“Mert Whatley,” though Reuben moved naught but his mouth, it seemed like he had stuck me in place as if pierced by an arrow and pinned against the wall. “What a surprise to see you here, and still donning that silly tunic from Glanderxe. How noble of you.” His smile was pleasant, and I imagined him looking over at me before leaving the Great City, that same smile lighting up his face. “I would wear the garb myself if it weren’t for me not being a Glanderxe knight… but I get my appearances mixed up some times. How are you, friend?” He walked over from behind the table, looking less like the Duke I knew with each passing stride. The rust-coloured robes mixed with bear legs beneath them as a slit up one side was revealed mid-stride. In this place, he seemed more like a smooth-talking sorcerer than a smooth-talking politician… but really what was the difference? A smooth talker, nonetheless, and the magic he did or did not hold at fingertips was moot compared with the magic which spewed from his lips. He reached his arm out to greet me, and I reached for Lady Eyes. She would surely give him a better greeting that I.
Sir Reuben screwed up his face with quizzical appal. “Friend,” though the word was friendly, I was unconvinced by it, “that is no way to greet a Duke, now is it?”
“You, sir, are no friend and not the Duke I know.” Of all the things to find beneath this crumbling ghost of a castle, Sir Reuben was the last I expected.
“I am still a Duke the same, and it pains me that you do not call me friend.” A frown visibly broke open his face. I was undecided whether or not I wanted my fist to do the same.
“I’ve never liked politicians,” I said under my breath, caring less and less about the words which I guarded.
“Would you direct those same words toward Lady Calwen? I am no less politician than she. How did you become a knight at all with such hatred for court?” Though it came out as a question, I knew he desired no answer, but knowledge has never been my strong suit.
“Loyalty,” his hand came up to stroke the unruly hairs on his upper-lip, though it made little difference. “A strange word coming from the lips of a knight of Glanderxe who would draw steel when approached by the Duke of Dete Plych.” Putting one hand on my shoulder, he raised the other, motioning toward the table. “Come, sit. How fairs your journey to the Pharosh, my friend? I have a map if you require it. These northern wastes are quite a distance from the River West, but have no fear. I can set you on the right path in due time.”
“I am come from the River West. My quest there is complete. I now seek to accomplish another.” I did not move from my place, and my hand did not leave the hilt of my sword. She felt cold and inviting against my palm: an old friend comforting me with her presence.
“How good to hear!” His eyes sparkled with the magic of his words. “Come now. What did Our Lady say when you told her that they accept our terms?”
“They did not accept, sir.” Why do I call him sir? He is no more sir to me than the allmarach he sits a’ table with. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
That same frown came once again. “Oh… so sorry to hear that. And the queen in her displeasure at the news banished you to these frozen wastes? I wouldn’t have taken her to be so harsh.” He shook his head, exhibiting true sorrow.
“She did not banish me here. I have been ever loyal to her cause, and there is no need for banishment.” My cheeks began to flush a little with the implication. The queen would never be so cruel! How dare this ex-Duke insult her so.
“Ever loyal to her cause, and yet you come here in defiance of the crown.”
“Defiance! I have been to the Pharosh and now I return to Glanderxe with their answer! How can you speak of defiance?” A little spittle escaped with the force of my words, but Sir Reuben was unmoved. He simply wiped the specks off his face with the cuff of his robe.
“I thought you said that your quest was complete? Hew Majesty certainly would not approve of you taking a northern vacation in the middle it. I know that you are still green, but I assumed you would know that messengers are prided for their speed.”
I ignored him, still caught up on his former statement. “You accuse me of defiance, and yet sit and scheme with this allmarach!”
“Oh? Are the mountain men our enemies now?” the worry on his face almost looked real. “Why then do you travel with one?” Cargh was visibly annoyed, but less at Sir Reuben than his brother at the table.
I had nothing to say. What could be said to a man who magicked up words and catch me in my own stupidity? His tongue was smoother than clear water, and mine was as rough as a sailor. This game of words was lost, and I was not the only one tired of talk. With a quick zing, the room burst with a blinding light, beams reflection off of Fioreh from the many torches around. Cargh almost appeared to be amidst the fire as I drew a blade of my own. “I may not be your enemy yet, but count me among them now!” Cargh roared at Sir Reuben, but his voice bounced around the whole room, seemingly at no one in particular.
