Osgary 30, 1014
The moment that she had seen Nimue and Gawaine off to school and Gareth to his blocks under the watchful eye of Michelle, Dindrane stole into her study.
Most of the time, especially when she knew she was alone, or close enough, in the house, she instantly went to her desk or to her table and began to work. Today she stood still, waiting to hear the final click that meant that the bookshelf had locked into place. Then she let out a breath she had not consciously decided to hold, but which nonetheless came as no surprise.
She shook her head. I must be mad.
But what could she say for herself? The days on the calendar had marched with inexorable firmness toward today, Osgary the thirtieth. The Church called it the Feast of the Cordials. The scribe or merchant called it the last day of the month, with all of its attendant duties. The laborer called it a day like any other day.
And witches called it a “thin time.”
And that, Dindrane told herself sternly as she began to pace back and forth through the small study, is why you are being patently irrational. There may well be “thin times.” There might be times when connections are more easily made between the living and the dead, or between mortals and the Fae. This may be one of them. But none of that, Dindrane, matters to what you are doing, or thinking to do.
After all, Sylvia Marie the Mashuga’s device worked any day of the year, thin time or thick.
She knew very well what waiting until today had been: a stalling tactic. No different than the drunkard’s promise to stop drinking — tomorrow, or the famous prayer of Don of Lothario: Oh Lord, make me chaste, but not yet. Since news had come about Lamorak’s death, she had seen this way open to her, a tantalizing possibility, but also … a fearful one.
She had not used the device since Thorn’s death and revival. Something that Morgan said had unfortunately stuck with her: “Did it ever occur to you that there is a balance? That there’s a reason for people dying when they do?” So even when her father died, she had chosen not to meddle.
But now that Lamorak had died, too …
How could there be balance in an act of senseless violence? What higher purpose could possibly be served by a life full of promise being cut so brutally short?
And if Dindrane’s suspicions had any basis in reality — there might be sense to it, there might be purpose, but it was no sense or purpose that Dindrane wanted to see fulfilled.
In that moment she realized that she had made her decision. She took a deep breath, walked to a certain spot on the floor, and closed her eyes.
Down, she thought, focusing her entire will into that command.
And when she opened her eyes, she was in the cellar.
It was just a small, walled-off room in the larger cellar. It was probably larger than it strictly needed to be, but Dindrane had needed to somehow work it into the plans of the house without causing the workmen to suspect that anything was amiss. She’d had enough of a devil of a time making certain that the door that connected this room to the larger storage and root cellar was “forgotten” during construction.
As for the rest — well, Morgan had devised the magical transportation from Dindrane’s study to the cellar below. She’d sworn it would only bring Dindrane and herself down to the cellar, though it would bring anybody up. “And the only reason I’m doing that,” Morgan had said, “isn’t to encourage you in your insanity — but I can’t think of a worse way to die than being stuck in a cellar with no door and no windows and no food, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody who managed to blunder their way down there.” After that, the two of them had manhandled the device down to the cellar; they had installed some candles and torches in the room so that Dindrane wouldn’t trip over the device — and then Morgan had washed her hands of the matter.
The device had not been moved or used since. Dindrane came down once a week or so, just to check that it was still here.
Today, however, would be different.
She strode briskly to the beige device on its altar of fire and skulls. Her footsteps did not echo on the packed-earth floor. But her every breath seemed to knock off the stone walls and go bouncing about the room for a time. Perhaps that was what made it seem that they were coming faster than normal.
She reached the device, bent, her fingers just brushing the bone-cold speaking part–
You rang? a voice as grainy and as swiftly-flowing as the sands of time asked from behind her.
Dindrane spun, her hand over her fluttering heart. “You — you –”
You did wish to see me, did you not? The Grim floated toward her. Dindrane tried, as she ever did, not to stare at the ribcage clearly visible through the tattered robes. It felt rude, and if there was any being with whom one ought to be scrupulously polite …
Dindrane swallowed. “How — how did you know?”
You are mortal. I know where every mortal is at all times. And this … The Grim waved a bony — literally — hand toward the device. I keep a special eye on where this is. When you and the Resurrect-o-Nomitron intersect … The Grim shrugged.
The Resurrect-o-Nomitron. Dindrane filed that away for later. She had never seen that name anywhere in her historical sources — but hearing what it was called from the Grim Reaper himself …
Yes, Dindrane, and whom will you tell that you had this conversation, hmm?
She took a deep breath. “I — see.” But curiosity would not be so easily stilled by practicality, so she asked, “You … know where all mortals are?”
