The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Part II, Chapter 6: The Traitor's Apprentice

The sweat and spittle flecked horse slowed to a trot, then pitched forward, its ragged whinnies dying. The rider extricated himself from the dead beast, then staggered, panting and perspiring, towards the cottage porch, where an elderly couple sat, resting from tilling their gardens.

Until his retirement the year before, the old husband had served under the man striding toward him. “Your lor’ship,” he said.

Tilonus cursed the nag that threw him outside this house.

“Forgive me, old man,” said Tilonus. “Despite your inestimable service, I have forgotten your name. Moreover, despite the noble deeds and manly skill at arms which I ordered you to do, your record comes to an end.”

Tilonus did what he must, then stooped over the pierced bodies to clean his sword on the woman’s garden apron.

At the sight of a half dozen goats and a horse corralled behind the cottage, Tilonus recalled the old man’s droll joke upon their return from the Tsejandan Campaign. Not only victorious, but with prisoners and livestock in tow, they were nonetheless running so low on food that the old man said they should eat the horses and ride the goats instead.

Tilonus had always scowled at frivolity in the field. Moreover, that particular witticism seemed a special kind of nonsense to one who had never wanted for anything, and could only take it literally. Now ravenous and light-headed from his long escape, Tilonus felt the hyperbole to be hysterically funny. As a wanted villain, both a traitor to the Prince and a murderer many times over of those he robbed to cover his tracks, want was his new status quo, and the thought of eating a horse was so hilarious to him that the laughter was a great relief.

Despite being satisfied by the joke, Tilonus butchered and roasted a goat, and after eating his fill, continued his journey North on the horse, as a rational outlaw lord would do. Moreover, the longer he savored the joke, the more he felt less satisfied. He regretted murdering the old man before they could commiserate about hunger and the horror of his circumstances. To the outlaw lord, commiseration was as uncharted as hunger or peasant humor, and he wished for a partner in his crimes.

His new horse was not that comrade. While colossal, it was not battle bred, and its ingrained equine stubbornness balked more often than it trotted, and it never galloped or sprinted. Given a stream and grass it would lose itself in grazing, ignoring yells and rein yanks, and its hide proved so obdurate that he split his knuckles and stubbed his toe on the musclebound flanks. When he thought to smite it with the flat of his sword, it reared on its hind-legs and wheeled its fore-legs like a boxer.

He began to think the elderly couple knew it was their appointed time, and prepared the obnoxious horse as a suitable death day gift.

Three days later, Tilonus and the horse--which he dubbed Half-ass for its recalcitrance--arrived at his wife’s ancestral castle, Krunhalm. There were no signs of visitors, royal or otherwise, in the attached village of Krungate, and his wife’s heraldic flags were not flying from the towers. The drawbridge was up, and the gates were down.

Had he alerted them to his impending arrival, pennants and friendly villagers would be waving to their absentee lord. As he could not risk sending a message, the lack of fanfare was expected but bothersome, for Krunhalm looked a little too quiet, like a coiled and gift-wrapped viper. As he had not advanced to his great rank by being careless, he observed from an overlooking promontory, looking for some slip or signal below, until satisfied that only hungover peasants and his nagging wife lay in wait.

This left only Onala. As his wife was not stupid, no explanation would account for his unannounced arrival.

He was still piecing together a plausible narrative after he crossed the drawbridge.

As it was a brisk morning, long brown cloaks wrapped the battlement guards and the spears they leaned on. Seeing Tilonus, one guard smacked his half-asleep partner, and they saluted him before jumping from the battlement to the other side of the wall.

The ratchet of the drawbridge chain scraped as it winched, link by link, mingling with the clouds’ metallic grumbling. Scattered raindrops splashed the moat, sending large ripples. Not waiting for Tilonus to flick the reins, the farm horse cantered into the castle.

His wife’s steward, Aranto, waited with servants he did not know, although the ostlers were young and might have been stable boys on his last sojourn. When they took the reins, Half-ass went without a whinny or even a nicker, as if the stubbornness drained out of it.