With a quick flash, Sir Reuben knocked Lady Eyes from my grasp before I knew he had registered her presence. Bolts of purple lightning shot from fingertips at the approaching Cargh, who by now must have been cursing me for making him leave his armour behind… not that it would have made much difference. He was stuck in place by the shock of electricity. I turned to run, half expecting the same treatment, but instead was greeted by dozens of allmarach emerging from the stonework in a ring around the scene. They closed in with weapons of varying sizes drawn.
“I had hoped for better from you, Mert.”
“Sir Mert,” I corrected between clenched teeth.
“Perhaps… though I have good reason to question your loyalty. You were sent to the Pharosh just as I was sent here. How are your negotiations any more legitimate than mine? I have no say over this, however. Lady Calwen should decide your fate.” Sir Reuben waved his hand, instructing the host around us to approach. A pair of them grabbed me, and another took hold of Cargh. “Lock them away while we wait the King’s orders…” He raised one hand to his mouth in an embarrassed gesture. “Oh, silly me. I meant Queen.”
I was no stranger to a jail cell, however strange that might be. Knights are tasked to hold up the law, to fight and even die for what is right. A prison is no place for a knight, and if it were, the other side of the bars were more welcome to his character. Iron lengths stretching from floor to ceiling locked the knight without and the man within. I watched myself like peering into a mirror, but the reflection I saw was not my own. The man looked out, and the knight looked back. Was it shame or disgust I saw in his eyes? He had no place within this cell, but did he truly know where his place was? His eyes never left me, but his feet carried him in great circles around the shallow room of cracked stone and worse looking furniture. The wandering knight didn’t know where to go… but at least he had options. Did Sir Reuben speak truth? Was he here in service to Her Majesty? If so, said path a knight could choose. What if he spoke with trickery, words being nothing but lies, and intent being the greatest deception. A knight could choose again, returning to Lady Calwen to accomplish her will and expose Sir Reuben for who he really was.
The man within this cell had no such choices. Though knight and man were lost, confused, and loyalties challenged, the man had no direction. The cold stone floor and icy metal walls offered no option, and gave no opinion. What of the others in this place? The many cells speckled around the chamber were all empty, though many prisoners roamed about. That was the thought anyway. Brynd, or the Rock, sent us here to find the missing allmarach, but were they missing through cruelty, or by their own intent? The latter seemed true, yet it made little sense.
“Well, we found them.” I stated simply, not knowing what else to say.
“Theirs shells, perhaps. Those men were no allmarach.”
History had shown me the folly in joking with Cargh, but I had never been one to learn easily from my mistakes. “No? I thought the short stature gave them away.”
“If I take you out at the knees, you too would have short stature. Would that, then, make you an allmarach?” At one time I had wished to be one of these mountain men. They lived by a hard warrior code, but at least it was a code. Those who have earned respect are given it, and the only politicians are the ladies they hold in hand. The swords do the talking in that great Colosseum, and their word is final. In Glanderxe, Lady Calwen does the talking, but her word is only as final as that power may reach. Apparently, it didn’t reach beyond the borders of her Coessarde. The Sir Reuben I met in Glanderxe was not under the rule of Lady Calwen, but followed his own code. Do I not do that same? As soon as I left the main road with Kyra, I turned from her intent. Keltone held more secrets and lies than I could shake a stick at, and I’m sure if I tried to, they would be more amused than afraid. I was never known for my ability to cast fear, but Cargh was a different story.
“It would take more than short statue for me. I don’t have that cross me and die look about me. Perhaps growing a beautiful mane on my face would help.”
“Perhaps if I cut your tongue out that would help!” His threats seemed less menacing without a weapon to reach for, but his intent was no less evident. I had been afraid to face him before, but now perhaps I could. This foolish quest was his, not mine own. The knight outside the cell could follow him if it wished, but this man was going home.
“Regardless of stature, hair quantity, and having a tongue or not, these allmarach seem happy enough here. Perhaps the Rock called them back to this castle to serve him in another way.”
Cargh seemed troubled by that statement. More troubled than I would have expected. “These stones are of Keltone, and allmarach hands built the castle and dungeons beneath… But this cannot be the will of the Rock.”
“Why not?” I didn’t mean it as a challenge, but two sharps wraps of my hand on the rock – testing its authenticity, and possibly making a point – made me seem more defiant than I had desired.
