The Bird and the Beast: XV
He first saw them as they were wading through the black mires. Thousands of black-clad warriors marched through the marshes, growling and spitting at the unforgiving path. Isaac kept to the trees, shadowing the Grey Ones as they moved.
He even got a glimpse of the infamous Crimson King, and the sight was as terrifying as it was awe-striking. He was a titan, clearly distinguished from the other soldiers, and carried an air of authority Isaac had rarely seen before. That was the face of a conqueror—that was the face of a demon.
They travelled long distances each day, and Isaac knew he would have no luck trying to surpass them. Each time he did, they had caught up with him once he had woken up from his rest. When they arrived where the path split, the grey army stopped and made camp.
One road led directly to Riverport—that was where Isaac was going. The other path led over the White Hills, towards Eastshore. If he was lucky, they were heading north again, to claim Sunrise Harbour, but he would not count on it.
They would be foolish if they didn’t take Riverport now. When Westbridge’s army was defeated, Riverport was the only Free City in all of Nornest that had anything to show for regarding their fighting men. They also had a strong relationship with Woodsborough in Illyria, which was only a mere hundred miles from Black Harbour where the Imperial Army’s soldiers trained.
If the Grey Ones decided to take Eastshore before they took aim for Riverport, it would give the city enough time to call for more men—Illyrian trained, no less. Isaac didn’t know much of the Grey Warlord, but he had, at least, gotten the impression that he was no fool.
And he wasn’t. At dawn, he and his soldiers marched south. Isaac grunted in displeasure. He would be an idiot if he tried to cross the river there. The river was wide. Swimming across would be impossible. Going back north, the river would most likely be frozen over—but it was too close to River’s Wakening to brave the ice. Moreover, he would risk entering into the Grey Ones’ claimed territory.
Sighing deeply, he knew that the best option he had was to travel to Ravensgate. There, he could cross by boat. He would have to journey through the Great Woodlands, the Bandit Lands, to get anywhere in Illyria, but as it was, it was his only option. So he spurred his horse on, away from the marshes and the black mires, and along the White Hills.
The road was long, cold, and wet. This far south, the snow had turned to grit and mud. The air was moist and the winds were unkind. Isaac stopped at every inn he could find, if only to warm and dry himself for a few hours, before he continued on his way.
He never thought he would feel relieved once the City of Black and White finally could be spied ahead, but he did indeed feel relief. He had only been to Ravensgate a few times before, and only when he truly needed to. It was a rather unwelcoming city, wary of strangers. These were hardy people—miners, fishers, hunters—and they cared very little for outsiders.
The gatekeepers gave him quite a mean look as he entered, and any joyous laughter or chatter ceased the minute he passed. No, indeed, these people did not care for outsiders.
There was, however, one place that was very welcoming and that accepted sovereigns from anywhere in the world. That was the House of Lady Lovelace, a pleasure house in the heart of Ravensgate. Isaac had been there on only a few occasions, but even if he didn’t buy any of the girls, he knew he would be served some warm ale.
In a dreary city like Ravensgate, a house like this one, filled with laughter, music, and pleasure, was a welcomed sight. Isaac took a seat by a table in the back, and not long after, a woman approached with a most seductive smile.
“Welcome, stranger,” she smiled. “What tickles your fancy this evening?”
“I’m only here for some ale, madam,” said Isaac and smiled apologetically.
“Are you sure?” The woman leaned forwards to gently touch his face, revealing her deep cleavage.
Isaac, however, leaned away from her. “Yes, quite sure. It’s no offence to you, madam. I’ve travelled far, and I’m afraid my heart is in tatters.” He sighed. “I just lost the woman I love.”
The woman frowned and straightened. “I’m sorry to hear it, darling. I’ll be right back with some ale for you.”
He nodded. “Thank you.”
When he watched her leave, he let his gaze wander over the room. Almost all of the visitors were men, and most of them had a girl in their laps and a pint of ale in their hands. A pang of guilt and regret ran through him as he realised that many of these girls were very young, and the men were quite old. It did not feel right, but he knew he was just like the pot calling the kettle black.
