The Fall of the Builder: I
Kingshaven hadn’t always been a shithole, but its glory days were long gone. Once, the city had been that of Kings, with its grand Red Fortress and the big oaken Telling Tree, but that was all history. Nowadays, the city was but a shadow.
Duke Edding never left his seat in the Red Fortress, and the city was ruled by his wife, Duchess Sophia. She wasn’t a bad leader—on the contrary, she was stern and steadfast, and perhaps a better leader than all Dukes combined—but the city was barely a city at all. It was more like a union of several little villages, and a meeting ground for criminals and outcasts at the expense of farmers and honest folk.
Despite all this, Isaac had grown rather fond of it. He had never felt freer. Granted, he was miserable. He missed his home, but he couldn’t possibly return unless he wished to be hanged for treason.
The Arlington family was far out of his reach. What he witnessed that night in Noxborough kept playing in his head—the gruesomeness, the violence, the madness. He was certain that city was a cursed place. He had never had a fear for demons or monsters, nor had he feared the Builder’s judgment, but the sickness he had witnessed proved to him that the Builder had abandoned Noxborough, and its people’s fate was in the hands of demons.
Most of all, he felt the everlasting sting of failure. The Duke was dead and cold in his grave, but Isaac was certain his ghost had returned to haunt him. He saw it every time he closed his eyes, the pain and fear—and disappointment—in the Duke’s eyes as he died in his arms. In the silence, he still heard the rasping, gurgling breaths of the dying man as he was slowly drowning in his own blood.
He had been charged with negligence, but his true crime was stupidity. He should have known Arlington would turn on them. He should have known that treacherous and power-hungry man would boil at the first sign of abandonment—but the battle had already been lost. It had been lost before it even began. Isaac should have known. Indeed, stupidity was his crime.
Kingshaven was the perfect place to forget such sorrows and just enjoy the moment. Isaac had fallen right into the life of a carefree regular recluse at the city taverns. The Green Leaf was his favourite, mostly because of the pretty barmaid that had met him the moment he stumbled in after riding for ten hours without stopping.
Her name was Isobel, her hair was copper, and her eyes were large and brilliant blue. She was many years his junior and he would not feel right pursuing her, but he could not tear his eyes from her. He could watch her for hours. Other women sought their way to him, praised him for his handsomeness, for his mysterious allure, and he was petty enough to enjoy their praises—but he had only eyes for Isobel.
She always wore a smile whenever she saw him and in a dark world, that was his light. She had suitors all over the city, each more handsome than the next, but she rebuked them all. Isaac imagined it was because of him, but he knew it was only a fantasy. Still, it kept him dreaming good dreams instead of nightmares.
On one especially rowdy night, as Isaac sat in his lonely corner, watching Isobel as she danced between the tables, he saw four rather hefty men enter the tavern. He recognised them at once as bounty hunters. They walked up to the barmaid and held out a poster.
Isaac narrowed his eyes to see better, and he clenched his jaw as he saw the name Richmond Arlington written with big letters underneath the word wanted. He knew he shouldn’t have trusted the High Architect. He knew he shouldn’t have believed himself to be the only one tasked with arresting Arlington. If there was a price on that man’s head, it was anyone’s game. Isaac was never supposed to return to Westbridge. Yes, stupidity was his crime.
He watched intensely as the men questioned Isobel. They were unfeeling, harsh, and the girl kept shaking her head. No, she had not seen Richmond Arlington, or any Arlington for that matter, because they were most certainly not alive. No ruling family could survive an uprising and an invasion, and especially not at the same time.
The bounty hunters seemed to accept that Isobel knew nothing and took a seat by a table, forcing the others around it to move. They ordered from the girl, but as she brought them their drinks, one of them pulled her into his lap.
Isobel tried to move, smiling apologetically, but the burly men would not let her go, despite her begging. She then turned quite fiesty, barking at them that she would toss them out if they kept behaving like brutes, but they only laughed at her.