Tilonus hustled to the inner gate, dreading that news reached Krunhalm after all, or why were servants awaiting his arrival, and following close behind, so that he felt crowded by the bulky steward. He calmed himself by considering that his patriotic wife would have challenged her rebel husband with her personal guard. For though she didn’t dislike her husband, she still felt passion for her homeland. It might have been her last love.

Onala once preferred the amenities of the city to country life, and was a devout theater goer and patron of the arts when she lived in their Cjantoskan manor, but as their marriage became strained, she learned to suffer without the niceties of civilization. When she could not brook another infidelity, she said she would remain a little while in Krunhalm; little while stretched to long while, then a season, then a year. Now the term of their comfortable estrangement was a few years older than their tense cohabitation.

The inner gate opened before they neared it. As they walked through the gatehouse, Tilonus mainly ignored Aranto, though as a longtime military commander he could not help sifting for key words, so that the steward’s yammering sounded something like this: “Your Lordship blah blah blah blah goats blah blah blah wheat blah blah blah scrolls blah blah blah blah blah gold blah blah...”

“What was that?” Tilonus snapped.

“Which part, your Lordship?”

“The gold, you mule.”

Aranto said, “only that we could raise the gold price on the whiskey, your lordship, leaving the barter rate the same, as it looks to be a long and cold winter, and our stores are running low.” Whiskey was the main product of Castle Krunhalm.

“Stupid whore’s son,” said Tilonus. “We have an abundance of rye and water. Grind the rye for flour and bake bread.”

“My lordship, did you not ban using the rye for bread? You said whiskey was for baking coin.”

“Who are you to tell me what I said?” When Tilonus cuffed Aranto’s ear, the steward swayed backward, but in an instant bobbed back to his position, his simpering face begging Tilonus to strike it again. “Step back, windbag.”

Tilonus continued, “it is good that the gods stacked the deck with me on top and you on bottom, for a mule does not have a lord’s judgment, and you would stubbornly drive us through this evil winter without fodder. Even three summers from now, we’ll be happy that we had the bread, because skeletons can’t spend coin. A lord is flexible in the moment, because times and needs change—everything changes, and the future Lord of Krunhalm will deal with the ramifications of my decision.”

“Gods willing, that will be my lord.”

“Unless you want to cuckold your lord and usurp his land--should I fear you, Rotto?”

“No, no! Of course not.” Aranto did not marshal the courage to correct the debasement of his name. “Will you take the southeast tower again, my Lord? While it was not prepared, if you dine first, we could make it desirable.”

“It will suffice.” While hearing that he was an unexpected visitor encouraged Tilonus to toss the farfetched plans he schemed, he was even more pleased to be given his usual residence, for the tower’s primary amenity was its proximity to the treasury. While he had feared that one of his half-dozen embezzlements—one for each recent visit—was noticed, now he could ply the simpler strategy conceived in his flight from Cjantosk. In two nights, he would have the funds to hire mercenaries and pay back the Prince.

On arriving at the dining hall, Aranto said, “dine well, my lord,” then bowed, and led the servants back the way they came. While they could not bid him to remove his dirt-caked boots, they had not unlocked the door. Too-exhausted to shout after these simpletons, he sat on a hallway bench to remove his boots and riding gloves, then his bracers, vambraces, and breastplate. Having slept in his armor three times during his five day escape, Tilonus was so accustomed to his metal skin that he not only felt cooler and lighter, but light-headed. Fearing that he might faint in front of these peons, he dropped to the wooden seat, and when theu opened the door, he waited for his head to clear.

While Onala’s sententious father lay long dead, his solemnity still breathed in the vast dining hall which with its flagstone floor, and chandeliers hanging from rafters, half looked like a church, and carried voices and footsteps like one, so that Tilonus’s sighing tread became a riot of noise. While most lords liked minstrels, poets, jesters, and bards to entertain them while they ate, Krunhalm’s long, business-like dining hall had no thought of a stage, only resplendently dull tables, finely overwrought chairs for the lords, and ornately somber benches for bastards, merchants, and knights. Although Tilonus could pick from any of a hundred seats, this was a room for eating, not merry-making.

