Ties That Bind
a fanfiction for Robin McKinley's "Chalice"
"You've been out three times now." Peyton Thurman twisted the wide brim of his hat in his hands. "Is there nothing that can be done?"
I don't know! she wanted to scream. I don't know what else to do! Aloud she said, "The land will settle, with patience. I will come out to your woodright again tomorrow."
"Thank you, Chalice," Thurman muttered. He bowed, but Mirasol heard the disappointment in his voice. As he walked away for the fourth time, she knew he was dissatisfied. So was she, but she had nothing more to tell him. She tried to think - what had she already tried? What could she try next? - but her mind felt clouded and murky. There was a dull throbbing behind her forehead, and she rubbed her temples with her fingertips.
"I can't see anyone else this morning," she said wearily. She could almost hear the Grand Seneschal frown behind her.
"There's a family already in the hall," he said from somewhere over her shoulder.
The guilt that twisted in Mirasol's stomach was little more than a distant discomfort. Exhaustion weighed on her like snow on a weak roof, and the very thought of setting her mind to one more plea made her sag in her chair.
"I'll see them later," she promised. "Please, Nicandimon."
The Grand Seneschal sighed. "They have traveled far," he said. "I will offer them something to eat."
"Thank you," said Mirasol in relief. As Nicandimon strolled forward, toward the doors, Mirasol got to her feet and stretched. Her chair in the sitting room where she gave audiences was richly padded with soft cushions, but it always made her back ache.
When the Grand Seneschal reached the doors and opened them, Mirasol trod on her own foot to stop herself from stepping forward. Her lungs heaved, and she bit her tongue to remain silent. The part of her that was Chalice burned to stop the departing man, to say that yes, she would see the waiting family immediately. Mirasol swallowed the words and watched Nicandimon close the doors behind him. She knew he also would have preferred she not ask the visitors to wait longer. They were her Master's people, and her role was to serve them. But her head was swimming, and until she settled herself she wouldn't be able to give the family the attention and focus they deserved.
Her legs ached to run after the Grand Seneschal, but Mirasol forced herself to turn away from the double doors and toward the side exit. Her head throbbed as Chalice fought her. She needed to escape this room, with its seemingly endless train of needy people, and relax someplace where she could feel like herself. Not her office as Chalice, with its shelves of cups reminding her constantly of her duty. She avoided the gaze of everyone she passed as she hurried through the corridors of the House and out into the gardens.
The House was Mirasol's home now. She hadn't had much choice; so much had changed after the Master's defeat of Horuld, and she couldn't very well propose to bind the new Circle without being among them to be bound herself. In the gardens, however, was a small slice of home.
In a secluded corner sat two stone chairs, well-worn from countless years of use. Mirasol approached them as she would an old friend, reaching out to caress one lovingly with her fingertips. Her bees were already coming to greet her, several landing on her outstretched arm. She had been very worried about them - moving a colony of bees was far less simply than loading a couple of stone chairs onto a cart - but the bees had adjusted well to their new home. Better, it seemed, than Mirasol.
She sank gratefully into the cold stone chair as if it were the softest feather pillow, settling against it with a heavy sigh. When she closed her eyes and listened to the bees buzzing around her, she could almost believe she was back at her old cottage again.
The hum of the bees was still quieter than Mirasol remembered, but the colony was well on its way to recovering its strength of numbers. The soft feet on her neck and hands were soothing, but it would be years before the hive's buzzing was as loud as she remembered.
The past months had been difficult. Things had started well, with the Master's sound victory over the outblood Heir, but Mirasol couldn't help but feel the fragile bonds they had forged with the land were slowly coming apart. Half the Circle was new and untrained. While the newcomers suited the demesne better than the bitter, suspicious Circle members they had replaced, they were now learning their roles by book and word as Mirasol had done. She saw in them the awkwardness she had experienced, the sense of being trapped between the life they had always known and the elite world they had never dreamed of belonging to. It was easier for them, since they were not alone in their plight as Mirasol had been, but Circle meetings still felt awkward and unpolished.
