The Bird and the Beast: XII
When the rumour reached Isaac that Sebastian Arlington had already been brought to Illyria, he knew it was true. Once he had crossed the White Mountains and made his way to Eastshore, the boy was long gone. When the message spread that the Arlington girl also was wanted, his fingers itched, but he simply shrugged.
He was tired of travel. His body was weary from the strenuous journey and his will was almost down to nothing. He had spent the past few moons in Eastshore, drinking and sullying, until he could take it no more. He couldn’t stand who he had become, a mere shell of his former self.
He was once Sir Isaac Callahan of Blackmoor, the Duke of Westbridge’s personal guard, melee champion of the Norn, a man of honour. Now, he had been led on a wild goose chase hundreds of leagues all over Nornest, and somewhere along the way, he lost himself.
The one thought that kept his spirit up was the thought of the beautiful Isobel. When all was lost, she still remained in his heart together with the dream of their future. Perhaps, he thought, it wasn’t too late.
So he made the journey across the mountains yet again, ready to ask for the woman’s hand. He did not suppose she would accept him easily—he was many years older, and she was still a young woman—but at least, he could try. She did say that she would have married him in a heartbeat if he had asked her last they spoke.
When he started the incline of the White Mountains, he had hope in his heart. Once he reached the summit, however, and was met by the horrifying news of the fall of Westbridge and the marching army, his heart had filled with dread.
He thought about leaving immediately, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to navigate the Pass in the darkness—he would be of use to no one if he fell down the mountainside as he blindly stumbled onwards.
At first light, he began his journey down the western side of the mountains. It was the most dangerous stretch of the journey, one he had not enjoyed travelling the first time and he did not enjoy it a second time. The steep decline was rough on his horse and it struggled on the frozen rocks. He met hundreds of people going up the mountain—and he was amongst the few going down.
A few hours past nightfall, he reached the Mountain Keeper. The old, ragged man recognised him and asked if he had met his misfortunes in the east, given how haggard he appeared.
Isaac grunted and said he only wanted to stop for a little while, to let his horse get a few hours of rest before he wanted to continue on his journey.
“You can’t do that, Sir Knight,” said the Mountain Keeper. “Folks are coming up the mountain. You need to wait for them.”
So Isaac waited. It was in the middle of the night when the guide brought the weary travellers, families and old ones—hundreds of them—and Isaac kept a watchful eye for Isobel. Amongst all the copper heads, none belonged to her, so he readied his horse to enter into the narrow path as soon as the last person had entered the cavern.
Ignoring the words of warning he received from the Mountain Keeper and the guide, Isaac carefully made his way downwards. The passage was perilous—slim, dark, and long; the bends were sharp and the many hundreds of feet that had wandered the pathway during the day had thawed the snow on the ground—but the night had frozen the moisture, and all that remained was ice as black as the night.
For most parts, he had to lead his horse down the mountainside, but the climb down was exhausting, both for man and for beast. At dawn, he had stumbled and slipped more times than he could count and almost smashed himself to death, and yet, he had barely made it halfway.
With the warmth of the sun breaking in through the small crack hundreds of feet above, Isaac felt wide awake and the last stretch was easier to travel, despite his bruises. Once he reached the foot of the mountains, he took a quick rest before he sat back up on his horse and galloped away over the snow-covered highlands.
The day was freezing cold despite the beaming sun and the frost gnawed its way through Isaac’s sealskin boots. Still, he pressed on. As he crowned the highest hill, he saw the smoke hanging like a haze over the valley and cried out in horror and surprise. The demons were already there. Terrified, he urged his horse on, down the hill and through the ashes.
Carefully, he walked through the rubble. The burnt houses were mere piles of coal and ash, falling to pieces by the gentlest of gusts. In some houses, he even saw the remains of the ones that used to live in them.
A feeling he had never felt before spread in his belly as he gazed around at the destruction. What he had witnessed at the Night of the Demons was horrible, indeed—but those were soldiers. They had entered the fray with the knowledge that they might not make it out alive. These people were civilians, farmers. They did not deserve to meet such frightening ends.
Suddenly, he heard the marching footsteps of soldiers and he quickly hid behind the still standing chimney of an otherwise destroyed house. Keeping his horse at bay, he peeked out behind the corner.
Two large Grey Ones strode past, speaking lowly to each other in a strange language. Isaac gulped. After hearing so much about the Demons of the North, this was the first time he truly laid eyes on them—and the size of the two beasts was impressive. At that moment, he could truly imagine the fear those soldiers must have felt alone in the dark.
When the grey warriors had rounded a corner further down the street, Isaac climbed off his horse and snuck into the city.