Isaac gritted his teeth and rose, clearing his throat with intent. As he did, many in the tavern silenced. He had always been quiet, sitting alone in his corner, drinking his ale, never making any fuss. Now, as he determinedly closed in on the bounty hunting party holding the lovely Isobel hostage, eyes followed him through the room.
He furrowed his brows as he locked eyes with the one who was the apparent leader of the group and said, “Let the lady go.”
The man, nearly a head taller than Isaac, rose and looked down on him. “And what are you going to do about it, old man?”
Isaac glared at him. He did not like it when people called him old. He was not old. He was seasoned.
Before anyone had the time to understand what was happening, Isaac pulled his dagger and pressed it firmly against the man’s scrotum, making him tense up.
“I sharpen this blade every day,” he said calmly. “The secret to getting it even sharper is to know the exact angles of the edges. It takes a few years to master, but I’ve had a few years of practice already, from the Shadow Riders of the Southern Reach. Let the lady go, or I’ll slice you open, balls to neck. It’ll be fast, but the dying will be slow.”
The man breathed shallowly, holding his hands out in surrender. “I don’t want to fight you, old man.”
Isaac pressed the blade harder into the leather of the pants. “Let the lady go, and there will be no fighting.”
“Oh, you misunderstood me,” said the man. “I don’t want to fight you, because that means I would have to kill you, and I’m really not in the mood for that.”
“You think you’d kill me?” Isaac sneered. “I’ve fought hundreds of men more skilled in battle than you’ll ever be. But go ahead.” He took a step back, placed his dagger inside its scabbard, and held out his arms in a welcoming gesture. “If you think you can beat me, then be a man and challenge me to a duel.”
The burly man narrowed his eyes and then chuckled. “A duel?”
He turned to his men, and they all laughed. When he turned back, he swung his heavy fist at Isaac with surprising speed. It hit him on the jaw, hard, and sent him reeling.
“Well, I accept,” chuckled the man.
Isaac landed on the cold, dirty wooden floor, and groaned. Quick on his feet, he regained his posture and rubbed his hurting chin before he spat some blood as it erupted from his inner cheek. He laughed. It was a good punch, but he had seen worse. He had certainly felt worse.
“Is that all you’ve got?” he smirked.
The big man struck again, but Isaac was ready this time and dodged the fist. It had been a long time since he had been in a fistfight but he still remembered the gist of it. Most of the movements were pure reflexes, and he was nimble enough to outsmart the brawny youngster and swing fists when the bounty hunter least expected it.
Isaac was a fierce fighter with enough force behind his punches to knock most people down. The burly man seemed to be in shock and he commented on Isaac’s form “despite” his age.
It was insulting. He wasn’t even that old, to begin with. Forty-two years. Indeed, he was no longer a young man, but he was still in his prime. Certainly, the silver strands at his temples in his otherwise dark curls could make him seem older, but calling him old was just nonsense. At least, the ladies found him handsome enough.
He had downed the burly man in a matter of minutes, but tables, chairs and glasses were smashed in the process. The other three looked at him in surprise but no one dared to attack him.
Isobel had been released in the ruckus, and she seemed utterly shocked by the turn of events.
Isaac corrected his leather tunic, swept his hair away from his face, and glared at the men. “Take your friend and leave. Don’t ever let me see your faces here again.”
Bitterly, the men nodded and rose. They helped their downed friend to stand, and they shuffled out into the night. Several other guests had left during the row, and only a few remained.
Isobel didn’t seem to know where to begin cleaning up the mess the brawlers had made, and Isaac immediately regretted his actions.
With a sigh, he approached the woman. “Miss,” he said, “are you all right?”
“Who are you?” she spat as she glared at him. “No man in Kingshaven fights like that, and no man in Kingshaven is so inconsiderate as to destroy—” She choked on her words, clearly distressed, and Isaac clenched his jaw.
“Please, miss,” said he. “Forgive me. I tried to take the fight outside. Those men were nothing but trouble. You must have seen that, miss?”
