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Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (68 page)

BOOK: Darkover: First Contact
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Am I going mad?
He rode all day, and when the night came, since already he could see the Tower of Neskaya over the hills, he rode on by moonlight. He had not stopped for food or rest, or for anything except to give his horse a few minutes of rest. Now remembering that he had neither eaten nor drunk all day, and had had little sleep, he dismounted for a few moments and gave his horse some grain. His heavy cloak kept out the evening drizzle well enough, but as he watched the sky cleared and the green face of Idriel peered palely through ragged flaps of cloud.
She is watching me. It is the face of the Goddess watching me.
Yes. Surely, surely, she is going mad. No, it is I who am going mad.
But a sane little voice beneath his despair remarked that he was not going mad, that there was no such merciful escape from the pain of self-knowledge.
You dare not go mad. You must somehow pull yourself together so that you can make amends . . . though nothing, nothing can wipe out what I have done. . . .
How did I have enough
laran
to see all that?
Melisendra. She is a catalyst telepath.
Why did Melisendra never show me what Carlina showed me? She had the power. Was it pity for me that stayed her hand? And why should she pity me after what I did to her?
Melora, Melora. If he had had any sense at all, he would have known—a thousand little things should have told him—that Carlina did not want him as a husband, and that he did not want her for a wife. He had wanted to marry the king’s daughter in order that he would be secure in his place as the king’s son-in-law. But why had he felt so little self-confidence and pride?
I always thought that, if anything, I was too proud; yet all I did, I did because I felt I was never good enough.
But he was the king’s
nedestro
nephew; King Ardrin was his father’s brother and bastardy never counted for all that much against his skills at war and strategy. He could have had a good career and achieved honor and position as the king’s champion and banner bearer . . . but he hadn’t believed in himself enough to be sure of it, he had had to force himself on Carlina.
And if King Ardrin had indeed had his heart set on it, he and Carlina could have enjoyed a formal marriage no worse than that of many other couples at the court. But after that successful campaign with the clingfire he should have had enough confidence to know that the king would value him even without that marriage. He should have freed Carlina, and asked leave of Master Gareth to pay his addresses to Melora.
If she would have had me; I think I knew then that I was not good enough for her!
Melora was the only person who had ever loved him. His mother had given him up for fostering by his father, as far as he knew, without a moment’s hesitation. Had his father ever loved him, or had he seen Bard only as a tool to his own ambition ? His little brother Alaric had loved him . . .
but Alaric never knew me, and if he had known what I really was he would not love me . . . he would have hated me, held me in contempt.
He had never had a woman to love him.
I put compulsion on them to come to my bed because I felt none of them would want me, of her own free will. . . .
His foster brothers had loved him—and he had lamed one for life, and made an enemy of the other, then killed him. . . .
And why did Beltran become my enemy? Because I mocked him . . . and 1 mocked him because he exposed to me my fears about my own manhood. Because he was not ashamed to admit his weakness or his wish to reassure himself with the old pledge we had made when we were boys . . . but I was afraid he would find me less manly than himself!
And when I reach Neskaya, no doubt Melora will reveal to me what a fool I was to think that she could care for me . . . but perhaps she will take pity on me. She is a
leronis,
and perhaps she will know what I must do to put my life right again. Not that what I have done can be wiped out, but I must try. Perhaps I can appease the Goddess. . . .
Is it too late?
His horse was now very tired and went slowly, but Bard was weary too, weary beyond telling, and pulled his cloak around him in a way that reminded him intolerably, with that new raw awareness, of the way Carlina had bundled herself into her black mantle. And he had stripped from her even that rag of weak protection. . . . Bard felt he could not live with this awareness, that he would die if it went on much longer, and yet he knew, on a deep level, that it would never really cease. No matter what amends he made, he would live the rest of his life this way, agonizingly aware of what torment he wrought to others. He would live forever knowing what he had done to those he loved.
