Legend of the Phoenix (book)
To Master Bard Tarnost with congratulations and best wishes for a long and joyous life. It is unknown whether the tale be true, however it is our wish that the story contained herein, long regarded in our family as reflecting our own divine heritage, might provide its message of faith to a greater audience by its inclusion in the new Bardic library.
With kindest felicitations, Lady Isaebella Fenbrokken
The Legend of the Phoenix
My beloved and I began our day, as was our custom, with a walk to a small stone altar that rested beneath a great overhang of water-worn rock. Rosamynde delivered her offering of bread still warm from the hearth and I, my beaker of sweet tangy mead. Kneeling in prayer we watched as the sun rose, its rays marking the carvings upon the stone, illuminating them as if from some spiritual source. For some twenty years we had begun our day just so; Happy and content in each other and our tasks. One season flowed into the next, smooth and seamless, as if blessed by an unseen hand.
I remember her eyes -- soft and warm upon my face as she smiled across the common room in the midst of her chores. Her hands ever busy, though she lacked the talents of an Empath, she worked tirelessly at tending and comforting the injured and ill. If only I had known...
The stranger burst into the room haggard and short of breath. His skin was the color of mustard flowers laid over deep purple bruises. I knew at once it was the fever. I rushed forward only to be met by his out-stretched hand warding me off. "No! Stay back!" he shouted wildly. I persisted, trying to get closer, but he drew his sword. "Stay back! I seek only aid for my family and my friends -- it is too late for me." With a gasping breath he continued, "Lord Tenowith laughs while we die all about him. Please, I beg you! Help us!" He collapsed in a fit of coughing, blood spattering his hands and the cold grey floor.
He had been right... it was too late for him. We burned his body and all that we wore while preparing it within the hour. The elders gathered, debating long into the night about what aid, if any, they should send. While they argued and chattered and bickered, Rosamynde silently packed our things, sorting herbs and preparing potions. Remaining apart from the conversations flowing around her, it appeared that she knew where to go, while no one else had ever heard of Lord Tenowith and his lands.
We rose early the next morning, and left before the sun rose. For five days we traveled deep into forests and lands I doubted many had ever seen. Rosamynde hiked on tirelessly. She had not been young when we wed -- many would have called her old, a woman well past her prime. Yet, her strength was ever-present, her faith unshakeable. She bore many qualities I both admired and loved; yet it was her startlingly white hair that I found to be her most beautiful physical feature. It was not the dull white of age, but a pristine white, bold and shining. It fell to her ankles in soft, silent waves. My greatest personal pleasure was to brush it in the evenings before we retired. I would hold her in my arms, stroking her hair and treasuring the feel of it as it slipped through my fingers.
On the sixth day the forests ended abruptly at the foot of a jagged, dark range of mountains. I glanced at Rosamynde as we stopped to rest, uncertain I could continue. My body was worn to exhaustion by the constant unrelenting pace she had set for us. Softly she motioned upwards, taking my hand in hers as we began to climb. The path was steep and treacherous, littered with loose bits of rock and wide yawning crevices that seemed to be waiting for some unsuspecting wayfarer to fall haplessly into their grasp. New strength filled me at her touch and I leaned into my staff as we strove ever upwards.
When we reached the summit I saw for the first time signs of civilization. Smoke hung in the distance where my eyes could discern the shape of squat towers nestled amid a verdant green bowl of fields and forest. Shifting her pack, Rosamynde sighed. Surprised, I glanced at her -- it was so unusual that she made any indication of her discomfort. In fact, while I had groaned and moaned and muttered she had retained her usual stoically silent demeanor throughout our travels.
She gazed back at me, her normally warm, grey eyes filled with grief. My shock must have shown upon my face, because she turned from me. Reaching for her arm I opened my mouth to question her, only to close it once more as I recognized the all too familiar stubborn set of her jaw. It is not as if she could speak, but she communicated well without her voice when she wanted to. We walked on.
