In this scene from my forthcoming fantasy novel, The Winter Warrior, exiled Iain of Cryteth visits his mother at the convent where he has found out she is staying.
For a moment, the Lady Ivraine stood as a statue. Then, quietly, she said, “Son, have you no thought for your mother with such surprises? Barely a word in eight years, and now you stand before me without any warning. I have half a mind to exchange you for this nice youth…”
The torrent of words turned to tears, and he closed her in his arms. Silence reigned for a while as they stood in the light of the window.
“Mother I am sorry, but I could not send word ahead. I only learned you were here two days hence.”
“Well,” she said, drying her eyes with an imperious dab of her handkerchief, “I don’t suppose I should expect my son to keep track of me. If I but knew where you were I would have gladly informed you on whose hospitality I was currently relying.”
“No, let’s not speak of it. I am sure you have some very pretty excuses—you always did. Tell me why you are here, and why you are hiding under that ridiculous cloak. Are you servant to this young man now? If you expect me to buy your freedom…”
“Come now, mother, be gentle; my squire is unused to your humour.” Indeed, Borathain stood by the door, studying the embroidery of the nearest tapestry.
“Ah, he is your squire, then,” Ivraine said. “But does he have a name?”
“He is Borathain, son of Borwain of Tothill, and he has been with the company these past few years.”
“Well then, you must leave him with me some day so I can hear all about what you have been doing. Yul knows I shall not get such information from you!”
“I have been doing little of interest, mother, beyond waiting to return home. And having no sense of how my return would be received, I felt it prudent to hide my presence.” He could not bear to admit the true tale.
“You weren’t always such a careful lad—there may be hope for you yet. Still, I would have liked to see how Prince Arethain greeted the heir to his usurped castle.”
For the first time, true bitterness crept into her voice—and sadness, too. Iain reached out again to clasp her arms. “And how are the healers treating you?”
“Oh, well enough,” she said. “Ria has always been a gracious host whenever I visit.”
“Then you have not taken the vows?”
“Of course not! My wardens want me where I can be watched, and this is as comfortable a prison as any I could have. I prefer the quiet here. These hills hold fond memories.”
Lady Ivraine paused, staring out the window at the grey skies and grey hills. Iain studied her familiar face. Time may have added lines around her eyes and wisps of white to her bound hair, but it could not soften the set of her jaw nor quench the fire in her eyes.
“Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier just to retreat to Ria’s bosom, or take Britha’s veil…but no, I will be the thorn in their sides as long as I still breathe.”
“But what of your dowry lands?”
“The Queen has made me her ward, confiscated me like your father’s chattels.”
“How can they do this?”
“It is the new law brought by the new faith. Their god would not have women inherit, nor hold her own lands—not that it stops the Queen! Neither will they allow me to re-marry.” She gave a sharp laugh. “Certes, who would even have me?”
She paused again, fists clenched, and Iain realised how much she suffered. Even with the loss of her husband and confiscation of his estates, Ivraine’s dowry should have been exempt. Iain knew it was his mother’s link to Cryteth, and not their meagre income, that made her too valuable to relinquish. Taking vows to serve a goddess would sever Ivraine from any temporal claims almost as effectively as death, but his mother had never been one to go quietly.
“A man can win a new life with his sword,” she said at last, glancing at the steel hanging by Iain’s side, “or breed new children with some ripe trollop. But all I have is my stubbornness. And until now I had not even a son to comfort me!”
She added the last with too much pathos, and cracked a sly smile. “Not that you were ever much comfort—why you rode off to battle as soon as you could lift a sword.”
“Father needed me,” Iain said.
“Yes, and I suppose he was proud of you.” The thought brought them both scant consolation.
“What of Percain? He would welcome you, surely.” A stalwart friend of his parents, Warspite had been like an uncle to Iain—though he did not want to think what Gannon’s loss might mean for that friendship.
Ivraine shuddered. “The Rabaz has enough ghosts of its own, and Warspite has enough trouble with the Order.”
Founded by Berengan the Lion, long before Galador itself, the Order was now but a hollow honour for the ruling nobility, or a refuge for those whose future held no promise—like Iain. “What now?”
“The Church has long desired war on the northmen, but Percain made sure the king never sanctioned it. The Queen is far more amenable, and I fear they press her to remove him from the captaincy.” A harsh edge crept into her voice. “You can imagine who would replace him.”
“Never!” Iain shouted, making Borathain jump. Ivraine had meant Moragain, Earl of Ralstock, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom—and the man responsible for their downfall. With his vast lands in the North-east, Moragain had always seen the Order’s southern activities as a waste. Moreover, the fact that the Order venerated Kor, god of honour and battles, only increased the political pressure on its captain. But for it to come to the point where Warspite’s captaincy was actually under threat…
“Has the Church become so powerful? I saw the temple being built in Cryteth.”
“They have powerful allies at court, and they are wealthy. In this time of uncertainty they can prey upon the people’s fears with their grand temples. The Gods that have protected us are now called ‘old’ and ignored.”
“Maybe their time is ending. What good has our faith done our family?”
As soon as he said it, he realised he had gone too far. The silence that followed brought back many memories. His mother’s anger was never fiery nor sudden, and when her words finally fell they struck, as ever, right to his core.
“They brought back my son to me.”
The moment passed with the blinking back of a tear, and Ivraine continued in calmer tones. “Our gods do not fail the faithful, but they do not promise the wonders that the Church of the One does. Your father would have never allowed that abomination to be built in our town, but he did not have time to fight that battle.”
She paused and gave him a long, weary look. “My son, do not spend your life fighting hopeless battles.”
“I do not believe in hopeless battles, mother.”
“Well, that’s good.” She forced a smile, then bade them both sit, turning the conversation to more pleasant subjects. Ivraine questioned Borathain about the Southlands, and told him about his master’s youth in return. Iain became a spectator, only interjecting when modesty demanded, but sitting for an hour with his mother in the afternoon sunlight was as pleasant a time as he had had for eight years.
When the light through the window started to climb the east wall, Ivraine rose and said it was time to prepare for the afternoon prayers. “After that I shall have duties on the wards, and then more prayers. Will you visit me again this evening, my dear?”
“Certainly, mother, but we must leave on the morrow.”
“Where are you going in such a hurry?”
“We must to Coursay. Falke will help me.” His old friend’s duchy also held other, more personal memories for him, as his mother knew too well.
“Do not expect all things to be as they were” she said, frowning. “Falke has burdens of his own, and Rianne is not there. She remains in the household of the County Saral, mourning her late husband and raising her young daughter.”
Iain’s cheeks burned at her unsubtle rebuke. He already felt guilty that her misfortune had stirred latent hopes, and he had enough to worry about as it was. “I take my leave, my lady, until tonight. Let no-one suspect who I am.”
“Farewell then, my son,” she replied, resuming her aloof tone though her eyes glistened. “I shall not even look at you at supper.” With that, she turned and disappeared into her chamber, leaving Iain and the squire alone in the hall.
He would not see her again in this life.