Isobel scoffed and began cleaning in anger. She shooed the other customers, and they all left rather quickly. “I have dealt with men such as those all my life, sir. I am in no need of a knight in shining armour. All men are pigs, whether or not you know it.”
Isaac sighed and quickly picked up the chair she was reaching for. “Let me help you, at least.”
She looked at him again, and if Isaac wasn’t mistaken, curiosity had overtaken the anger in her gaze. “Who are you, sir? Why have you been sitting in that corner every night for a fortnight?”
He clenched his jaw again. “My name is Sir Isaac Callahan of Blackmoor. I was a member of the Dukesguard in Westbridge.” He cleared his throat. “I am looking for a person, a criminal, by orders of the Vault.”
The girl’s face suddenly paled as she curtsied deeply. “A Knight of Westbridge! Forgive me, sir, for my insolence.”
Isaac shook his head. “Not at all, you have shown no disrespect. I am the one who should apologise.” He frowned and dropped his gaze. “Pigs, we are. I will pay for the damages, of course. I must admit I—” He swallowed. “I could not turn a blind eye to a lady being handled so cruelly.” He gazed back up at her, just in time to witness her cheeks glow red.
Isobel smiled nervously. “Well, at least you’re not wearing shiny armour.”
“Easier to walk without it,” Isaac chuckled.
The barmaid diverted her blue eyes. “You are a very adept fighter, I must say. That man was really nasty looking.”
“I have fought worse men than him,” said Isaac. “And he thought me older than I am, which gave me a great advantage.”
The girl smiled coyly. “Well, how lucky, then.”
He tried to cypher her words, the intent behind them, but he doubted they meant what he wished they would mean.
Isobel gazed down on her feet. “I presume you’re married, sir?”
He was stunned. “I—no. I was married, once. But I’m not any—why?”
She shook her head. “Most men that would defend me like that are married already, and assume I’ll give them comfort in the night.”
Isaac clenched his jaw. “I’m not, and I would never—I would never assume anything.”
“Then why have you been waiting for so long to speak to me?” she asked and brought her brilliant blue orbs to meet his. “I know you’ve had your eyes on me, but did you feel like you had to break every chair in this tavern before you addressed me?”
He tightened his brows and cleared his throat. “No.” He huffed but smiled. “I thought you’d have little interest in someone like me.”
“A dark and handsome stranger, staring at me such intense black eyes? How could that be uninteresting?” The girl smiled shyly, her cheeks red and her eyes glistering. Her freckles were almost completely hidden by her blushes, but Isaac knew they were there.
“You have plenty of suitors,” said Isaac and walked closer to the girl. “Yet none of them seem to have caught your interest. Why?”
“Because I was waiting for someone else to voice his,” said she and neared him.
Isaac clenched his jaw tightly as he peered down into the vast ocean that was her eyes. This was only a young woman, eighteen or perhaps nineteen years, and he was twice her age—and yet, he kissed her, and she kissed him back.
He lay with the lovely Isobel that night, revelling in her sweetness and tenderness, and in the small hours, they were nestled together, her copper hair sprawled over the pillows.
She played with the dark locks on his chest as she asked, “What criminal is it that you’re hunting?”
Isaac sighed. “Richmond Arlington. He killed the Duke of Westbridge and is to be brought to justice for his crimes.”
“The bounty hunters were after him, as well,” said Isobel.
“Aye,” Isaac muttered.
“If you’re from Westbridge,” she said quietly, “did you see what happened in Noxborough? Did you see the demons? I have only heard the rumours.”
“Don’t listen to the rumours,” he said. “They wish to paint things in ways they weren’t. It was horrible, yes, nightmarish even, but the stories are fiction.”
“So you were there?”
“But you don’t wish to speak about it?”
She hummed. “So let’s speak about something else, then. Is it true what you said? That you’ve fought with the Shadow Riders?”
Isaac chuckled. “I camped with them once, many years ago.”
The girl scoffed. “Figures.” She sighed and gently moved her hand over his chest. “You told me earlier that you were married once. What happened?”
Isaac tightened his jaw. He rarely spoke about his misfortunes with anyone, and he was not very comfortable discussing it. But he sighed.