Willowlands, too, felt awkward and unpolished. After the demesne's miraculous display of solidarity, which would no doubt live for generations in song and story, the land became disturbingly unsettled. Mirasol constantly found herself being called out to farms and woodrights to quiet rampaging animals and tremors in the ground. She had even gone out twice to travel the demesne as she had before the faenorn, but the effects of her efforts never seemed to last. The people were glad enough of their novice Circle and fire-priest Master - now that he was human, anyway - but Mirasol knew they sensed it too. There was something missing, some linchpin needed to secure the binding Mirasol wove. It was as if the land were waiting for something, and Mirasol suspected she knew what it was.
The Master still had no Heir.
The grass rustled softly. Mirasol's eyes opened, and she jumped to her feet at the sight of the Master standing in the garden.
"I did not mean to startle you," he said quickly. "I do not move as quietly as I once did."
The trace of wistful regret in the Master's voice did not escape Mirasol's notice. She was still not quite used to the sight of the Master, with his brown eyes and hair, looking like any ordinary man. By the way he walked, awkwardly, with a slight stumbling gait, Mirasol knew he was still not quite used to being ordinary either.
"You are most welcome," she said. "Do you have need of me?" She averted her eyes to her bees, but her heart still leapt in her chest as he stepped closer. Chalice rose in her again, eager to perform its duty. Mirasol knew that the Master sensed that as well; he always did.
"As Chalice, not now," he said. "As Mirasol, always." He reached out and took her hand in his. She shivered at his touch and closed her eyes.
"Don't," he muttered, pulling her toward him. "Just let me - for a moment - let us imagine..."
Eyes still closed, Mirasol laid her head against his shoulder, and his arms slipped around her waist. Her heart wept, and she bit her lip and trembled. Somewhere beyond hearing, the earthlines began to mutter. The leaves rustled uneasily in the trees, but for the moment, the peace of the demesne held.
"Another difficult day?" the Master asked into Mirasol's hair. She nodded against him.
"Thurman's woodright still will not settle," she said wretchedly. There had been a time when she had hidden such things from Liapnir. It had taken a stern lecture from the Grand Seneschal to get Mirasol to accept that the troubles in the demesne were not the sole burden of the Chalice, but the responsibility of the entire Circle. "Every day, I dread seeing him walk through the door."
"You'll set it right." From anyone else, the words would be wishful thinking, dripping with soothing optimism meant only to make Mirasol feel better. When the Master said such things, however, they carried the cold frankness of a statement of fact.
"Start at the spring," he said. "The earthlines whisper of water leaking into the ground."
Whatever might be said of the weaknesses of Willowlands, its Master had a bond with the land that rivaled any other demesne. The land itself had chosen him, had brought him back from Fire, and it spoke to him as it spoke to no one else within its borders. It was Mirasol that was the failure, Mirasol that could not settle her role or her demesne, Mirasol that stood in the way of the stability the land craved.
"Seed pods from water reeds," the Master suggested, "and some of the special honey."
"It's not enough," said Mirasol. "It will never be enough."
The Master's arms were warm around her, and she was reminded of the night he saved her from freezing to death on Listening Hill. That life seemed as far away now as her life as a simple woodskeeper had felt at the time. She had known the day Horuld was defeated that their troubles were far from over, but she hadn't expected to still feel as lost and helpless as ever several months later.
The Master had gone stiff.
"Our land still aches," he said. "It still worries."
Mirasol's heart was pounding. She felt stronger when she was with Liapnir, but they both knew it couldn't last. It was no use to wish things might change, that he might be free to hold her forever.
"I think," she said through the lump rising in her throat, "that it would be best for you to find a wife. Is there no one you fancy?"
The Master's arms tightened around her.
"Only you," he said in a low voice. "I won't have anyone but you."
Mirasol's spirits rose despite her fears. She looked up at the Master, a man she had cared for before he was human enough to hold her. He was more than human now, the voice of the entire demesne contained in a man's body. He had saved her life, and she had saved his, and Mirasol knew there was nothing they would not do for each other. It was what they could do that was the problem.
