The Bird and the Beast: XVI
For many days, the road led them alongside the sea. Travelling by carriage was indeed much more comfortable than travelling by horse, and Duke Mortimer hand made sure that Juniper, the coachman, and the two soldiers had enough food to last them the entire journey.
Alone in the carriage, Juniper had time to think—and she went through almost every emotion there was.
In some ways, she was furious at the Vasaath and his poor patience. When she first learnt to know him, she was amazed by how patient he was. His addresses had always been respectful, and he had waited for her without question. Why, she wondered, was politics different? Why did he have such little patience in that?
It wasn’t only fury, however, that kept her mind set on the Vasaath—longing and heartache were ever greater feelings. She missed him, no matter how infuriating he could be. She missed his touch, his voice, his warmth—but would it ever be the same?
As Isobel so bluntly put it, she was a traitor. No one liked a traitor, and no one judged them kindly. She wondered if—or rather, she feared that—the Vasaath’s love for her could never be enough to save her. If she valued her life, she would have to keep running, and that made her weep more than anything.
After a few days’ of travel, they stopped at an inn to change horses and to have a night’s sleep in real beds. Juniper was ever so grateful—sleeping in the carriage wasn’t particularly comfortable, but she knew that her three travelling companions had it worse. Much worse.
At dawn, after rest and some well-deserved ale and hot stew, they were on their way once again. The weather was favourable and it was evident that the light was returning. Only one moon turn remained until the Equinox, and that was the true mark of River’s Wakening. Winter had nearly reached its end, granting the promise of hope and rebirth—but only the Builder knew what would become of Nornest come spring.
On the sixth day, they reached the foot of the mountains once more. For days, they travelled in their shadow, until the City of Black and White finally appeared before them. It was situated at the very end of the mountain range, at the southernmost point of Nornest.
The land was divided by the Dawning River and the mountains far away on the other side were black as coal. That was where the city had earned its moniker, and the large mountains crowning each side of the mouth of the wide river were cleverly called the Gate of Black and White. Coal met snow, Illyria met Nornest.
It was yet another city Juniper had never visited, but she had heard a great deal about it. Perhaps it was their harsh manners or their rivalry with Riverport, but Duke Payne had a reputation of being cruel. Juniper knew she would have to tread lightly.
It was a rather bleak city they entered into. The snow wasn’t as white and rich as further north, and the city itself was quite dark and dank. It smelled of soil and mud, and no one seemed very impressed by the Eastshorian royal carriage that rolled through the streets.
Ravensgate was often a forgotten city, Juniper knew. While most cities had trade and connections, Ravensgate did not, despite being strategically placed barely four hundred miles from Valaris.
Once, they decided to build a drawbridge for themselves, connecting all the small isles that were scattered across the river, but that only brought on the infamous Bandit Seige of Ravensgate.
Riverport had to come to their aid, something that sparked the poisonous rivalry between the two cities—while Riverport had a safe and well-established river connection with Woodsborough on the other side of the Dawning River, Ravensgate’s opposite just happened to be on the wrong side of the Wilder Hills. The tales of the city were indeed many, and the praises were few.
The Guards of the Dawn did seem to at least inspire respect as they were let through every gate there was. In the end, the carriage came to a stop inside the bailey of the grand Castle Payne. For a city this size, with barely half as many inhabitants as Noxborough, the castle seemed unnecessarily huge, spanning wide like a fort without towers or pinnacles. It was a palace as dark as the shadows the city basked in. Now, she understood the reason why Ravensgatian bastards were called Black.
Her escorts let her out safely while they were being watched by several of the Dukesguards.
Juniper turned to one of her guards. “Does the Duke know I am coming?”
“No, milady,” said he, “but he knows there’s an important guest from Eastshore.”
They were let inside the dreary castle without further question, and servants showed them to the throne room. Duke Payne sat on a carved stone chair, dressed elegantly in wolf pelts and black satin. He was quite elderly, with silver hair and heavy eyelids, but his smile was surprisingly enough kind and welcoming.
“A delegate of Eastshore!” he greeted. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Juniper curtsied deeply. “Your Grace, I am Lady Juniper Arlington. I come with urgent news, if you would listen.”
The man seemed rather shocked. “My lady, I—” Huffing he looked about. “I am baffled! I’ve heard so many horrible tales from your home! Many of us feared you had lost your life! But here you are, alive and well!”
“Yes, Your Grace,” nodded she.
The Duke then furrowed his brows in a serious scowl. “The grey beasts are after you, and your father’s crimes have yet to be atoned for. Travelling is not safe for a woman like yourself.”
“I thank you for your worries, Your Grace,” said Juniper, “but I had no choice. I failed to protect the people of Noxborough, but the Builder gave me a chance to at least try to save the others.”
“It’s an amiable ambition, my lady,” said the Duke. “Know that you are safe within my halls. Neither Architects nor Grey Ones shall hurt you here. Noxborough remains.”