“I married young,” he muttered. “My wife, Sarah, was a few years older than me, a widow, and so our union was rather frowned upon. We didn’t care. By twenty, I already had two sons, John and Edward.” Just mentioning their names was hurtful, and Isaac had to take a few breaths before he continued. “Sadly, none of them reached the age of five. They both perished in smallpox early one spring.”
Isobel gasped. “That is horrible! I am so terribly sorry for your loss.”
He smiled and gently caressed her face. “They’re in a better place now, wherever they might be.”
The girl bit her lip. “What happened to your wife? She must have been sick with grief.”
“Aye,” said Isaac. “We both were. Sarah couldn’t handle it, couldn’t handle being with me. So, eventually, we went our separate ways.”
Isobel propped herself up on her elbow. “You divorced her?”
Isaac nodded. “It was for the best.”
“But that must have angered the Vault!”
He raised a brow. “Would it have been better to force the woman to stay married to me? To keep her unhappy? She could barely stand to look at me.”
The girl’s face fell. “No.” She shook her head. “Of course not. I’m sorry, sir. It was inconsiderate of me to imply such a thing.”
Isaac furrowed his brows and shook his head. “Don’t apologise.” He then kissed her again. Her sweet lips comforted him, as did her warm body. He sighed. “I gave her a hefty sum of sovereigns and she left to live with her parents in Woodsborough, in Illyria. That was fifteen years ago, and I haven’t seen her since.” Sighing again, he shifted to hold the girl closer. “Now, tell me about yourself.”
The girl giggled. “There is very little to say. I’m born and raised here in Kingshaven. My family has owned this tavern for generations, and my father expects me to continue his legacy once he dies.”
“And what about those suitors?” he teased.
Isobel sighed and placed her head on his chest and resumed playing with his hair. “There are some good options, but I don’t wish to marry just yet. I’m not ready to be a pious wife and mother.”
“There is no rush,” said Isaac. “You’re young, you have your whole life ahead of you.”
She nestled herself closer to him and sighed deeply. “If only that rule applied to women as it does for men.”
“Aye,” he muttered. “The world is askew, that is true.”
“Why couldn’t one of my suitors be more like you? So understanding, so sophisticated?”
Isaac chuckled. “Well, it has its drawbacks as well.”
“One can know too much of the world, you know,” he said.
“I would like to know just a little bit more.”
“Well, ask then, if you must.”
They spoke until morning, and while Isobel had to rise for another day in the tavern, Isaac remained in bed, sleeping until mid-morning.
When he arose, he went about his day as he usually did—drinking away the little fortune he had left on his person. He sometimes ventured out hunting both game and criminals; Kingshaven didn’t just lack grandeur, it also lacked discipline. The city had barely a guard at all, and the protection was made up only of farmers and their sons. Isaac couldn’t stand seeing the poor people get robbed and cheated by passing thugs day in and day out.
Even though his services weren’t sanctioned or even recognised by the Duchess, the townsfolk had started to know his face. He rarely named himself, knowing that word travelled fast, and he wouldn’t want the High Architect in Westbridge to know of his vagrancy. Isobel was probably the only one in the city who knew his true identity.
After that night, the pair found themselves closer together. They spoke of a great many things and grew even closer. He found himself in bed with her many nights after their first, and for a little while, he let himself forget the life he wanted to return to.
He let himself forget the dreadful nightmare he’d witnessed and pretend like this was where he belonged. He liked to imagine that he one day would marry the girl, and perhaps he would have a family again. He might be Head of Guard in Kingshaven and rebuild the institution with proper knowledge and experience. Then, in his old age, he would hang his cloak away for good and enjoy his old days together with his beautiful wife, their many children, and grandchildren.
“There has been word from Noxborough today,” Isobel suddenly said as they lay together in his bed.
Isaac was forcefully pulled back to reality as he sat up and looked at the girl. “What? How?”
“There was a raven,” she shrugged.