The Master leaned down and kissed her.
Mirasol had known it was coming, but she could not bring herself to turn her face away. She loved the feeling of Liapnir's lips on hers, the heat of his breath reminiscent of the warmth his entire body had once radiated. Nothing made Mirasol feel more like herself than the Master's kisses. He called her back to herself as he did everything in his demesne, each to its own identity and place.
The euphoria did not last long. Mirasol felt it before she heard it, Chalice stirring inside her as the land beneath her shuddered. A low rumbling spread out beneath her feet, leaves shaking free from the trees and flowers dancing on their stems. Something deep inside Mirasol responded, welling up in a great wave as the demesne rumbled like thunder around her. She heard shouts, and she raised her hands and pushed the Master away.
The land settled as they separated and backed away from each other, both breathing heavily as the landsense quieted in their blood. No matter how long they waited, it was always the same. Their powers were meant to compliment each other, to work in harmony, but joined together there was discord. A Master and a Chalice could not marry.
Mirasol ran a hand through her hair, looking at the Master with exasperated helplessness. Nothing else fate had brought her was as cruel as this. She had loved Liapnir since the day he healed her burned hand. She hadn't realized it until she stood on the steps of the House, watched the Master about to sacrifice himself to Horuld, and cried out against it as Mirasol and Chalice together. On that day, she had thought Willowlands supported their love, that their uniqueness as Master and Chalice set them above the rules and traditions in the books. The man at the well she had seen in her dream on Listening Hill was undoubtedly Liapnir. Even now, her bees landed as readily on the Master as they did on Mirasol. All the signs pointed to a bond that could be as strong as the two of them wished, but whenever they tried to act on their love, the demesne rebelled beneath them. It didn't make sense.
It wasn't fair.
Mirasol turned as the Grand Seneschal came hurrying up the path, gasping for breath. When he saw her standing with the Master, he didn't bother asking what had happened. He merely frowned, looking at the two of them with weary frustration. It was far from the first time this had happened, but Mirasol still blushed. The Master stood quietly, calm as ever, waiting for Nicandimon to speak.
"There's a crack in the garden wall as wide as two fingers," he said coldly.
"I am sorry," said the Master.
"Not nearly sorry enough," the Grand Seneschal grumbled.
Mirasol bristled. "Is that how you speak to your Master?"
"For the sake of the demesne, I do," the Grand Seneschal shot back. "We all know you are only delaying the inevitable, and tearing Willowlands apart in the process. The demesne needs an Heir. The Master and the Chalice cannot marry. Best to face it and choose a wife yourself before the Overlord sends one, Master."
A chill ran down Mirasol's spine. The possibility of time running out had crossed her mind, but this was the first anyone had said it aloud.
"I have made my choice," said the Master, looking at Mirasol.
"Master," the Grand Seneschal began warningly.
"She loved me when I was Fire," said Liapnir. "I will have no other."
Mirasol stared into the Master's human eyes, feeling tears pricking at the corners of her own. She knew the Grand Seneschal was watching her, and she knew what she had to say.
"I agree with Nicandimon," she said heavily. "My bindings are not holding, Liapnir. The demesne needs to know its future is secure. It needs an Heir."
The Master frowned. "You and I-"
"Are forbidden," Mirasol interrupted, pressing ahead before she could change her mind. She tried not to think about how strong the Master's presence made her feel, the heat of his kiss, the way he smiled when she entered a room. "Some traditions can't be broken, Master. Even Chalice forbids it."
The Master's brow furrowed deeper. "You are Chalice, Mirasol," he said. "Do not speak as if these decisions are made by someone else."
"I am not only Chalice," Mirasol argued. "It speaks to me often, but I am still myself. I am still Mirasol."
"Are you certain that's wise?" the Grand Seneschal broke in, his expression softening as he spoke with gentle concern. "You and Chalice should be joined like drops of water, held as close as your heart."
"I - I am not ready," stammered Mirasol, caught off-guard. "I am still learning. I need time."