While waiting, he stretched out on the bench, not caring how many bastards’ backsides graced it. He drifted into semi-consciousness, rousing only when the servants paced the aisles.

“My lord?”

“Serve me at the head of the table,” Tilonus stood. She was good-looking, if broad around the hips. “Stay.”

“Your lordship?”

“Stay. Sit. Tell me stories. What’s happening in my castle?”

“My lord, I haven’t been here a month.”

“I’d rather hear a month of gossip than a year of harvests.”

“My lord, if I might return to the kitchen, I can bring an ewer of mead and tell the cook why I loiter, so he does not dismiss me.”

“The head cook is not your master.”

“While that is true, my lord, when you leave, my gracious lady will not know who I am, and the head cook will dismiss me. Would not your meal be better with mead to wash it down?”

When she tempted him with mead for the second time, his thirst overwhelmed him. Moreover, while not truly beautiful, she was blessed with ample physical charms, and he was enticed by her sass. While she might be emboldened by his exhaustion, no one in his employ had ever talked back this much. “I am not your first lord. You know how to fend me a little too well.”

“My lord, you are as sly as your reputation. I attended the Prince until he became disenchanted of me, offering no reason for my dismissal. I did not ask why.”

“Bring me the mead. No. Whiskey and water.” When the woman left, he racked his brain to solve her fiendish conundrum. If she was the Prince’s cast-off, then Tilonus should not enjoy her charms. But perhaps she lied to sap his interest? If she put him off, he should rise to the challenge.

When she returned with a long flask and a large ceramic jug, he feigned a smile, and said, “I hope the whiskey’s in the jug.”

“My lord jests.” She poured whiskey into a glass, then a few drops of clear water.

Anxiety pricked Tilonus. “Drink,” he commanded.

When she acquiesced with her gaze averted, and then a smile on her whiskey-wet lips, he poured his own cup, then reached across the table for another cup, which he also filled with whiskey. When she tipped the spout of the water jug, he waved her away.

Acup of whiskey in each fist, he said, “drink with me,” as if that was his intent, not that he sussed out whether she was a poisoner employed by the Prince.

“I am halfway through my shift, and must return after I have satisfied my lord.”

“It would satisfy me if you drank. Tell me about life in the castle. No, tell me about the Prince.”

“Your lordship, to be frank, my duties were limited to shopping for the Prince. As meeting his highness’s gourmet tastes required that I frequent the market daily, it limited my duties and opportunities at the castle.”

“With such limited familiarity, how did you attract the antipathy of the Prince?”

“My lord,” she said, “when Urgu slashed our production, our trading partners looked elsewhere, and once common delicacies became inordinately rare. As the prince’s appetite was unreduced by our privation, he took it as an affront that I could not procure his usual list. I suffered his complaints daily—through a pussyfooting, mealymouthed proxy—until my services were no longer required.”

“By coincidence, those were my next words.” A train of ladies in waiting and two man-at-arms followed Lady Onala. Her face was flush with shame or resentment, though Tilonus suspected it might be more past than present.

“My Lady, please do not,” said the servant, bowing her head and curtsying. Her eyes were wide and affrighted and her chin trembled.

“Did I give you leave to speak? No? Say nothing, and leave us. Then gather your belongings and find the hole for chatty handmaids.”

“Do not go,” said Tilonus, “for Rotto tells me I am in desperate need of a chambermaid. While the job is temporary, it could become more meaningful work.” He drained one of his cups.

When Tilonus embroiled the servent in their domestic dispute, she hunched her shoulders as if about to squirrel away. Knowing she would stay for fear of being in want should Onala have her will, Tilonus continued with his amusement.

The enraged Lady of Krunhalm leaned so close that spittle bedaubed her yell. “I said leave!”

“Stay. But not here. Report to the southeast tower and inform Sir Ignoln?---is it still Ignoln?—that...”

“LEAVE!” she screamed.

“...that, er, you’re to ready my chamber, turn down my sheets, and prepare a proper nightcap.”

The woman fled the chamber.

“You!” shouted Lady Onala. “Not here! You won’t strut and rut in Krunhalm like you did in Cjantosk! Not in front of my servants, and not with my handmaidens!”