He had chased that very ideal, himself, and now, he regretted even more going after his beloved Isobel. He knew he shouldn’t blame himself—her husband was clearly a madman, and he would have killed her sooner or later no matter what. But he should not have pursued her. If it was vanity or delusion, he did not know, but to think that such a young and beautiful girl would be happy with a man like him was nothing but a dream.
She might have felt infatuated, as many women did with Knights of Westbridge, but she would quickly learn that married life with such a man was not as she might have wished. Then again, he thought bitterly, she married someone else and was now dead because of it.
It was ironic, and frightening, to think that the ones tasked with keeping women safe were also the women’s greatest threat. Isobel had been right—all men were pigs. He was no exception.
When the barmaid returned with his ale, she gave him a comforting squeeze on the shoulder and told him that he would get a refill for free, if he wished to, and he did. That night, he was so drunk, he could barely walk.
He ended up trying to convince a young girl to pursue her dreams instead of selling her body to nasty old men, and after a considerable amount of time, the girl finally managed to tell him that she was no whore—she was only a barmaid—and Isaac waddled out of the establishment in shame.
He woke up the morning after in a horse’s stall, with a headache that could split mountains. Being chased out by the stable boy, he walked around the waking city, without meaning or end, until his pain had subdued some. Then he started towards the riverside.
Fishing boats lay docked by the river, and men were hauling in their morning catch onto the shore. Isaac took a deep breath and approached one of the fishermen.
“Excuse me, good sir,” he started, but the fisherman barely looked at him. “How much would I have to pay for safe travels across the river?”
The fisherman only scoffed at him and walked past him.
Isaac followed. “I beg you, sir. I need to cross into Illyria.”
“I don’t go near the other side,” spat the man. “Too many bandits.”
“May I buy a smaller boat, then?”
The fisherman laughed. “You think you’re going to row across the river? You’re clearly not from around here.” He turned and pointed at the misty waters. “That river is thirty miles wide, and the currents are strong. You want to row? Go ahead, but I bet you you’ll end up in the Deep. Can’t cross that river without a proper sail and rudder.”
“Then please,” Isaac said, “take me to the other side. I’ll pay well.”
Raising a brow, the fisherman eyed him. “How much have you got?”
Isaac quickly pulled out his pouch, but there were barely any coppers left in it. He had spent it all on ale. “I have five coppers.”
The fisherman burst out laughing once again and walked away.
Isaac cursed to himself and gazed around for more fishermen, but they all avoided him. Defeated, he returned to the town. Having nowhere else to turn, he headed back to Lady Lovelace’s and sat down for another drink. He thought he might as well be drunk for the rest of his life—or at least until the Grey Warlord came to end it.
The woman from the night before approached him once more. “Here again, love?”
He sighed. “I figured, why not?” Placing the rest of his money on the table, he asked what he could get for it.
“Is that all you’ve got?” she asked, and he nodded. The woman then placed her hands on her hips and looked about. “You know, we could use someone to help us around here. Many nasty and violent customers think they can treat the girls however they like, but you look as though you could take as many hits as you could give. Keep the peace and toss out any troublemaker, and you’ll have food and a bed. How about it?”
Isaac raised his brows and looked at her. He thought about it for a moment, and then he nodded. “Very well.”
“I’m Clara,” said she and reached her hand out. “I’m Lady Lovelace’s right hand. If there’s anything, you come to me.”
“Isaac,” said he and shook her hand.
“Don’t get drunk and keep your hand away from the girls, and we have a deal.”
He nodded. When Clara left, he leaned back, sighed deeply, and surveyed the room. There were fewer customers than the night before, but he figured more would come as the darkness fell—and he was right.
Keeping mostly to his corner, he kept a sharp eye on both the girls and the customers. He could often see whether the man would be good or not once he entered through the door, but many times, he was mistaken. Brutes could be very respectful, and gentlemen were often pigs. Seeing the girls interact with them made him realise that they had known as much all along. The secret wasn’t a revelation to anyone but men themselves.
Two nights into his employment, a young man came rushing into the establishment, causing quite the disarray amongst the customers and the girls. He was wet and dirty, with mud all over his face. He started rambling, screaming, and Isaac promptly grabbed him to toss him out.