She stared down at the grass to avoid Nicandimon's eyes. She and the Grand Seneschal had become partners, even friends, but there were still things she could not say to him. She was still loathe to show weakness to the man who had once doubted her ability to fill her role. Asking him to delay the people who came to her for help when she was weary was difficult enough. She could not tell him she was still afraid, that after all this time, she still feared Chalice would take what little she had left - herself - if she let it. They were stronger together; she could not deny that, but despite everything she had learned and done, Mirasol was still not ready to let go.
"I thought," said the Master quietly, "that you were as committed to our demesne as I am."
Mirasol's cheeks burned and her head shot up. "I am committed," she insisted.
"We are our roles," said the Master. His eyes bored into her as intensely as they had when they were red. "It may be frightening at first, but in the end we are stronger for it. Do you think I was not afraid when I first went into Fire? Do you think I am not given over as completely now to Willowlands as I was then to Fire?"
Mirasol did not know what to say. She did her work; she bore Chalice as best as she knew how. She could never be as bound to the land as the Master, no one could. Worse yet than Liapnir's words, however, was the disappointment on his face.
"Come to me when you are ready to accept yourself," he said brusquely. "I have no use for you otherwise."
He turned around and left her, lurching slightly on his still unfamiliar legs.
Mirasol was still thinking about the Master's words the next morning as she rode out to Peyton Thurman's woodright. The mount beneath her was familiar; it was Gallant, who had carried her faithfully throughout the demesne during the sennight before the faenorn. The flasks clattering together where they hung from the saddle brought back memories of that frenzied journey.
Who could say Mirasol had not made sacrifices for her demesne? She had given up her woodright, her cottage, everything but her family's stone chairs and her bees. All she had left was herself, and the balance between Mirasol and Chalice had served her well in the past.
But the truth was that the fragile peace forged at the faenorn was wearing thin. The people Mirasol encountered greeted her as respectfully as always, but the warmth and spirit of the past had faded to a whisper. An unusual number of birds and small creatures were about, dashing here and there uneasily. Traveling the land, Mirasol could feel the earthlines were restless, and she knew in her heart if something was not done soon she would again hear them cry out Broken, broken.
Was it all because Mirasol had not fully become Chalice? No, she was certain it was an Heir the land craved. Nicandimon was right to be concerned. If the Master did not marry soon, the Overlord might indeed attempt to send his own candidates for a wife, or worse yet, another outblood Heir. While Willowlands could adjust to an Heir of mixed blood, it would never survive another faenorn. Perhaps it was best that the Master was angry with her - at least long enough to take interest in another girl.
Could Mirasol mix a wedding cup to bond Liapnir to another woman?
Her mind was still consumed by these thoughts as she prepared for yet another attempt to settle Thurman's land. She felt the turmoil in the earthlines as soon as she slid off her pony's back, and the trees surrounding her groaned in an unnatural wind. Her hands trembled as she gathered her flasks and supplies, but she squared her shoulders and did her best to remain calm. She always did her best, no matter how hopeless things seemed.
She had come out to Thurman's woodright so many times now that only a few people gathered to watch Mirasol work. This binding needed to go well; it needed to hold. She didn't know how many times a piece of land could be shaken loose and bound again before the earthlines started to fray, but she suspected she didn't have many chances left.
Watching eyes focused on Mirasol as she bent down and scooped up some water from the spring. Into the cup went seed pods and a bit of honey, as the Master had suggested, along with a few pebbles from the ground. Mirasol followed Liapnir's advice, but all she could think of was his cold expression and colder words. There was always something more being asked of her, and she hadn't much left to give.
The ground shivered beneath Mirasol as she straightened up, cradling her cup in her hands. She forced all distracting thought out of her mind, hoping also to banish the nervous nausea that came with it. She pictured the land around her tranquil and whole, closing her eyes to imagine the woodright as secure as Mirasol's own had been under her watch.
"Be healed," she whispered, tipping a few drops from her cup onto the ground. "Be at peace."