The town wall stood unguarded. Smoke filled the air, along with the rank stench of unburied dead and burning bodies. Coughing, I covered my nose and mouth with part of my robe, but nothing could ease the stinging in my eyes from the acrid clouds. We traveled through the streets with practiced ease -- twisting and turning back upon ourselves so many times I was soon hopelessly lost. Yet she continued on, undaunted in her familiar silent stride. Again and again I wondered how it was that my beloved wife seemed to know this place.
As dusk struck we stood in the center of an open square, what had once been a beautiful temple towering before us. Dead and dying lay about its open doors and in the streets. We were soon lost in the work of saving those we could and preparing those we couldn't to meet their fate upon the Starry Road. We worked through the night; as time passed others appeared and added their efforts to our own. The town's only remaining cleric had amassed all the dead he could find from outside the gates, and had begun the final prayer as dawn illuminated the sky. Rosamynde and I stood watch over those who struggled against the fever. Exhausted as we were, water and prayer were all we had remaining to offer them.
At mid-day, we were resting inside the temple when the sound of hooves upon stone rose in the streets. Drawing ever closer it grew to a deafening wall of sound before ceasing almost instantly outside the door. Rosamynde dragged herself to her feet with an air of finality. Fatigue had claimed every graceful line of her face, rimming her eyes in dark, bruised circles. Sudden, unexplained fear gave me strength I did not normally possess as I reached for her. Pulling her close, I held her to me like a man possessed.
She raised her fingers to my face, running her hands over my cheeks, smoothing back the faint wisps of hair across my nearly baldpate. Tenderly she kissed me, as tears slipped down her cheeks. Her eyes spoke to mine, of love stronger then any foe, of commitment, devotion and bonds of the soul. Almost begging me to understand what she could not say, she was gone, out the door, a pale shadow in the faint smoke-filled light.
The courtyard was full of men on horseback, most of them in leather armor. They parted like waves of grass as Rosamynde approached. I rushed to her side, pulling a staff from a nearby pile of kindling. One rider moved closer and then stopped beside Rosamynde, gazing out at those of us assembled there; his nose and mouth covered by a silken scarf. "What have we here?" he sneered from behind the cloth, nudging Rosamynde with his boot as she stood defiantly. She swayed, but her eyes never left his face.
I reacted with a sudden, fierce anger. "We are healers from beyond your mountains. One of your people came to us for help!" I yelled up at him, my voice almost a growl. Laughter echoed around us. For a moment it shocked me to silence. The rider dismissed the town's people with a flick of his hand. "You should not waste your time with them. They are lazy, ignorant fools." He continued on as the other riders snickered, "Dirty peasants, they have no blood of worth, let them die in the street." Rage -- cold, hard and unyielding -- welled up within me. Without a thought I struck out with my staff, knocking him from the saddle. Then the world went dull red as a gauntleted fist smashed into my face. Nausea washed over me, and something darker, as my healer's oath exacted its price.
I crawled to my feet, reeling as if drunk, before strong arms pinned me to the wall. The man with the scarf approached; what I could see of his face was a dark mask of bemused malice. Almost indifferently, he spoke. "There is no one here to stand against me, healer. I am Lord Tenowith; my word is law." He shrugged. "Not one hand shall be raised to save them unless they agree to my wishes." Gesturing towards an armor-clad rider to my left he sniffed, "If he raises a hand again, kill him."
Somewhere in the crowd a woman sobbed, a child wailed; my love was lost to my sight. Searching with my eyes I prayed fiercely that she was safe. One man, a smith by the look of him, stepped forward, ragged and half-starved. He yelled, "We will never accept you as Baron!" Faceless hands dragged him backwards into the growing crowd. Laughing, Lord Tenowith mounted his horse, his armored pack of guards clustering around him. His voice rang out over the crowd, "Then my plague will kill you all, one by one." He gazed at me once more, his eyes filled with warning. "There are NONE here that will stand against me, healer."
"I will." A voice spoke out so low I was not sure I had heard it. Whispers and gasps of surprise rose around me as the crowd parted. Once more the voice spoke. "I will stand against you, Lord Tenowith." I stared in slack-jawed horror as she continued, "On the new moon's morn five days hence, I will meet you upon a field of honor to claim retribution for all you have done." Through eyes filled with my own blood I watched as my wife, who had not uttered a sound in the twenty years of our union, challenged this man to battle.
