HER STRONG ENCHANTMENTS FAILING
Much of the content of the dream was in the form of imagery and emotions. I have tried to translate those into words. It wasn't until later the day after that the Houseman poem came to mind. At first I was the sorceress in my tower fighting another sorcerer across the night. Then I was cowering inside my tower knowing I was beaten. Finally I had travelled to his tower to meet the victor who was at liberty to kill or torment the defeated party. I leave it to you to imagine how a defeated sorceress might be tormented by a younger, stronger sorcerer. In my dream it was formless and terrifying.
How long had I been stood here on the balcony of my citadel, flinging fireballs across the night? Too long, I knew. I was tired and time-worn while my opponent was young and vigourous. He had taken up residence in a tower at the edge of the neighbouring domain and made clear his intentions to annex my domain. I had no choice but to move to the tower nearest my aggressor and defend my land. Across a bare mile, we hurled enchantments and firebolts at each other and I realised I was losing.
An old earth verse came back to me. Housemain, I think it was.
"Her strong enchantments failing,
Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dried of poisons,
And the knife at her neck."
My enchantments were not failing, but they were no match for the youth and vigour and the masculinity of my opponent. No doubt hormones coursed through his veins alongside adrenaline. I was older, over forty years though not by much. I fought with the caution born of age and, I hoped, experience. He was in his prime - a quarter-century. Old enough to not be foolish, young enough to be both daring and strong. It would not be long.
My lover, Vaan, was inside the citadel. He was packing my belongings. I had instructed him to deliver them to the sisterhood if I lost. While I might cede my domain to the wizard, he would not have my belongings.
Fireball after fireball sizzled across the night. Beams of red light lanced into my citadel, melting stone where I was too slow to deflect them. Then a pause. No more sizzling fires from his tower. Had he tired? I doubted it. More likely he sensed how drained I was. Metaphorically, he had the knife at my neck and he knew it.
According to the old poem I should have been making empty threats:
"The Queen of air and darkness
Begins to shrill and cry,
"O young man, O my slayer,
Tomorrow you shall die" "
But wizardry is not like that. I have my domain - my small kingdom - and I protect its borders. My people pursue their lives. For them I am medic, protector, advisor and monarch. But never have I been a tyrant. Magic is not meant for subduing other people, it is a gift to be used to help them. I admit I cannot sew or knit, paint or make furniture. But I can diagnose illness in man, animal and plant. I can magically lift stones which are too heavy for twenty men. I can communicate with the sisterhood, relaying information from one border to another. I give those skills freely in return for gifts of food, clothes and workmanship from my people.
What was he like - the one who opposed me? His signature told me he was a younger man. Was he cruel or vain? Arrogant or co-operative with his people? Did he issue orders or did he lead? I had no wish to deliver my domain into the hands of a tyrant or villain!
Still there were no more assaults from his citadel. I went back inside my tower room where Vaan stood ready to depart if needs be.
"All of my coin is yours," I told him, "My non-magical personal items are yours too."
Those personal items included gifts from past lovers, from people whom I had helped in some way and who wanted to thank me in a personal way.
Vaan nodded. Words weren't necessary, we had said all we had needed to. He had known that one day I might be deposed - from without my domain or from within. Few abdicate. The first act of a new ruler - by force or otherwise - is to remove the previous one or to strip them of their magics, leaving them a mumbling fool unable to even tend to their own bodily functions. Then the remove any natural heirs (if it isn't the heir who has deposed the parent!), which is why I chose childlessness.
A small red light winked into being on the wall. Vaan looked at me. I shook my head in dismay. If my opponent could breach the webs of sorcery guarding my inner chamber, then I was truly lost. All his fireballs had been for display, perhaps to tell my people to expect a new ruler. He was strong enough that he could have felled me at any time, even in the "safety" of my magically guarded tower room. The red dot moved across the wall, seeking me. I moved away and told Vaan to leave, leave now. With tears in his eyes he gathered the parcels he had made and fled the room. His last sight of me was of a woman crouching terrified beside the window, trying to elude the red eye of magic.