A distant rumbling rose in Mirasol's ears. At first, she feared the sleepless nights were getting to her, but when the spectators cried out she opened her eyes. The trees of the woodright were shuddering, leaves raining to the ground. The earth beneath Mirasol's feet began to tremble faintly, and Gallant whinnied and stumbled back in fear.
"Be as you were," Mirasol said urgently. She spilled a bit more of her mixture on the ground, but the shaking grew stronger. Her heart hammered in her chest and her stomach twisted. The land was rebelling, resisting her binding outright. The earthlines wailed, but she could not understand their message; they would not speak to her. This time, Mirasol was not enough.
Her hands twitched around the cup she held. Chalice cried out inside her mind, begging Mirasol to accept its help before it was too late. At the faenorn, it had been Chalice that spurred the bees into action. There was power and understanding there, and the strength to do what Mirasol could not.
The earth buckled, threatening to topple Mirasol and her precious cup. In another moment, the land would be ripped apart. She had no other choice.
Mirasol stopped resisting the siren song of her latent power. Chalice rose up within her and spread throughout her body in a tingling wave.
Sight and sound faded. The trembling of the ground dropped away, but Mirasol could not be sure if the binding was working or if she simply couldn't feel it anymore. Her world filled with white and her mind sank into quiet.
"Mirasol? Mirasol, do you hear me?"
The woman beside the chair remained still and silent. There was no need for her now. Who was Mirasol?"
"Please, be seated," the voice asked again. The woman shook her head firmly, for the second time.
"I cannot remain seated in the presence of a standing Master," she said. The man - the Master, her Master - pulled up another chair to face hers, and sat on it. When he gestured toward the empty chair again, Chalice sat down.
"What do you wish of me?" she asked.
"That you become yourself again," said the Master. There was a pleading edge to his voice, an urgency that she was driven to satisfy, but she did not know how to fill his request.
"I am Chalice," she said. "I have always been Chalice."
"You are also Mirasol," the Master insisted. "You speak your mind to me, and you sit in my presence. We are against tradition, remember?"
He reached out as if to take her hand, but Chalice held them in the traditional empty pose, ready to accept a cup. Instead, the Master gently brushed the side of her face with his fingertips.
Chalice gasped and pulled away sharply, as if burned. A flash of panic crossed the Master's face, and he hurriedly examined his hands, but they were as human as they had been for months. When he looked up at Chalice again, his eyes were filled with sorrow.
"You should not have attempted this alone," he said softly. "I am sorry."
"I do not understand," said Chalice. "Have I erred in my duty?"
The Master studied her face. After a moment, he seemed to hit on an idea. He rose from his chair and crossed the room to a row of candles on the mantelpiece. Chalice, of course, stood up as well.
There was a pause while the Master fumbled with something beside the candles. Chalice watched him with vague disinterest. When he had need of her, he would call her.
Something small shot out of the unlit chimney and buzzed into the room. The Master glanced at it sadly before returning to his work. The thing flew toward Chalice, wings a faint blur. It was a bee. Chalice stiffened, but did not shift her hands from their pose.
More dark spots floated down the chimney and approached Chalice, buzzing urgently. The Master did not seem to notice. She held her breath and ignored the bees, hoping they would go away, but they hummed loudly in her ears until she wanted to scream.
One of them landed on her arm and stung her.
Chalice yelped, and broke her carefully practiced pose. Her hand came up to flatten the bee where it squatted, stuck, on her arm.
Something stayed her hand. Chalice struggled, but her arm refused to move.
"My bees," she said faintly. He fingers descended, but gently, and she slowly eased the bee free from her skin, stinger intact. It rose to join its sisters, and she blinked at them bemusedly.
The Master had turned around, and was watching her intently, his face eager yet restrained. A flint was in his hand. On the mantelpiece behind him stood a beeswax candle, unlit.
She stepped forward. Her fingers gently took the flint from the Master's hands. Turning toward the candle, she struck a spark, and the fresh wick popped into flame. The sweet scent of honey began to fill the room.
"You never could get the trick of starting fires like a human," said Mirasol.