“But the Church tells us that only the Lord knows –”
It’s not the same as omniscience, interrupted the Grim. It’s more … omni-location-science. Or perhaps, a better way to think of it is that I know what I must know in order to do my duty.
There was little that could be said to argue with that. Dindrane nodded.
And by the way, the Grim added, if you think the Church is the best place to go for information about me, well, I’ve got some fine riverside property in the Dousa Desert you might be interested in purchasing.
Dindrane blinked. “Nobody ever mentioned that you were sarcastic.”
I didn’t used to be. Then I spent a millennium shuttling mortals from one side to the next. The Grim shrugged again. We’ve all got our coping mechanisms.
“I … see.”
But enough small talk, the Grim continued. You wanted to talk about your brother. And your father.
Dindrane’s breath caught. Her father … she’d watched him die, she’d thought he was at peace when he finally left. But … but the illness had been so sudden — and she knew he wasn’t ready to be finished, not yet, or at least he hadn’t before he had gotten sick …
“I could — get him back?” Dindrane whispered.
You could. But it would not be for long. Dindrane nodded; she understood that. He had been an elderly man. But what the Grim said next had not been what he had in mind. It would be a few days — maybe a week. Maybe. His sands had run out.
Dindrane slumped, and she had to close her eyes and turn away so the Grim wouldn’t see the tears gather. So — so that was that. “How — how is he?”
At peace. Happy. Waiting for your mother and the rest of you to join him — but not until your sands all run out.
Dindrane swallowed and nodded. “So he’s … all right.”
He was a good man. Limited by the standards of his time and place — a prisoner of his own prejudices — but also a man with principles, who never tried to hurt anybody if he could avoid it, and tried to help when he could. Yes. He’s all right.
Dindrane bowed her head. “Thank you. For — for telling me that.”
There is nothing to be lost by kindness, answered the Grim. If anything, I wish that … well, never mind.
She would not ask. He had told her that her father was at rest, at peace — how could she presume to seek to satisfy mere curiosity when he had already given her such a gift?
“So … my brother.”
Yes. Your brother.
“If — if I were to ask for him back …?”
He would live until his sands ran out.
“But … he died.”
His sands didn’t run out, the Grim countered. Somebody took his hourglass and threw it against the wall.
“Is that what happens with all who die young? That they still have sand left to run?”
The Grim’s hood bobbed back and forth, like a man tilting his head from one side to the other as he pondered a difficult question. Sometimes … sometimes not. Not all hourglasses are created equal.
“And how do you tell the difference?”
How do I tell the difference?
Dindrane’s cheeks burned. That had been a stupid way to phrase it. “How does someone on my end tell the difference?”
You don’t. Unless I tell you.
She swallowed. “But you say that Lamorak still has sand left to run. Which means — I could bring him back.”
Yes. For a price.
Dindrane nodded. Of course. There had been a price for Thorn, too. “How much?”
Dindrane blinked. She took a step back. She couldn’t — she couldn’t have heard that right. “Another life?”
“Are — are you mad?”
No. The Grim didn’t even sound angry. Or frustrated. Or even resigned. There was simply an endless, bone-weary patience to him. There must be balance. If you bring back Lamorak — then another life will be the cost.
“Why? Because I care about him?” Dindrane snapped. “Neil — Thorn — because I didn’t care–because I didn’t love them, because they weren’t my brother, you were content to take money, but because I love my brother, you’ll demand that I kill someone?”
Your feelings have nothing to do with it. Neil — Neil was a man brave enough to risk his life to venture into the unknown, hoping to come back to tell the tale. She appreciates that kind of courage. So, the exchange was in money. And Thorn …
The Grim brought up his hand; it disappeared into his hood. If Dindrane didn’t know better, she’d say he was stroking his chin. But he had no chin … or even a jawbone to stroke … did he? Thorn is complicated. There was no life that could be exchanged for his. And he was a child, an innocent — and he had an important part to play in the drama that would follow. So She decreed.
The Grim laughed. Or at least, he tilted his head back, his ribcage bobbed up and down, and a sound like waves rushing over the beach, dragging acres of sand to sea, issued forth. Oh, Dindrane — you’re far too intelligent for me to tell you that. It would spoil all the fun.
“Who’s having fun?” Dindrane snapped. It was only the knowledge that Michelle and Gawaine were playing a floor above that kept her from shouting.
You would not believe me if I told you.
Dindrane closed her eyes and turned away. She would not let him see how that upset her. She would not. She closed her eyes and clenched her fists, and tried to tell her heart to slow down — somehow she thought that every beat was a grain of sand, and she was not ready for them to run out just yet.