Juniper stared at the man in awe.
“Of course,” said he, “the Blood of the First is no longer in Fairgarden, but I think the gist of it still applies. Come now, rest for a moment and spare your news until supper.”
She nodded. “Thank you, Your Grace.”
Juniper bid farewell to the Guards of the Dawn as they left the castle and she was brought to a sitting room by the servants. There, she could sit down in front of a warming fire and rest for a while.
At supper, she yet again found herself enjoying a delicious meal inside a Duke’s home. The Duke’s daughters, Lady Lillian, Lady Angelica, Lady Patricia, and Lady Mary, were all delightful people. They were well-behaved, proper, and graceful. But there was a fifth woman by the table, as well.
At first, Juniper had thought her to be his youngest daughter, but she had quickly learnt that she was, in fact, his wife. Duchess Annalise was a rather young woman, possibly even younger than Juniper, and considerably younger than his daughters. Her belly was swollen and round, and it made Juniper feel quite uncomfortable.
“I hope this one will turn my luck around,” laughed the Duke and rubbed his hand over his wife’s belly. “But as long as there is virility in me, I’m sure I’ll be able to sire a son sooner or later!”
Juniper smiled briefly, not wanting to insult the man. The girl seemed shy, uncomfortable, and when the Duke mentioned the hope of an heir, Juniper could see the look of disdain in the faces of his daughters.
The oldest, Lady Lillian, was almost twice the age of her father’s new wife, and the more Juniper observed the daughters, the less resemblance she saw in them. It made her wonder—how many wives had he had?
“I hear you are unwed,” said the Duke and directed his gaze at Juniper.
She almost choked on her drink. “Yes, Your Grace. I—my betrothed—” She swallowed. Her betrothed was at that very moment tearing through Nornest like a fiendish plague. “My betrothed sadly lost his life at the Night of the Demons. I was bound to marry Lord Christopher Cornwall, you see.”
The Duke scoffed and looked at his daughter, Patricia. “See, my dear? There sits a beauty worthy of a Lord. Stop aiming so high—you should be happy a wealthy merchant would want you.”
Shrivers crept up Juniper’s spine. It was almost as though she heard her own father’s voice.
“So,” said the Duke finally, “what is your urgent news, Lady Juniper?”
She swallowed and gazed around the table before she took a deep breath. “The Crimson King has an army of thirty thousand men, and more if he needs it, and he is planning on conquering all of Nornest before River’s Wakening.”
The girls gasped, and Lady Lillian burst out, “But that’s not even a month away!”
The Duke, however, did not seem very surprised. Instead, he only nodded. “Yes, I’ve feared that same thing. Ever since we received the news that Westbridge had been taken, I knew.”
“Please, I implore you,” Juniper said, “do not fight them. If you don’t wish to abide by their rules, then run. There is no victory to be found here. Rebellion will only cause death, and not on their end. They are the judges and the executioners.”
The Duke furrowed his brows tightly. “We’ve heard of their prowess. The Night of the Demons is proof enough. The Westbridge Army was the greatest force in Nornest, and they all ran with their tails between their legs. I can hardly imagine what horrors that caused such terror.” Nodding, he said, “We will heed your warning, my lady.”
She sighed in relief. “Thank you, Your Grace! You cannot know how it calms my heart!”
“Where will you go?” asked Lady Lillian.
“I have yet to warn Riverport, but I know not where the Crimson King has moved his troops. Last I heard of him, he was on his way to Kingshaven, but that was more than a fortnight ago.”
“Kingshaven has no defences except for the Red Fortress,” said Duke Payne. “If he was on his way a fortnight ago, chances are he’s already taken it. He wouldn’t risk Builder’s Pass, not with an army that size, so Riverport would be his next target, naturally.”
Juniper nodded and sighed. “Yes, Duke Mortimer thought so, as well. Noxborough, Westbridge, Kingshaven, and now Riverport. At least, I could warn Your Grace and the Duke of Eastshore.”
Duke Payne nodded. “You have been brave, my lady. More so than many soldiers I’ve met.”
She smiled. “Thank you. I will make my way to Illyria as soon as possible, to find my brother. I’m not certain the Crimson King is planning an attack on Illyria, but the Golden Emperor should, of course, know that his new neighbour is a military force seldom seen in our small part of the world.”
“Of course,” said Duke Payne. “But you won’t leave tonight, I take it? The Wilder Hills and the Great Woodlands are infested with bandits. A beautiful girl like yourself would be quite wanted, an easy prey for degenerates. Wait until tomorrow, and I will order an escort.”
“I would be very grateful,” said Juniper. “Perhaps I could travel upriver for a few miles, land in Woodsborough?”
“Yes, that could be arranged,” said the Duke and smiled.