There were hardly any people there at all. Some scuffed around in the rubble, collecting bones with heartbreaking snivels, while more of the grey beasts patrolled the perimeters. Isaac kept his head down low as he made his way towards The Green Leaf, or whatever was left of it, praying to the Builder he wouldn’t find the burnt remains of a woman there.
He held his breath as he crept closer. Making sure no Grey Ones patrolled around the tavern, he stepped out from behind a corner and stilled at once. There, on the blackened charcoal heap, sat Isobel—alive. She was sobbing quietly with her head bowed down over a blackened figure.
Isaac swallowed, took a step forwards, and softly called her name.
The girl gazed up, her blue eyes reddened by the tears. When she saw his face, she almost fell apart. “Oh, Isaac!”
With only a few strides, he climbed the rubble and fell to his knees to wrap his arms around her. She gripped hold of the pelt around his shoulders and cried into him, and he hushed her gently and slowly caressed her back. The feel of her was almost overwhelming as she trembled in his embrace.
“Where were you?” she forced out between the sobs. “Where have you been?”
He pulled away and looked at her. How could he explain how terrified he had been of returning? “I’ve—I’ve been roaming around, chasing nothing but a fantasy. I should have stayed with you, Isobel. I should never have left.”
She shook her head, anger now flashing in her face. “No, you shouldn’t have.”
She huffed and dried her tears. “Well, welcome back, I suppose.”
“What happened?” Isaac muttered.
She exhaled a ragged breath. “We were warned a few days ago, but you know us. Stubborn people.” She chuckled, but quickly sobbed again. “They came by the thousands, we had no chance. We yielded, that’s why we’re alive, but—” She sighed deeply. “The Duke refused to give up, so the grey giants burnt the city and all who refused them with it. Father—” She burst out in inconsolable sobs and leaned her head against Isaac.
He sighed and gently placed his cheek on her head. “You’ve been brave, my dear. He knows it, wherever he is.”
“You are an old fool, Isaac Callahan,” she sobbed and looked at him. “But by the Builder, have I missed you!”
Isaac smiled. Without thinking, he leaned in and placed his lips upon hers. The girl chuckled and sobbed at the same time, and she answered him. Praising the skies as he held his lover in his arms, he was unprepared for being crudely pulled away by a surprising force.
Drawing his sword as he stumbled to his feet, he expected to face one of the grey beasts, but instead, he stood face to face with a human man with a face as pale as his own.
“What the fuck are you doing with my wife?” the man bellowed, his eyes reddened by rage.
Isaac stood speechless. He gawked at the man and then at Isobel. “Wife?”
The girl slumped her shoulders. “I—I’m sorry, Isaac.”
The knight stumbled backwards. “What is this?”
“What is—what are you going on about, twat?” roared the man—the husband. Then he pointed his finger at Isobel. “If I’d known I’d married the town whore, I would never—”
“One more word and you’ll lose that hand,” warned Isaac, his voice breaking.
“Stay out of it, you wife-fucker!” growled the man. “I’ll deal with you later.”
“Robert—” Isobel began as she stood, but her husband slapped her straight across the face so hard that she fell to the ground.
“Keep your mouth shut, whore!” he bellowed at the woman on the ground, spit flying from his mouth as he did.
Blinded by rage, Isaac raised his sword and lunged forwards. The man, Robert, welcomed him with open arms, but the knight wasn’t ready for the big iron fist that swept in quite swiftly and knocked him down.
The sword slipped from his hand as he fell down a ledge and landed on a pile of jagged stones, knocking the air out of his lungs. He could do nothing as the man jumped him and flung his fists at his face. He pulled his arms over his head, to at least try to protect himself as the slighted man kept swinging his fists at him.
“Keep—your—dirty—hands—off—my—wife!” he roared between the hits.
Isaac tried to steel himself, but it was difficult to find his bearings when the man was straddling his chest, weighing him down onto the sharp stones. Between his forearms, he could spy the man picking up a large rock and lifting it above his head.
Isaac had just enough time to think that this was going to be his last breath before Robert swung the stone—but the impact never came.
At that moment, a cry from above was heard as the man was knocked off of Isaac’s chest. When he glanced about, he saw Isobel sprawling next to her husband on the ground in the mudded snow.
She tried to climb him, to grab at his throat and strangle him, but her strength was no match for the furious man. He flung her underneath himself and wrapped his hands around her slender neck.
Isaac tried to rise, tried to move, but his foot had become stuck underneath the rubble. He tore at his leg, screamed, wailed, as the man in front of him squeezed the life out of his wife.
The last thing Isobel did was to reach her hand out towards Isaac, beckoning him to grab it, and then her blue eyes dulled and faded. The last sliver of air escaped her lungs and turned to mist in the cold, and everything was still.