With obvious distaste she hurled a worn leather gauntlet to the ground at his feet. Her eyes glared at him defiantly. Lord Tenowith just laughed. The riders surrounding him laughed. Nervous coughs, whimpers and moans echoed from the crowd. I could not speak; it was as if my tongue had been torn from my mouth. Rosamynde smiled, her lips a thin hard line. "You delay, Lord Tenowith. Do you decline my challenge honorably given? Do you fear to fall at the hands of a worn and grey-haired woman?"
Tenowith sputtered in anger as titters of laughter crept through the crowd. His guard coughed behind gloved hands and averted their eyes lest their amusement be confused with disrespect. "In five days at dawn, woman!" Lord Tenowith spat at Rosamynde's feet before climbing on his mount and disappearing in a thunderous roar of hooves.
I stared at my wife in utter confusion -- she could speak! Elated, I pulled her to me, our current dilemma lost in my sudden joy at the sound of her voice. With a thousand questions I sought her eyes only to find hers suddenly hidden in the curve of my neck. She clung tightly to me, every bit of her slender frame shaking like a leaf.
That night, we lay in the small sleeping space we had made for ourselves to one side of what remained of the altar. When I tried to question her, she quieted my words with a brush of her fingers or a gentle kiss, refusing to speak again no matter what I did to entice her. Much later, when the moon was full, she rose, took my hand and guided me down the dark narrow alleys and empty streets to the remains of what looked like an old guildhall. We walked in near total darkness, yet her step did not falter. Sure and true she led us beneath the remains of an altar, down long twisting stairs to a simple cell.
Dust tickled my nose as a torch flared to life. Blinking, I cast my gaze about the tiny room. Aside from a stick cot over which hung a battered shield, all that remained in the room was a worn wooden chest, its lid thick with dust. Age hung about the room in long drifting cobwebs.
"You know you are my heart and soul," she spoke softly, reverently. "Never have I been happier than at your side." She curled her arms around me, laying her cheek against my chest. I nodded then, enraptured by the soft, sweet sound of her voice even as my soul filled with dread. "Long ago I swore an oath and now is the time of its fulfillment." She gazed up at me, pale grey eyes so filled with love they took my breath away. With my hands I sought her hair. Lightly I stroked it, letting it slip through my fingers like a silken waterfall. "Cadfaul, I ask only this one thing of you, Beloved. Do not ask more of me."
For the first time I noticed the lines upon her face, the touch of years as they had passed. She was nearing her 50th year and my mind boggled at the sheer impossibility of what she intended to do. "Rosamynde, you cannot do this thing!" My voice echoed in the utter silence. Rosamynde shook her head gently, her eyes filling with tears as she whispered, "Faith. You must have faith." We slept there, in that small, quiet place, curled against each other as young lovers would. Our limbs entwined as if merely touching could not convey the depth of our affection.
When I awoke, she was gone. I somehow knew she would be. Gone too was the chest, yet no marks marred the dust of the floor to explain its passing. I slowly found my way back to the cathedral. The next six days passed in an endless blur of healing, funerals and deep despair. I prayed endlessly, hopelessly, and angrily. I berated the gods for their seeming disinterest in such horrible suffering and for the crushing weight of my own fear.
Dawn rose bright and clear on the Day of Justice. A brisk spring wind had driven the smoke from the air, leaving the smell of flowers and damp earth in its place. I, along with a motley crowd of others, waited hopefully, praying soundlessly that Lord Tenowith would not appear. But appear he did, in an angry cloud of dust, with at least a dozen retainers trailing behind him. His armor gleamed with gold and silver. Gems adorned his helm, which also sported brightly dyed plumes that fluttered and danced in the breeze. He raised his visor as he reined his mount to a stop before me. He regarded me, and those about me, with a sneer. To my eyes his face rivaled Idon's in its cruelty and disdain.