“True enough, this is no Pharosh pit, but nor is it an allmarach prison. The only cell my brothers would use is one of swords, and the only key to unlock it would be blood.” Surely when Kyra was tried for her crimes that had been the way of it. “They may not openly defile the Rock, but they serve another.”
Klychawk. I did not say it, but I knew he was thinking it too. If these men served the god of the north, whether in spirit slavery or not, Brynd’s fears had become reality. Cargh told me of the riches and promise of power that had drawn in the allmarach of old, but what brought them here now? Surely a dead man had no possessions to promise them, and what power could he have? Power over the dead, perhaps, but these allmarach were still alive. “Why do they serve him?”
“Bloody my boots if I know! I would no more serve a dead man than a Pharosh… but perhaps I must.” Cargh had never been one for surprises. His face often gave away the desires of his heart, and when that mask of hair obscured it, his sword-arm said the rest.
“You mean to serve Klychawk?”
“I mean to serve the Rock!” he stood to his feet, enraged at my suggestion. “But perhaps some time with these defectors will lead to greater knowledge of the nature of things than time within these iron bars.”
“I guess they aren’t too talkative, are they.” I slapped a hand again one of the bars to emphasize the statement, but the chill of iron bit my flesh so hard, I had to pull away, making me seem more of a child than a clever joker.
They say time flies when you’re having fun. It’s no wonder, then, that for Farah Bailey, time had no wings but struggled to swim through sand like it was water. Every hour, every minute, every second, was a painstaking trudge, desperate to reach the surface, desperate for some hope of life. Mr. Bailey had no such hope. “I’m sorry,” he had said, that doctor from the Great City. The Bailey family had no physician of their own. How could they with the meagre funds that trickled in while a torrent flowed out? Times had always been hard, but they managed. How did they manage now, save through charity.
His skin grew paler by the day, and looked ever worse at night. The bright orange sun made him look more alive than he was, bringing out pigmentation in his skin that wasn’t really there. The moon played cruel, however, its cool, blue light casting shadows against the white and shrivelling carcass, making him look more dead than alive. Mother couldn’t see him at night any longer… she hadn’t been able to for weeks. Now, Farah sat alone: alone in the night, alone with her father, alone with her thoughts. She kept a low lantern burning on the crooked excuse for table that barely stood by his bedside. The artificial glow of fire at least made one side of his face look better than the other. Anything to fight the cruel undead pigmentation was a blessing.
A soft knock at the half-open door didn’t cause her head to rise. That door hadn’t latched for years now, and even the wind managed to make it croak out in depression while swinging on one hinge. The knock had a similar effect, but as boots clanked soft and true on the rotting out floorboard, she didn’t know what greeting to add to the depression of the old door. Her visitor brought the cool air of the night with him. The harsh bite of it sent chills down her spine when it shrieked through the old slats on the window, but it rippled over her like a cool caress when coming from the lips of Sir Yoyde. “How’s he doing?” What more could he say? What more did she want him to say?
“Not much change,” Farah tried to turn and smile, but couldn’t. Though she was happy for the company, she couldn’t imagine looking at him. So many tears had fallen from her eyes that a perpetual film of wet shrouded that vision, and one look at the beautiful man would surely cause them to fall again. The last time she had cried this much was at the departure of Mert Whatley… but such thoughts certainly didn’t aid her. A single tear slipped through the moist barrier on her eyes, the warmth of it seeping into every pore on her face, leaving tiny pools of sorrow behind.
“How are you doing?” She turned to him now, for how much more harm could that face do to her? Her heart was already broken twice, once by the man shrivelled beneath the sheets and once by the man who invaded the privacy of her mind. How much more could the sight of this third man hurt her? A soft and knowing smile spread across his face, adorning his cheeks with small dimples. This man’s face was not hard like Mert’s or dead like father’s, but it caused her more pain in that moment than the other two put together. A giant sob ricocheted through her and exited mouth and eyes all at once as she flung herself onto him. The soft cotton of his coat soaked up each tear with care. A great tremor of torment involuntarily shook her. Get a hold of yourself! It said, shaking her again. He doesn’t want to see you like this! But no amount of voices in her head could stop the quake of her body which settled to a soft tremor after two violent shakes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, echoing the words of that doctor from Glanderxe which Sir Yoyde had graciously paid for. She had heard that money solved many problems, but it seemed that no amount of money could help her father now. This problem was too great for even money to fix.