When Vaan had gone, I gave up trying to escape. The wizard had breached my defences. He could probably have brought down the whole tower if he wished. He would not though, he wanted the tower. The red dot came to rest on my belly. I heard one word.
It was powerful, emotionless. But I thought of Houseman's third verse:
"O Queen of air and darkness,
I think 'tis true you say,
And I shall die tomorrow;
But you will die today."
There was no need to say it so eloquently though. The one syllable "come" said it all.
"Yes," I said aloud, and the red dot acknowledged my reply by vanishing.
I was already wearing riding trousers, no need to change. In my heart of hearts I had known it would come to this - tonight, or tomorrow night or the next night. He was young and vigourous and I was older and worn thin with years. I took the stairs. I didn't trust the wizard's well tonight. The wizard's well is an open shaft and I could have stood on empty air and floated downwards. Taking the stairs did me good. By the time I had reached the bottom I was composed again.
Vaan had been thoughtful as he left. The stable-master was waiting at the doorway with two horses - my own bay gelding and a grey gelding from the hiring stables.
"I thought I'd ride with you to the border," he said gruffly. The gruffness disguised his sadness. "Vaan has paid me to keep you safe that far."
I smiled, "What if I hadn't come down?"
"Then I was to send for one of the sisterhood to fetch your body for funerary rights. Vaan said he didn't know if you would surrender yourself or take poison."
"If I took poison, the wizard might not believe I was dead. Or he might feel cheated. I didn't want anyone here to suffer in my stead."
The stable-master nodded and mounted up. I mounted up as well and we set off in silence along the cobbled road to the gate. The gate is nothing more than two posts , one either side of the road, to show where my domain ended and the next began. The rest of the borders are marked by farmers' hedges or suchlike. Only magic-users contest boundaries since only magic can detect where those boundaries are exactly.
At the gate, I dismounted and before the stable-master could question me, I said "He can have me, but not a good riding horse. Give him to one of your sons, but he is to be ridden not put between the shafts of a farm cart!"
"Then accept my thanks on behalf of Eybert, he has always coveted Conker," he replied.
I covered the half mile to the foot of my opponent's tower on foot. At the left hand side of the road were lit torches, their magical white glow lighting my way.
What would become of me? If I was lucky he might be skilled enough to remove my magics but leave my mind intact enough that I spent my remaining years mourning its loss. But why would he bother - a young wizard would have no need of a time-worn sorceress past her physical prime. A cruel victor might put me on public display. A merciful one would kill me. A truly merciful one would have done so the moment I stepped across the boundary, but this one wanted to truly see who he had beaten.
The tower was like mine - like most citadels in fact - brick and stone block with iron-wood doors at the top of wide stone steps. The gargoyles added a gothic touch, but we all have our little conceits. I chose vines and twining roses for my decor. The doors were already open and the entrance hall was in shadow. Whoever he was, he had a taste for the dramatic.
As soon as I was inside, the doors swung shut, sending a draught through the hall. Even with wizard's sight I couldn't see much. Brick tiles under foot, plastered walls and a high ceiling with beams. I didn't dare invoke a ball of light, not in another wizard's citadel. At first, all I could hear were my own pounding heart and my own breathing.
Then .... I heard him rather than saw him. I had an impression of black hair, dark eyes, conceit, sure of his own power, a sneer at the defeated one. I felt my powers draining from me, but leaving my mind more-or-less intact. Suddenly I was a prisoner, shackled inside my own skull. I felt silence inside my head where there had once been magic, darkness where there had once been light. Stillness. I heard him murmur in his throat as though assessing what was to be done with his prisoner.
A hand gripped my chin so that I had to look at him. I felt the other hand grip my breast, but with no gentleness. He had stripped me of magics. He meant to humiliate me physically now - strip me physically, bind me, rape me, have me grovel and beg while some drooling idiot serviced me for his master's entertainment, whatever. All these and worse have been done in times past by those inclined to such cruelties. It boded ill for my domain.
And all the time, all I could think was "Do what you will to me, but what will you do to my land, to my people?"
My strong enchantments failing - but will I die today?