Liapnir reached out and pulled her into his arms. His fingers tangled themselves in her hair, and she leaned against him, sighing into his shoulder.
"Never leave me like that again," said Liapnir, his voice barely more than a whisper.
"Don't worry," said Mirasol. "Chalice is part of me now." She was herself, the bees buzzing around her as familiar to her as family, but the back of her mind teemed with the wisdom of generations of Chalices. She felt full, at peace, complete; as whole as the woodright she had tried to bind. "What happened?"
"Thurman's land was settled," the Master told her, "but you came back as Chalice, and only Chalice. I thought the candle might help, but the bees brought you back."
They pulled away from each other. Liapnir's face was as calm as ever, aside from his relieved smile, but his hold on her was firmer than it had ever been. Mirasol looked around. She was in the Master's private rooms, dark and cluttered with the detritus of a life lived through experimentation. There were plants, and children's toys, and rocks of interesting shapes. Every object bore the signs of being thoroughly examined by curious hands.
The floor was dusty. The Master did not like his rooms to be disturbed. In the dust by the chair where Mirasol had stood as Chalice, a symbol had been scratched on the floor by a shoe. A cross, with a spiral leading off to one side.
"I called them," Mirasol said numbly, glancing at the bees now buzzing contentedly on her shoulders. "Without even knowing it, I called them."
"A honey Chalice will always have her bees," said Liapnir. "Nothing can take that away from you." He hesitated only slightly before stroking Mirasol's cheek with his hand. She did not pull away, but she felt the Chalice part of her shudder with revulsion, and it twisted inside her stomach. The Master, as sensitive to his Chalice as he was to his land, frowned in concern.
"What is it?"
"I - Chalice - is afraid," Mirasol forced out. "Your brother-" She stopped, and closed her eyes against memories she did not want to see, the nightmares of a life that was not hers. She shivered, but warm hands cupped her face.
"Not all of my family is alike," Liapnir said softly, to whoever might be listening. He stepped closer and kissed her. Mirasol felt the fear bloom inside her as tears formed behind her eyelids, but it was soon overwhelmed by a rising tide of her own bliss. She was so relieved to be with Liapnir, so happy to finally have mastery over her entire self, that the insecurities of the past were banished.
There was, however, still the reaction of the demesne. The Master broke the kiss and pulled back from Mirasol as Willowlands trembled under them, the light from the beeswax candle flickering and paintings rattling against the walls. Mirasol clenched her fists in frustration, her chest heaving, but the part of her that was Chalice was trying to tell her something.
"You said," she began, "that a drastic new binding might be traumatic at first, but in the end, we are stronger for it."
Liapnir nodded. "So it was when I went to Fire."
"Might not the same be true for the entire demesne?" Mirasol wondered. "A Master marrying his Chalice is a major change, but I believe it is what's right for Willowlands."
As if in agreement, the bees on Mirasol's shoulders rose into the air and circled the pair, humming softly. Half landed on Mirasol, their Chalice, and half on Liapnir, their chosen Master. He glanced at them, and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
"I cannot dispute the choices of even the smallest of my people," he said.
The bees flew to a secluded corner as Mirasol and Liapnir fell into each other's arms. Liapnir's breath traced kisses down Mirasol's neck, and the demesne beneath them rumbled alarmingly.
"Where is Nicandimon?" she gasped as they awkwardly stumbled toward the Master's bedroom, clinging to one another.
"His office, I think," said Liapnir as his hands eagerly traced Mirasol's body. "I told him I would try to restore you, and that I was not to be disturbed."
Mirasol nodded, narrowly avoiding a collision with a bedside table. "That should give us some cover for the restlessness of the land." Nonetheless, they paused for a moment to say some reassuring words to Willowlands. No demesne had ever gone through such a binding before, and although it would all be for the best, neither Master nor Chalice could guess how the land might react before it was over.
"I must warn you," muttered Liapnir, fumbling with the lacings of Mirasol's dress, "I may not be very good at this."
"Don't worry," said Mirasol, wrapping her arms around him. "We will learn together."