“Shhh…” Yoyde replied softly as his hand almost unnoticeably ironed out the wrinkles on her back. He patted her slowly and then rubbed as if trying to burp a baby, but no rejected food came from Farah, only spittle and tears. She didn’t know how long the tears lasted, but when they finally stopped she found herself wrapped in the iron embrace of a man who but weeks ago had been a stranger. Though his fine hair brushing her cheek and those well-built arms wrapping her made her feel better than she had for some time, she had to pull away, slightly embarrassed.
She repeated her words, while turning her face toward the ground, away from his welcoming eyes. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know what has come over me.”
“Grief,” he said simply, answering a question which really didn’t require one. His crusty, rough hands found her cheeks and pulled her face up soft yet forcefully. “You have nothing to be sorry for,” He continued, while forcing her to look into his eyes.
“I should not bother you so. Lady Calwen surely burdens you with worries of her own. Any addition would be cruel.”
His lips were chapped and broken from the cold, night ride and the hair above them was even rougher, but they warmed her forehead with a respectful kiss. “You should not bother yourself so, my lady. You couldn’t be cruel if you tried.”
Farah smiled faintly, but then turned her face away again, returning her gaze to the man on the bed. His chest rose and fell slightly, the only comfort she held onto as of late. The skin was stretched so thin across his hands that every bone and vessel of blood was visible, and she was almost afraid to touch them for fear of breaking his delicate frame. She kissed the back of his hand lightly and set it back down on the bed, but her hands remained cupped around the shrivelled up appendage. Three hands, one decrepit, two soft and caressing. A fourth hand came, without a sound, this one dirt-caked and speckled with wisps of wiry hair.
“Come,” Yoyde squeezed her hands a little and pulled them away from the wet and clammy fin beneath. “What does it profit you to remain here?” It was presented as a question, but he was not asking. Raising himself from the bed, he led similarly. “Some fresh air will be good for you.”
The air certainly was fresh, and as it glided across her face she became more evident of the salty lines drying on her cheeks. Reaching into a pocket she produced a well-worn handkerchief, which had more holes than fabric. Balling it up, she struggled to wipe away the lines of sorrow, and soon her mess of cloth was replaced with its holeless twin. “Here.” Yoyde held out his own and she gladly took it. Though a small matter, this was one more act of charity from a man who had already given her so much.
“Thank you,” she said while continuing to wipe the tears from her eyes. No one was about to see what a mess she was, but a lady still had her dignities. “And not only for this,” she held the cloth out to return it, but he raised a hand in blunt refusal. “For everything.”
“I have done nothing that another man wouldn’t have.”
“You are too humble for your own good, sir. How many men do you see visiting me daily and paying for the best doctor in the city to visit as well?” It was not a real question, but it didn’t stem from a real statement either. Farah could think of many men who wouldn’t, or perhaps couldn’t do what Sir Yoyde had done. The men of Coere Ghante were too busy with their own families and livelihood to spend much time at the Bailey house, but she didn’t blame them for that. No one should stop their own lives for the sake of her.
“Perhaps.” Who was this man? He didn’t always have a lot to say, but maybe it was better that way. She wondered what he might discuss by day with his comrades in the castle, but she knew it was often better to not know what men talked about when there were no ladies around. He brother had died when he was quite young, but had never been afraid to speak him mind. Not everyone approved of his mind, however, so maybe it was better to not know what was locked away between the ears of this man who walked with her. He was little more than a stranger, and any stranger you meet in a tavern is to be looked on with question. Surely this knight did not act like the others there, making idle passes at women without a thought, though maybe he just acted differently around her. Could she ever really know?
They made their way around the paths of the town for nearly an hour before returning to the Bailey house. Conversation was little to none, but the fresh air, as Yoyde suggested, had been good for you. “Thank you again, sir.” She told him as he untethered his horse to make ready for departure. Before swinging into the saddle, he took her hand in his and kissed it lightly.
“No, thank you, my lady.” Gliding onto the leather topped horse, he continued. “Get some rest, now. Your father will look brighter in the morning, I promise you.” With that, he rode away, and she knew he was right. The pain was always worse at night, but maybe he knew that. Why else did he come to see her when the moon was her only other companion?