“Let’s switch,” said Tilonus. “While I holiday here, you’re welcome to Cjantosk, which you’ll find lovelier in my absence.”

“You would like that!” Onala’s eyes welled.

“You would too. Here, you have hangers-on, but no peers. How much it must drag to have these sycophants cling to your every word and acquiesce to your ridiculous notions.”

“My notions are not ridiculous,” she seethed.

“Not in the city,” agreed Tilonus, “but in this countrified place, anything outside of hard, practical nature, seems fanciful. Plays, Onala. Comedies, tragedies and fables. Poetry, philosophy, minstrels, and painters--they’re all in Cjantosk. Though some scrolls were singed by dragon fire, the muses still burn those flaming artists.”

“You’re serious!”

“Deadly.”

“You would like that! Whether the women south are sick of you, or you want to put your hands on my father’s legacy, I won’t give you the satisfaction.”

When Onala left the dining room in a rush, Tilonus thought he had best eat with speed before she beheaded his new chambermaid. Though the food was now lukewarm, he ate with gusto.

***

The southeast tower’s lamps were lit, and the door guards stood at attention. “My lord!” they said, and saluted. The respect was real, for the guards loved him for marrying Onala when she was a spinster, and the legacy of Krunhalm near its end..Their affection continued despite the effeminate lethargy of his sons.

Despite having shoveled in a plate of food, a fresh hunger pang echoed in his stomach when he smelled the warm aroma of bread. He saluted the guards back, then shoved past them to root out the savory smell, which wafted down the tower steps.

While his chambers were not yet cleaned, the woman had made his bed, changed the curtains, and set the table with a plate bearing the freshly baked bread, a hank of roast beef, a bowl of greens, a tureen of herbed gravy, and a carafe of red wine. The aroma of warm bread was accented by the scent of thyme, freshly cut tomatoes, and the salty odor of the beef.

“Courtesy of the cook,” said his new chambermaid, who had changed into a clean blue dress fluttering with lace, no doubt her best. Tilonus was already a few forkfuls into his meal, and washing it down with a slug of wine.

“This will do. Now return to the servants’ quarters, seat yourself by a window, and when the lights dim, come and get me.”

“Where will you be, my lord?”

“In bed. Though it will be hard to rouse me after my journey, you must wake me when the lights dim.” At nightfall, Castle Krunhalm’s oil lamps were lit, then shuttered to burn a dim light in the halls during the hours of repose.

“As you wish, my lord.”

After she went upstairs, he fell on his meal until only a gristly chunk and the crusty heel was left, drained the carafe, then took the steps. When he passed the servants’ quarters, the chambermaid looked up from her candle-lit table, where she wrote on a long scroll already half-scratched with wet ink. He ascended two more floors to find the key in the door of the master bedroom, then unlocked it, and without bothering to take off his armor or clothes, fell in the bed. Though the casement windows were shut and their curtains drawn, a faint chill was blasted by flame-licked cords of wood in the fireplace.

He only woke when the chambermaid pulled the blanket away As he did not remember a blanket, she must have covered him in the first place. When he rolled onto his belly, she hissed loudly, “Wake up, my lord!”

“Why?” he groaned. “The world will go on living and dying.” Tilonus staggered from bed, driven less by stubbornness than by greed and the desire to pay vengeance forward. “Where are my boots?”

“I brushed them,” she said, “and they are outside the door.”

“Good. You’re doing well,” he thought to add. Though compliments were unfamiliar to his mouth, he hoped it sounded natural.

“You are kind, my lord.”

“I’m not kind. My unkindness is the cause of our stealth, and hopefully the foundation of my future wealth.”

“Future wealth? My lord is so well-heeled that I see little difference between Krunhalm and the Prince’s manor.”

“When I am done, you will see gaping differences, as between the loaf you gave me and the crumbs I left on the plate. Is there more?”

“While I thought to bake another, it will have hardened, it may not be as toothsome.”

“On battlefields I have eaten bread like stones. Bring it on our way.”

“Our way?”

“You’re coming with me.”