Loved. For in his own bewildered way, he had loved Carlina. His love was selfish and gross, but it had been real love too, love for the shy little girl who had been his playmate. And he had loved Geremy, and Beltran too, and they had forever gone between his reach, and all the punishment for their loss was to know that he had himself driven them away, Geremy to alienation, Beltran to death. And he loved Erlend, and he knew he would never deserve his son’s affection or regard. If he had it nevertheless, somehow (for children loved without reason) he would always know that he had it because of Erlend’s goodness and not his own, that if Erlend knew his depths Erlend would hate him too, as Alaric would hate him, as his father would hate him . . . as Melora, who was so good and honest, would certainly hate him when she knew. And he must tell her.
And then he knew of the pain it would give her when he told, and wondered how he could possibly lay this burden upon Melora, how he could possibly seek to ease his own heart at the cost of weighing hers with his pain. He wondered if he ought to kill himself at once, so that he could never again hurt another person. And then he knew that that, too, would hurt others. It might burden Carlina’s guilt, already overweighed with shame and humiliation, beyond recovery. It would hurt Erlend, who loved him and needed him, and it would hurt Alaric, in whose fragile hands the kingdom rested—but only with Bard’s strong help. And beyond all these it would hurt Melora; and so he knew he could not do it. He rode into the courtyard of Neskaya and asked the sleepy guard there if he might manage to speak to the
leronis
Melora MacAran.
The man lifted his eyes a little, but apparently at the Tower of Neskaya the arrival of a solitary night rider was not all that strange an event. He sent someone to tell Melora she was wanted, and meanwhile, seeing Bard’s exhaustion, brought him inside the lower floor and offered him some biscuits and wine. Bard ate the biscuits greedily, but did not touch the wine, knowing that if he drank half a cupful in his starved and exhausted state he would be drunk at once. Much as he might have welcomed the oblivion of that drunkenness, he knew there was now no such easy escape for him.
He heard Melora’s voice before he saw her. “But I haven’t the faintest idea who could come here wanting me at this God-forgotten hour, Lorill.” And then Melora stood in the door. At first glance he could only see that she was heavier of body and rounder of face than ever, standing in the light of a lamp in her hand; but he could see the sheen of her red hair through the modest veil she had thrown over it. She had evidently been disturbed as she was about to retire, and was wearing a loose pale chamber robe through which, dimly silhouetted, he could see the outline of her body.
“Bard?” she said, looking at him in question and surprise, and then, with that new and terrible awareness of other people’s emotions, he
felt
her shock as she took in his haggard face, the lines of exhaustion there. “Bard, my dear, what is it? No, Lorill, it’s all right, I’ll take him to my sitting room. Can you walk at all, Bard? Come, then—come in out of the cold!”
He followed her, will-less, unable to do anything but obey like a child, remembering that Melisendra, too, had said “my dear” when she saw his face. How could they? She turned in at the door of a room whose firelit warmth made him realize that he was half frozen.
“Sit here, Bard, by the fire. Lorill, just throw a few more logs there on the fire and then you can go back to your post—don’t be foolish, man, I’m no maiden
leronis
to be sheltered and chaperoned, and I’ve known Bard since he rode his first campaign! He’ll offer me no harm!”
So there was still one person alive who trusted in him. It wasn’t much, but it was a start, a seed of creeping warmth which lighted the frozen waste inside him, as the fire warmed his chilled and exhausted body. Lorill had gone away. Melora lifted a small, fragile table and set it between them.
“I was having a late supper before going up into the relays. Share it with me, Bard, there’s always more than enough for two.”
There was a basket of fragrant nut bread, still warm, sliced into slightly crumbly chunks, some rolls of soft cheese flavored with herbs, rich and pungent, and a crock of hot soup. Melora poured half of it into a mug which she shoved in his direction, picking up the crock and drinking her share from it. He sipped, feeling the hot soup, and her calm trustfulness, spread life back into him. She finished her soup and set the crock down, spreading the cheese on the bread, which crumbled so that she had to hold it together with her fingers; even so, it dropped crumbs in her lap, which she gathered up and flung into the fire.