“They’re coming!” he wailed. “They’re coming!”
Isaac grabbed the man’s collar and shook him. “Gather yourself, lad! Who’s coming?”
“The demons!” Tears rolled down his face, and Isaac stared at him. “The demons are coming!”
Putting the man down, Isaac grabbed hold of his shoulders. “Are you sure? Have you seen them march?”
“So much blood…” The young man shook his head. “We tried to—we tried to stop them… ‘Man the gates,’ they kept shouting. ‘Man the gates!’” He sobbed uncontrollably. “We manned the gates, but they—”
Clenching his jaw tightly, Isaac led him to a seat. “What’s your name?”
“Will, look at me.” He gently moved the young man’s chin and his frightened eyes stared straight at him. “Where do you come from?”
“Riverport. We tried to—we—”
“Did you fight them?” Isaac asked.
The young man, William, nodded, and the knight sighed.
“Duke Mulligan thought he could defend the city?”
When the boy once again nodded, Isaac called for Clara to bring them some ale and something to eat. He then allowed William to calm down a bit. He had made the journey from Riverport to Ravensgate in just about four days, riding almost two hundred and fifty miles.
“We didn’t think there would be so many of them,” breathed William after he had had a full pint of ale. “But then, they came like shadows. In the mashes, we—they were impossible to see in the marshes, and even more so in the dark! Their eyes, like glowing balls of fire in the darkness…”
“Tell me what happened.”
The boy dried his tears with trembling hands. “Scouts saw them approaching the city from the Fork and alerted us guards. The Duke didn’t even need time to consider—he told us to ready ourselves for a fight. We had two thousand men, we thought that would be enough to hold the city.” He snivelled. “But then came the darkness. I don’t understand it—they moved so silently, and all of a sudden, they were everywhere, and I—” Fresh tears fell down his face as he scowled. “I hid like a coward!”
“How old are you?” Isaac asked.
“Nineteen,” said William.
Isaac scoffed. “I’ve seen men twice your age—seasoned soldiers—run like children from the Grey Ones. Don’t be ashamed, Will.”
Seemingly a bit calmer, the boy nodded. “I—I hid behind a hay wagon. The screams, the cries, the smell… it was like a nightmare, a nightmare that didn’t end when I opened my eyes! When everything silenced, it was nearly dawn. It—it had been quiet as the grave for some time when I dared to come out of hiding.” He shook his head. “My brothers—they were all dead. So much blood… I—”
As he started to tremble again, Isaac shook him. “Stay with me, William! Did you see them? Were they still in the city?”
“I don’t know,” he breathed. “I think so. But they have taken Westbridge and Kingshaven and—” He swallowed. “I just thought—I just grabbed the nearest horse and fled.” He frowned as he started crying again. “I didn’t even make sure my family was alive.”
Isaac clenched his jaw and patted the boy on the shoulder. “War is ugly.” With a deep sigh, he rose to find Clara.
“How’s the lad doing?” she asked when he found her. “Nasty business.”
“He’ll be fine,” Isaac muttered. “I need to speak with Duke Payne.”
Clara gawked at him before she burst out laughing. “You? Speak with the Duke? Good luck.”
Isaac grunted and straightened. He didn’t want to use his name; he wasn’t that person anymore. He had moved past life in court, and he was sick of fame. It had brought him nothing but misery. Yet, it held the power he needed.
Furrowing his brows tightly, reluctant to say what he had to say, he declared, “I am Sir Isaac Callahan of Blackmoor, Dukesguard of Westbridge, a member of the Knighted Brethren, and I demand to speak with Duke Payne.”
Clara’s eyes widened. Clearly, having a member of the Knighted Brethren as her employee was the last thing she imagined, and she quickly curtsied. “A Knight of Westbridge! I-I’m so sorry, I didn’t know!”
He shook his head. “It’s all right, Clara, but I do need to speak with the Duke, and I have a feeling you know who I should turn to.”
The woman set her jaw tight and nodded solemnly. “Aye, I do.”