Though the chambermaid was dumbstruck by this command, she seemed steeped in his plan from head to toe as they skulked upstairs past the guards bunked near the mid-level battlement entrance. When Tilonus unlocked the door, she followed him closely onto the battlements.

He knew the convoluted path to the treasury well, for he had dipped into it many times for petty cash. To frustrate thieves, it was only accessible from a battlement walkway that extended to the treasury roof, and only Lady Onala, Lord Tilonus, and Aranto had the key to its spiral stairwell. The treasury abutted the east tower, which bordered a rocky cliff, and the east wall faced only blackened earth and scrub for eighty feet, as Tilonus periodically ordered it burned. With the tree line so distant, if someone insisted on climbing the wall, they would have to scale the sheer stone.

Of the four guards, three stood vigilant, and another slouched against the wall. Tilonus strode forward and yanked that man’s ear.

“Sleeping on your shift?” He dragged the man by his twisted earlobe in front of the other three guards. “Which of you is the ranking officer?”

“My lord, forgive me,” said one. “I am Lieutenant Hinaur.”

“Since he was your responsibility, you will share punishment. Come here.” When the sergeant took a step nearer, Tilonus seized his ear as well, then walked to the edge of the wall, and leaned forward, so that the men, forced to follow the painful pull of their earlobes, hunched over the drop. “What do you see?”

“My lord?” said the guard.

“Consequences, my lord,” said the lieutenant. “We understand your orders, and will not fail you again.”

“Very bright,” said Tilonus. “Your parents must be proud of you. But there are no consequences. The skies are not moral, neither good nor evil. There are only opportunities. Nothing happens for a reason, and everything can be turned to a good end. My good. Your end.”

When the unbalanced guards fell, the chambermaid shrieked, then remembered where she was and what she was doing, and stifled her scream.

The other men gasped when Tilonus turned on his heel, drew his sword, and advanced.

While Tilonus was a practiced swordsman, he won his battles by a thorough facility with the basics. Since the remaining guards were stunned, they only now drew their swords, and Tilonus stepped, then knelt to extend this subtle lunge, so that his sword point darted twenty feet to stab one mid-draw. He dodged the other’s sword by simply standing up, so that the guard’s sword collided with the battlement stones several feet from where he had knelt.

When the guard lifted the weapon overhead, he found it was suddenly effortless, but his head was wet, and his weapon clattered on the ground...next to his severed hands. When the stumps leaked blood on his hair and uniform, and he tried to wipe away the gore, but missed, his scream drained into a gasp as Tilonus’s sword pierced so far it scraped the wall.

The chamber maid cried and gagged, and swallowed both tears and vomit in an effort to choke the noise.

“Get up.” He threw her the key. “Open the door.”

“Why, my lord,” she stammered.

“Because I want you to open it. Or do you mean these fools? Are you on my side or theirs?”

“My lord, they wore the Krunhalm crest. Were they not on your side?” She unlocked the treasury door.

Tilonus was preparing a clever reply when he was dumbstruck by the sight of Lady Onala at the coin-counting table. He was flummoxed for a few moments, as his plans did not involve her death.

“My lady.” He bowed. “You’ve outmaneuvered me, but not to your benefit I think.” Lady Onala stared at his blood-red sword and whitened. He continued, “What was your plan? To scold me for dipping into the gold?”

At that, the flush of color surged back into her cheeks. “It’s all you ever do. You rob me, pretending you’ve come for a visit.”

“We pilfer from each other. It’s what we do, isn’t it? I leaped at the dowry offered me by your father—and this castle was no small potatoes—and you swindled me of my influence in Cjantosk.”

“You’re insane. Tilonus, why is there blood on your sword?”

“If you think I’m insane, that’s your answer. Or am I mad? When I was a bachelor, my company was much in demand, but after our marriage, you received the invitations. When my eligibility became disfavor, I thought you poisoned them against me, but age and wisdom persuaded me that my resentment bled into the rest of my life.”

“Thank Coruna.”

“Like the dragon, our age and wisdom grows relentlessly, and now I think it a cocktail of two venoms—your gossip and my resentment. Onala, what should I do with you? You weren’t supposed to be here. After stealing your gold, I preferred to leave you in your father’s castle, far from what happens next.”

