Then tell me, what do you see as your future now, Abigail Tyne, Duchess of Sàibhreas?”
A few days later Annabelle and her exhausted soldiers rode into Alba under a warm spring sun. The High Commander, the High Lieutenant, and the children quickly made their way up to the king’s spacious audience chamber.
Annabelle anxiously clenched her fists, the leather of her gloves creaking into the soundless hall. The king had received word just the day before of the Sasunn army’s victory so Nathaniel seemed pleased, almost smug. “High Commander Joss, have you brought my Seer?” Now he seemed impatient.
Annabelle took a deep breath and prayed that she would be forgiven. “My king, my queen, I present to you the Grand Duke of Sàibhreas—the Abair Seer—and his herald, the seer’s sister.”