Chapter 18
The Path Revealed

Underhill, Southern Norland, Pendragon

Rafael sat outside the hole in the wall belonging to Sammy and Tammy, keeping watch. The Barnlings did not trust him as a general rule, but on the subject of Cassandra they were evenly split among those who were sympathetic to her, those who feared her and simply wanted her to go away, and those who wanted to finish what the gatekeeper Bemmy started and be rid of her once and for all. It was against this last group that Rafael was keeping an eye out. If they had the numbers for it, they might have tried storming the hole, but instead they settled for joining their voices to the ones who just wanted her to go. That did not mean they might not try something if they thought his guard was down. He had no intention of giving them any such opportunity.
It had been three days. A couple medicine-women were able to treat Cassandra's wound well enough for her to hold on until her powers recovered enough to heal herself. However, her own healing was delayed because she insisted on using her powers to treat the Barnlings she had attacked while berserk, those who would allow her to do so, that is. None of them were too seriously injured, which was proof enough that she had been fighting back against whatever power took hold of her.
Rafael was still wanting to hear more about that, but Cassandra was in no condition to talk the first two days and even after she had recovered somewhat, the old wives refused to let him in to see her until they had made some new clothes for her. The clothes she had were ruined by all the blood from the spear wound and there was nothing the Barnlings had on hand that was her size. Apparently several industrious wives had been hard at work making clothes to fit her.
"Ye kin coom in nae," Old Granny Wen-wen said. "She wonts te tolk te ye."
Granny Wen-wen was a medicine-woman and one of the most honored elders in Underhill. It was her voice in support of Cassandra that held all the opposition at bay. Most of the women sided with her and any of their husbands who thought otherwise could not do much to change their minds.
Were it not for the several women milling about tending to Cassandra, the Kol-Bol family home would seem largely empty and cheerless. There was a cooking pit in the center of the home and the unused tools of various crafts neither Sammy or Tammy appeared to practice. To the back of the room was a single bed that was little more than a pile of hides and quilted blankets of the Barnlings' curious manufacture. They did not have flax or wool, but apparently they relied mostly on nettles that grew in the grove of all things or hemp if they could find it. He had never heard of using nettles to make cloth before.
Speaking of cloth, Cassandra was dressed in a simple smock sitting up in the bed. Because an entire family was expected to share one bed, it was large enough for her. She looked paler than usual and there was a faint trace of dark circles under her eyes.
"How're ya feelin'?" Rafael asked.
"As well as can be expected," Cassandra replied. "I am much indebted to Mother Wenmerril and her companions. And to you, Rafael."'
"Ya gonna tell me what's goin' on?"
"I believe I must," she said.
Overhearing her, Sammy and Tammy came scurrying over. Cassandra hesitated for a moment, then continued to speak.
"A Lord of Shadow has emerged in the South, in the City of the Dead in the field my people call Naitalion. I believe in the Blue Haven they call it Campus Caedis."
"The Field a' Slaughter," Rafael said, not knowing how or why he knew that.
"It is an ancient battlefield soaked in blood and brimming with the hatred and remorse of thousands slain," she continued. "It gives the Lord of Shadow even more power. It was Nature's mercy to us that the flesh cannot withstand such power. As the Lord of Shadow grows in strength, that very power will cause his body to decay until it is consumed, unless he can pass on his seed to the next generation.
"To the east there is an island of magic-wielders in league with the Lord of Shadow. For generations they have been breeding humans with various spirits of the land to increase their power. They sent one of their own to unite with a bloodline new to our world to create a vessel to receive the Lord of Shadow's seed. That vessel is Princess Aurelia."
"So that'd mean the Queen..."
Cassandra nodded gravely.
"Yes. She is in league with the enemy of all that live and breathe. But there is hope. On that isle of mages, many would reject this alliance with the Lord of Shadow. I was to meet with one of their representatives, in Norland far beyond the enemy's reach, but then I found you two," she said to the Barnlings, "and I had no choice but to move on. The only path that remains is to proceed to the City of the Dead myself. I fear my power will not be enough, but if I can stop the Lord of Shadow and protect Aurelia, even at the cost of my life, it will be enough."
"But, Cassy, didn't ya say that Hazil an' a thousan' more couldn't beat one a' them Lords a' Shadow?" Sammy asked.