Isaac cried out, pulling his leg as hard as he could, but he was stuck in place. He sobbed loudly, howled in pain, and then the murderer rose to his feet. His breath was heavy, strained, as he turned to Isaac. A grin of a madman covered his face before he took a step back towards the knight. There was Death in his eyes.
A whistle tickled the air before Robert’s chest suddenly burst open from a massive spear that impaled him from behind. The man fell forwards and landed on the ground with a thud and a dying grunt. The spear had hit his heart, perfectly aligned.
Isaac stared bewildered into the distance. There, rising from the ashes, sprinted two Grey Ones towards the scene.
They stopped just as they saw Isobel’s body on the ground. One of them quickly kneeled by her side and put his pointed ear against her mouth. Two large fingers were placed on her throat, and Isaac wanted to yell at them to keep their hands away from her, but he could not. His cries were too unrelenting.
Finally, the Grey One gently closed the eyelids over her dead, blue eyes, and sighed deeply. “What happened here?”
Isaac only cried and kept trying to pry his foot away from whatever kept him prison. The other Grey One was quickly at his side and without much effort, he lifted the burnt log Isaac’s foot had slid underneath and the knight was free.
He crawled in the ash and mud to her body and placed his head upon her chest. She still smelled like her—still smelled like home. He shouldn’t have come. He shouldn’t have thought that he could come and sweep her off her feet. He should have stayed once he had the chance. Now, it was too late. She was dead, and it was all his fault.
“What happened here?”
The Grey One’s frightening growl made Isaac’s sobs go back down his throat as he sat up on his knees. Shaking his head, he breathed, “He killed her.”
“We saw that,” muttered the beast, “but why did he kill her?”
“Because I kissed her.”
The two beast-men looked at one another in confusion before the one said, “And the lady had consented to these advances?”
Isaac shot his eyes at the Grey One, ignoring that the hairs stood at the back of his neck at the sight of the yellow, predatory eyes. “Of course, she had!”
“And the man attacked her in a fit of rage?” The questions were rigid, as if the beast felt no emotions. “Jealousy?”
Snivelling, Isaac dropped his head and nodded. The two grey giants muttered to each other in their language, and the tone of their voices made him look up. They were kicking unceremoniously at the speared body on the ground, grunting in clear disdain. One of them braced a heavy foot on the back before he pulled the spear from the body with one great tug.
“Had the Vasaath still been here,” said the Grey One, “his fate would have been much worse.” Turning to Isobel, however, he seemed respectful and gentle as he scooped her up in his arms.
So frail she looked, Isaac thought, so small. In the beast’s gentle embrace, she looked like a goddess sleeping in the arms of a giant.
The warrior looked at the knight. “What is your name?”
Isaac sighed heavily. “Isaac.”
“How do you handle your dead, Isaac?” asked he. “Do you burn them?”
Isaac shook his head. “No… no, we bury them.”
“Well then,” said the warrior. “Bury your dead. Then return to the fortress with the others.”
Isaac nodded without even thinking about it. Rising to his feet, he put gentle weight on his injured leg. It wasn’t too hurt, but it wasn’t unscathed. The Grey One carefully laid Isobel’s body in Isaac’s arms and then they left, leaving Robert’s body face-down in the dirt.
He found a nice spot atop a hill that overlooked the valley. Even the lake could be seen in the distance—this would be a good resting place. He wrapped her body in her fur cloak and left her on the hill to go look for a shovel. When he returned, the setting sun shone warmly in her cold face, setting fire to her copper hair, and Isaac fell to his knees and cried.
Long after he had buried her, when the moon tossed its ghostly light over the white highlands, he sat next to the mound he had created for her. Perhaps, he thought, having her resting place so close to the Telling Tree, to the Wild Gods, there might be a greater chance someone might accept her and protect her soul in the great beyond.
When the cold became too much, he had to part from his beloved. With one last look at the grave, he muttered, “I’ll meet you again soon enough, my love.”
Nothing held him in Nornest any longer. On his way back to his horse, he wondered whether he should just go back over the mountains and board the next ship to Varsaii, or perhaps Aranthe and the Eastern Lands. Then again, he never really liked being abroad. Perhaps Illyria would suffice.
He sat up on his horse and urged it on with new determination. He would go as far south as these cursed lands would allow him, away from the Grey Ones and away from Nornest.
Spurring the horse on even faster, he rushed past some patrolling beasts. They called after him, but he did not care. They could try to catch him all they wanted—he knew the way, he knew the land, and they did not. He would take a ferry in Riverport, land in Illyria, and he would never look back.