When she had collected herself, she turned back to the Grim. “Can you at least tell me how Lamorak is? Or do I need to sacrifice a chicken to have that request fulfilled?”
Certainly not. Animal sacrifice is always so messy. And half the time they don’t even eat the meat. What a waste! The Grim shook his head. As for Lamorak … he is at rest.
“At rest — at peace? Like my father?”
No. Not peace. Rest. Your father is awake. Your brother sleeps. The Grim paused. He needs it, after what he suffered.
What he suffered … Would Lamorak have suffered overmuch, being slain by thieves? He would have fought until the end … but how long would such a fight last? What kind of thieves would risk robbing a knight they could not incapacitate quickly? Every moment of such a fight was a moment where something could go wrong. Best to cut their losses and run if things dragged on too long.
However … if what Dindrane’s bones told her was true …
The Grim said nothing. But the way he lifted his hood and bobbed it down in a quick, sharp motion — if a hood could wink …
However, though he needs the rest he has gotten, the Grim went on, he will be happy when he wakes. If you are willing to pay the price.
Dindrane started. What? No! Not Lamorak!
“You — you liar!” Dindrane hissed.
The Grim stepped–floated–back. She would have called the reaction genuine surprise, had not the Grim proved what he was. Liar? Me?
“Yes!” So maybe it was true, what the Church said about him — that he was evil, that he lived to trick Sims to their demise and damnation. He had said to discount all that, but he would say that, wouldn’t he? Why had Dindrane been so blind? “I know my brother better than that!”
Better than what? The Grim’s hood tilted to the side.
“Than to think that my brother would be happy to be brought back at the cost of another life!”
The Grim’s hood jerked back. You think your brother is that saintly? That he’d be willing to forgo the rest of his life for that? Your father can watch you, you know. And your children, and your children’s children. Lamorak does not even have that pleasure where he is. He would never get to see his son — or his other child — again.
“A saint? Lamorak? Of course not!” Dindrane snapped. “Were it not for Aglovale and me, I’d say he was the least likely of all of us to be nominated for sainthood! But Lamorak knows right from wrong — and he would never, never be happy to live out the rest of his days if he knew that the price was an innocent life!”
Oh. Certainly, no, he wouldn’t.
Dindrane shook herself. “What?”
“You just said –” Dindrane shook her head. “You blatantly contradicted yourself!”
I did no such thing.
“Yes — yes — you did! One minute you say he would be happy to be brought back at the cost of an innocent life –”
I said no such thing.
Dindrane put both hands to her head. She was about ten seconds, she judged, shy of pulling her hair out strand by strand. But she ran through the conversation again in her head — just to make sure.
What I told you, all of it, was and is true, the Grim went on. Your brother will be happy to be brought back. That is a fact. And —
The Grim sighed, and he tilted his hood heavenward, as if asking for strength — that was odd — but he waited.
“I said — I said knowing that the cost was an innocent life …” Dindrane’s fists clenched and unclenched. “Are you suggesting that I not tell him?”
Well, that would be up to you — but it wouldn’t make much of a difference if you did. Or if it did, it would be in the opposite direction.
“He would be happier to know that an innocent life had been traded for his?”
“You’re not making sense!” Dindrane exploded.
The Grim shook his hood. Listen. Everything I am telling you — everything I have told you — is true. There is no contradiction.
However … the Grim continued, it is clear that you are not yet ready. So I shall take my leave of you.
“What? Wait –”
No. All the same, he seemed to hesitate. All the same — think on what I said, Dindrane. What I said may not be what you heard, or thought you heard. And when you are ready …
The Grim put his hands on his pelvis and chuckled. Well, I would say that you know where to find me — but in truth, I know where to find you.
And in the space between one eyeblink and another, he was gone.
Dindrane shut her eyes and clenched her fists. What he had said — it could not all be true. He must be lying somewhere. It just made no sense otherwise. She would think on her conversation, and she would find the discrepancy, and everything would neatly unravel in her hands, leaving her to pick over every thread at her leisure.
But standing here would do her no good. Dindrane returned to the magic spot and thought, Up. It took a couple of tries — she was too distracted at first to focus. But soon enough, she was in her bright study, the sunlight still streaming through the window like a cruel joke.
A cruel joke like what the Grim had told her. Lamorak would be happy to come back — even at the cost of an innocent life — but no, he wouldn’t be happy if it cost an innocent life —
Wait. Dindrane’s mind backtracked, and found something. A key to the puzzle.
But … if it was that …
Could it be? she wondered. And if it could …
What do I do next?