“More soup? I can send for more, there’s always some in the kitchen over the fire—you’re sure? Have that last piece of bread, if you want it. I’m stuffed, and you’ve ridden a long way in the cold. You’re beginning to look a little less like banshee bait! Well, Bard, what’s happened? Tell me about it, why don’t you?”
“Melora!” He crossed the room in a rush to kneel at her feet. She sighed, looked down at him. He knew she was waiting, and suddenly all the enormity of what he was doing struck him, how could he ease the enormous agony of his new burden of knowledge by laying it on Melora’s shoulders? He said, and heard his voice, harsh and uncertain like the new baritone of a boy whose voice is just changing, “I should never have come here, Melora. I’m sorry. I—I’ll go now. I can’t—”
“Can’t
what?
Don’t be foolish, Bard,” she said, and reached out, with those fat but curiously graceful hands, to lift his face up to hers. And at the touch of his temples, suddenly he knew that she could read it all, that she
knew
it all, in one enormous rush of awareness. The rawness of his new pain communicated itself to her, without words, and she knew what he had done, and how it now seemed to him, and what had happened.
“Merciful Avarra!” she whispered in horror; then, softly, “No—she was not so merciful to you, was she, my poor fellow? But you have not deserved her mercy yet, have you? Oh, Bard!” And her arms went out to fold him close against her breast. He knelt there as if she was, for that one moment, the mother he had never known, and he knew he was near to tears. He had not wept since Beltran died, but he knew that he would weep in another moment, and so he struggled upright, holding himself taut against further breakdown.
“Oh, my dear,” Melora said in a whisper, “how did it ever come to this? I blame myself, Bard—I should have seen how very much you needed love and reassurance, I should have found some way to come to you. But I was so proud of myself for keeping to the rules, as if they were not meant to be set aside for human needs, and in my pride I set all this in motion! We all live with the mistakes we make—that’s the dreadful part. We can look back and see the very moment where it all went wrong, and that’s all the punishment we ever need, I think; to live with what we do, and know how we did it. I should have found a way.”
Sudden memory of Mirella, that night in the camp when Melora had sent him away, reminding him proudly of the proper thing, came back to him; Mirella, at the door of the tent, whispering “She cried herself to sleep. . . .” Melora had wanted him as much as he wanted her. If he had even known
that!
If he had even been sure of that, he could have been gentler with Beltran . . . but how could Melora blame herself for
his
sins and mistakes? She did, and he could never ease her of
that,
and so in a terrible way he had wronged
her
, too.
“Is there no help for it? Is there no help for any of it? I can’t live like this, with this—this burden of knowledge, I can’t—”
Still gently touching his face, she said, with infinite gentleness, “But you must, my dear, as I must, as Carlina must, as we all must. The only difference is that some of us never know why we suffer as we do. Tell me, Bard, would you rather this had not happened? Do you truly wish it?”
“Wish I had not done what I did? Are you crazy? Of course—that’s the hell of it, that I can never undo any of it—”
“No, Bard, I mean, do you really wish that Carlina had never shown you this, that you were still the man you were a few days ago?”
He started to cry out: yes, yes, I cannot bear knowing, this way, I want to go back to ignorance. Carlina had laid this burden upon him with
laran,
perhaps with
laran
a way could be found to take this monstrous knowledge from him again. And then he realized, head bent, with a new kind of pain, that it was not true. For him, to go back to ignorance would be to risk repeating what he had done, becoming, once again, the kind of man who could commit such atrocities; who could wound a brother, lame a foster brother for life unheeding, rape and torment women who cared for him . . . he said, his head still bowed, “No.” For even if he did not know about it, all the pain of Carlina, all Melisendra’s suffering and the beauty of her forgiveness, would still be there, but he would be unaware of any of it. He could no longer imagine what it would be like, not to know; he would be like a blind man in a garden of blossoming flowers, treading down beauty without caring.
“I’d rather know. It hurts, but—oh, I’d rather know!”
BOOK: Darkover: First Contact
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