"I do not believe this Lord of Shadow is as strong as the one of legend," Cassandra said. "Besides, through the æther we were told of one of our kind who defeated the last Lord of Shadow. There is hope."
"How'd he do it?" Rafael asked.
"She, actually," Cassandra corrected him, "the Queen of El-Alar, and I do not know how."
"Are ya as strong as she was?"
"I do not know."
"Then what the hell're ya plannin' ta do?"
"I do not know!"
It was not like Cassandra to raise her voice and when she did, she winced and held her stomach.
"Are ya alright?" Rafael asked.
Cassandra held up a hand to stop him before he could come any closer.
"I am fine," she said, though the expression on her face told a different story. "I owe Seth my life and so if I must give my life for Aurelia's, my debt is paid." She paused and averted her eyes, saying, "Besides, Aurelia is my daughter."
"Your daughter!?"
"After a fashion," Cassandra said. "When the Queen conceived her, she performed a ritual using my blood to infuse the child with my powers. And so Aurelia is as much my daughter as hers."
"How'd that happen?"
"I am neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. The Queen had a servant whose mind I could not touch. He caught me off my guard and drugged me. Several days passed before I found myself in my chamber again."
"How d'ya know what the Queen did then?"
"I could sense my power in Aurelia, see my likeness in her, but I could not have borne her. When I learned about the isle of mages, I discovered the blood ritual they use and the rest was simple deduction."
"An' the trip ta the High City?"
"I had to try to save my mother so that I could die without regret. Then it was a simple matter of delivering the little ones here and I hoped to leave you in Uthcaster before I crossed the River and made my way to the City of the Dead."
"I won't let ya do it," Rafael said.
"You will not be able to stop me, Rafael."
"There's gotta be another way."
"If there is, I have no time to find it. The enemy already knows what I mean to do."
"Ya mean the ring?"
"Yes. It was a gift from Aurelia. Beryl is known as the Elf-stone. She has a matching ring of her own."
"Are ya sayin' she did that ta ya?"
"It was done through her at least. Her will is not her own."
"Ya sayin' that 'cause it's true or 'cause it's what ya wanna believe?"
Wrapping her arms around herself, she replied, "I have to believe it."
"'Cause she's your kid, or somethin' like it?"
Cassandra said nothing, but even if she were to reply, she would not have had the chance over Granny Wen-wen screeching, "Oi! Ye kint coom in 'ere! Oot wi' ye! Oot!"
"Ya'll let me through," the mayor said. "I've come ta speak ta the outsiders an' the Kol-Bols."
"What brin's ya here, Danny-man?" Sammy asked as the mayor forced his way into the house.
"Ya should know, Samhain Kol-Bol," the mayor replied. "Ya broke our laws goin' out with your sister like ya did, but I was willin' ta forgive it 'cause you're all that's left a' the Kol-Bols. Then ya brin' an outsider here an' I forgive that 'cause she saved your lives an' folks wanted ta see a real live Tree-talker. Then some evil spirit takes hole a' her an' she's become a terror ta this village. Then a Biggun busts in an' smashes the Lil' Sun, our pride an' joy an' the treasure a' our ancestors. More'n half the folks here been clamorin' at my door day an' night ever since. I can't forgive that."
"Danny-man, what're ya sayin'?"
"Samhain Kol-Bol, Tamarin Kol-Bol, I banish ya from Unnerhill now an' for all time."
"Master Danmair, please, do not punish them for what I have done," Cassandra said.
"Or me neither," Rafael added, "an' besides, I fixed that crystal thin' for ya. The door too."
The mayor eyed the crystal fragment lighting the home and gave him a stern look. During the times when there were enough friendly Barnlings around Cassandra that Rafael felt she was safe, he fixed the door he kicked in and then took the fragments of the crystal and pounded them into the ceiling. Instead of a Little Sun, they had a whole starry sky to enjoy and there were even enough fragments left over so that any house that wanted it could have a piece for light. It certainly seemed like a more equitable solution to him, but apparently the mayor thought otherwise.
"My decision stands," the mayor said stubbornly. "As soon as the Tree-talker can walk, I want ya out or else we'll run ya out."
Rafael looked at Cassandra and saw it flash in her eyes for a brief moment. She was thinking about using her powers to make him change his mind, but she stopped herself. Maybe it was because she did not usually use her powers that way and maybe it was because she was reluctant to use her powers after what had happened.