Isaac clenched his jaw and glared at her. “Yes, I understood as much. But the city is annexed. Why would anyone send a raven here? Is it from the Grey Ones? Is it dated? Is it signed?”
Isobel glared at him and pulled the sheets to cover herself. “I don’t know,” she snapped. “Do you want to hear the message or not?”
He clenched his jaw and sighed. “Yes.”
“Duke Arlington has been beheaded,” said Isobel. “Lady Juniper has joined the enemies, and Lord Sebastian is missing.”
Isaac tensed. “Missing? How do you mean?”
Isobel shrugged. “He is wanted by the Grey Ones for crimes of war. There’s a considerable reward for his capture and return to Noxborough.”
“Who received this message?”
“The bird-keeper. He came into the tavern earlier tonight,” said Isobel. “I received it and was told to hand it to the town crier come morning. I suspect there will be posters soon.” She sighed. “Nasty business. Noxborough is truly cursed, isn’t it? Abandoned by the Builder, for sure.”
He took a moment, trying to get his mind in order, before he rose from the bed in a hurry.
“Where are you going?” Isobel asked.
“Sebastian Arlington could be anywhere,” muttered Isaac. “I must find him before anyone else does, and bring him to Westbridge.”
Isobel sat up. “But you were after the Duke, were you not? He’s dead.”
“A sin like that,” Isaac muttered as he dressed, “is hereditary.”
“But that’s awful!”
Isaac sighed. “It is, but such is the law, and Sebastian Arlington is my way back home.”
The girl sighed deeply. “So you must go.”
“Yes.” He stood with his linen shirt in his hand and watched the young woman in his bed. He knew not where his hunt would take him, or if he’d ever return to Kingshaven, but a woman like Isobel would not remain unmarried for long. His jaw twitched; he would miss this. He pulled the shirt over his head and muttered to the girl, “I think it’s best if you leave. I don’t think old man Chester would like to find a lady in my room once I’ve gone a paid the bill.”
Isobel scoffed but reached for her shift. “If Chester were to find me here, I would never hear the end of it.”
Isaac watched as the girl dressed and he cursed his own, foolish loyalty to a house that was barely standing at all. He could forget about Westbridge altogether and ask for the girl’s hand in marriage. He was a knight, no one on her part would oppose the match. But he was too bound by oath and conscience to do so.
As he gazed at the girl, he wanted to ask her to wait for him, to wait until he had captured the Arlington boy, returned him to Westbridge, and regained his honour and repented, but that would be unfair to her. When she was ready to leave him, he pulled her to him for one last kiss. He made sure it was one she would remember.
“I’m going to miss this,” cooed the girl against his lips and slowly moved her hands underneath his linen shirt. “No man in Kingshaven has a build like you.”
Isaac grunted against her and reluctantly pulled her hands away from him as he kissed her again.
“Marry well,” he whispered once their lips had parted, and caressed her face. “Follow your heart and not your peers. You’re a strong woman. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Marry someone who can match you, in heart and soul.”
Isobel sighed. “If you asked me to marry you, right here, right now, I would accept in a heartbeat.” Then she stepped away from him, her lips curled in a coy smile. “But perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I should look for someone who can match me, in everything. Including age.”
Isaac scoffed but smiled. “Farewell, my sweet Isobel.”
“Win the fight, my noble knight.” She bit her lip, only slightly, before she left the room.
Isaac sighed deeply, clenching his jaw tightly before he exhaled. Now was not the time for sentimentality.
He put his armour on, filled a satchel with food and provisions, hung his sword at his hip, and headed out into the night. He saddled his horse, and while the city was sleeping, he left for the woods.
The mist lay like a thick veil over the ground and the pines stood stoically and unyielding in the silent darkness. Only the pale moon lighted the path before him. If the Arlington boy had somehow escaped the Grey Ones, the only way he could run was south.
This time of year, the White Mountains would be treacherous, and he would not risk running towards Westbridge. The vast expanse of the Evergreen Wilds was his only chance, and if the boy was there, hiding in the sea of pine and moss, Isaac would find him.