“What comes next?”

“Nothing for you.”

At this the chambermaid said, “you need not kill her, my lord.”

“Need not isn’t want not.”

“You said yourself that you preferred she not die.”

“Despite that I’ve desired her death for years. Before my impulse had no reason; now I may excuse it.” Tilonus looked at the chambermaid with a quizzical expression. “What is it to you, whom this wretch dismissed this very evening?”

“Tie her up. No one will check until the shift changes or the bodies are discovered.”

“If she lives, she seeks retribution. If she dies, the steward may avenge her, but his reach will be weak without his lady’s authority.

“Take her with you.”

“I don’t bear useless things, and a more useless woman does not exist. Besides, she would kill both of us at her earliest opportunity.”

“Both of us.

“You will accompany me.”

“But I have done nothing, my lord.”

“That didn’t stop her dismissing you.”

When the chambermaid looked distraught, and offered no reply, he added, “but who am I to deny a pretty face? Tie her up, or we’ll take her, as you prefer.”

This proved easier said than done, as there was no rope in the treasury. However, since the well-meaning people of Krungate honored their masters on birthdays and feast days with unwanted bounty, any valuables that survived their scorn were deposited in the treasury. As Tilonus guarded his wife, the chambermaid poked through the dusty presents until she upturned a box full of scarves in the red and orange of Onala’s family colors.

The softhearted weaver that matched the pattern to the guards’ livery, and no doubt wished to warm the castle defenders in winter, could not have foreseen the scarves’ cruel purpose that evening, as the chambermaid gagged and bound Lady Onala. While at first the servant was coy about it, like a mouse entangling a lion, when she cinched her lady’s wrists too severely, Onala screeched and cursed the chambermaid, who then took extra care to double the scarves and draw them tight.

Tilonus packed a satchel heavy with gold, then stowed more gold in the padded lining of his cloak. “Ready?” When he opened the door, the chambermaid pushed the reluctant Lady Olana onto the battlement, where two crows pecked at the corpses.

They knotted the remaining scarves into a rope. “We’ll have to test it,” said Tilonus. “First, the length.”

When he threw one end over, Lady Onala plummeted also, her black evening gown fluttering, her eyes fanned wide and her teeth clenched in dumbstruck denial, to strike harder than the scarves, but no less colorfully or silently.

“What was that?”

“I should not have questioned you,” said the chambermaid. “It was not my place.” When she stared down at Onala’s body, she shuddered, though that might have been the chilly breeze, for her face was flushed and her cheeks crinkled. Tilonus knew well the tells of a servant’s or man-at-arm’s repressed mirth, and took this near-dimpling for a half-smile. Also, she did not try to embellish her rebellion with the honorific, “my lord.”

“You weren’t put here to kill my wife, either. You should have asked,” said Tilonus. “What should I do?”

“No lord’s asked me that before.”

“While we’ll never be peers, now that you’ve killed we can speak as one murderer to another. Though we’re not on even footing there either, as I’m a lifelong killer, now that you’ve tasted blood we might see eye to eye. Onala never did, and she was born far above me.” Tilonus felt an eddy of sorrow stir in him, stamped on it, then growled at the chambermaid. “You might have killed us both. I don’t like that feeling. Perhaps you should have killed me.”

“My lord, never...when I was cast aside, you took me in. It wouldn’t be right.”

Tilonus chortled at that, then remembered where he was and covered his mouth. When he could speak, he cackled, “It wouldn’t be right.”

“You spoke to the guard of opportunity,” she said in earnestness. “If I come with you, will I be someone? If not a lord, someone of importance?”

“While I’m not in the habit of recruiting women,” he said, “it suits me to grant that boon. Remember this: while you’re now more than my servant, you’re neither friend nor squire; neither will I teach a woman weapons nor any other manly arts. At best, you’re a traitor’s apprentice. There’s none better to teach you how to turn where the wind blows.”

In answer, the chambermaid nodded, then clutched their makeshift rope. They climbed one by one down the scarves to cut away into the night.

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