"Soom 'ospitality ye shew, Danny Om-Dom," Granny Wen-wen said. "'Twon't be forgot, 'twon't."
"I gotta think a' the safety a' all us firs', ol' granny," the mayor replied.
Sammy and Tammy stood there in silence with their faces downcast.
"Samhain, Tamarin, I am so sorry," Cassandra said.
Sammy looked up and said, "Now ya gotta take us with ya."
"You heard what I must do. To go with me is to face certain death."
"We're dead anyway on our own, Cassy," Tammy said. "If we gotta die, we outta at least die with friends."
"Yeah, what she said."
"Looks like ya won't be gettin' rid a' us so easy after all," Rafael said.
Cassandra could not hold back the tears as she looked at them.
"Aw, noo doon' croy, me lovely," Granny Wen-wen said. "Ye'll ruin that pretty face a' yourn."

* * *

By law and custom, in the rare event anyone was banished from Underhill, they were to be shunned by the community entirely. No one was to see them leave except the gatekeeper and even he would have his back turned. However, in defiance of law and custom, Granny Wen-wen and about ten others gathered to see the four companions off.
Cassandra was dressed in the fashion of a Barnling maid in an outfit that was put together by several of the friendly wives. While her old clothes could not be saved, she did don her cloak once more. There was an incongruous patch over the hole left by the gatekeeper's spear, but other than that, it remained mostly in good condition.
She knelt down and told those gathered, "Mother Wenmerril, Mother Allifair, Mother Connalin, Barella, Iselda, Mircela, Annalin, Morrit, Okonna, Mordin, and Welwennin, thank you all. This can in no way repay you for all you have done, but this is all that I have."
She offered up the golden pins from her tunic and other ornaments. While some of the Barnlings' eyes lit up at the sight of these modest treasures, Granny Wen-wen only looked confused.
"Wot we te dew wit' this?" she asked.
"There may come a time when your people have need of gold," Cassandra replied, "but if nothing else, let it be a memento of me."
"Ah doon't need no bauble te remember ye by, my lovely," Granny Wen-wen said, "boot we'll accept it in the spirit 'twas giv'n in."
"Thank you."
"Sammy, Tammy, take care a' each other," Annalin, one of the wives said.
"We'll be fine," Sammy said in false bravado. "Don't ya worry."
"Get on wi' it," the gatekeeper growled.
"Ye kin shet yer gob, Bemmy Id-Quid," Granny said. Then to Cassandra and the others she said, "Take cay a' yerselves."
Cassandra stood up, placed her hand over her heart and bowed in the manner of her people, saying, "Peace and blessings be on you all. May the light of El-Naia shine on your way."
In truth it was they who would be in need of El-Naia's light. When they emerged from the hollow, Sammy and Tammy gave their home one final look.
"Now they're down ta twenny," Sammy said.
According to the uninflated folk tale of the Barnlings, there were forty families at time of Underhill's founding and as time wore on, house after house went extinct. Twenty-one remained before Sammy an Tammy's expulsion, marking the end of their family's name.
"Twenny's a nice an' round number," Tammy said. "Still half full."
"Not half empty?" Rafael asked.
"We will need all the positive thinking we can muster for the road ahead," Cassandra said.
"There's gotta be another way ta stop that Lord a' Shadda," Rafael said.
"The Blue Haven is near the border of my people's forest," Cassandra replied. "I can try to seek aid from them."
"Will they help?"
"I fear not... Oh, and, Rafael?"
"I would like my ring back."
Rafael eyed her suspiciously.
"What're ya gonna do with it?"
"It is my link to Aurelia," she said. "There may come a time when I have need of it. Do not worry, I will not wear it again unless I truly must."
"I don't like the idea a' ya wearin' it at all."
"Please, Rafael. Trust me."
"Jus' don't make me regret it," he said as he reached into the sleeve of his tunic and pulled out the ring, which was on a cord tied to his arm.
Cassandra tied the cord around her neck and tucked the ring away under her dress. She touched her chest where the ring rested. She could feel its power, but so long as she did not put it on her finger, it would have no hold over her.
"Why don't ya jus' get rid a' it?" Rafael asked.
"This ring was used through Aurelia to do me harm," Cassandra said. "Perhaps it can be used through me to do good to Aurelia."
"I don't think I believe that."
"Well, I do, and I hope that I am right."