The evening went by rather slowly—the tension between the daughters and the wife was rather tangible, and Juniper couldn’t help but feel for the young girl who had had to marry such an old man.
The Duke himself was polite, but there was something in his manner she did not quite like. Perhaps it was the way he looked at his young bride, or perhaps it was the way he so cruelly spoke down to his daughters whenever they tried to keep intelligent conversation. He was perfectly polite and gentlemanlike towards Juniper, but she had met enough men just like him to know what kind of person he was.
It was therefore rather uncomfortable to have him show her the way to her room. With nothing but a candle to light the way, he urged her to stay close to him as he took her deep into Castle Payne. Juniper, however, remained as far from him as she possibly could without getting lost in the dark.
Just as they rounded a corner, a man approached them in the rather narrow hallway. Stepping aside, he bowed to the Duke. “Your Grace.”
The voice was eerily familiar, but Juniper could not place it.
“Ah! Sir Callahan!” said the Duke, and Juniper was so shocked, she stumbled in the dark.
The knight quickly caught her with strong arms and took a secure grip around her shoulders.
“My lady,” said he, “are you unwell?” As she gazed up at him, he, too, was taken aback. “Lady Arlington?”
“Oh, yes!” chuckled the Duke. “I forgot that you were in Noxborough just last summer, Callahan. Of course, you two would have met.” He chuckled again. “It’s the most amusing thing, my lady—the Knight of the Black Moors, such a rarity of a man, came to my home, not many days ago now, smelling like a sewer rat and looking like a pauper! Ha! He had been hunting your brother for the Vault, all this time. Remarkable resolve!”
The knight’s dark eyes were not amused as he glared at the Duke.
“He did let Duke Cornwall die, of course,” continued Duke Payne, “but his accomplishments as a knight is renowned. I would be a fool not to employ him, don’t you think, my lady?”
Juniper could barely utter a word. She was frozen in place as the knight still held his arms over her shoulder to support her.
“My lord,” muttered the knight. “Have you informed the Lady about—”
“Now, now, Callahan,” spat the Duke. “None of that now. Let the poor girl rest!” He then smiled at Juniper. “Well, my lady, you look like you have seen a ghost. Callahan, help me take Lady Arlington to her room.”
A gentle but tense hand guided her forwards and her legs moved without her telling them to. Her heart thudded so loudly in her ears, she barely heard anything else. The knight’s hand burned her, like the Builder’s judgement, and not until they had reached the room and he had released her, did it subdue.
Sir Callahan’s dark eyes gazed at her from furrowed brows, and he bowed deeply without taking his eyes off her. “Good night, my lady.” Turning to the Duke, he bowed again. “Your Grace.” With that, he turned on the spot and disappeared down the hall.
Juniper felt quite faint, and the feeling of discomfort grew even more. It worsened when the Duke himself did not leave her to herself.
He stood by the opening and smiled sheepishly. “I’m very sorry there is no window in here, but it’s more comfortable during winter without one.”
Juniper nodded. “Thank you, Your Grace. If you don’t mind, I’m quite tired. It’s been a long journey.”
“Of course,” said the Duke and nodded, but he did not leave. He furrowed his brows and grunted. “I must have you know that I do appreciate you coming here to warn us. The other cities rarely care for us here in our remote corner of the land. You’ve put yourself in harm’s way to get here, and that shan’t be forgotten. You’ve also made me realise that the Crimson King is a far more dangerous adversary than all the bandits in Illyria, one we can’t possibly beat. So I’ve decided to join him.”
Juniper gawked at the man. “I don’t understand—are you going to submit?”
“I will,” said the Duke. “Once he comes, I will yield and surrender the city.”
“Your Grace, I admire your courage, but you must know that he will never let you live.”
“He might,” said the Duke, “if I give him something of great value.”
Juniper shook her head. “You don’t understand. The Crimson King cannot be bribed. He cannot be bought.”
“I’m not talking about gold and riches,” said he and gazed at her with intent.
Juniper felt her heart race even faster and she clutched at her chest. “No—no! You said I was safe here!”
“You are, my lady,” said he. “You will be kept here, kept safe, until the King comes for you. He has claimed Riverport already, we received word of it only a few days ago. I knew then that we were doomed, but your timely arrival was like a gift from the Builder. If he offers fifty thousand sovereigns for you, you must be of great value to him.”
She felt sudden rage and fear shoot through her fingers like lightning and she quickly pulled her dagger. “Let me go, right this instant, or I’ll cut your throat! I’ve done it before, to a Stone Wolf, and I’ll do it again.”
But the Duke only smiled. “I can see why he wants you back. Such ferocity…” Eyeing her slowly, his gaze narrowed. “I wouldn’t let someone like you go, either. A man wants a pretty, obedient wife, and a seductive, savage whore.”
With a growl, Juniper lunged herself forwards, her dagger brandished high, but it was too late. The Duke had already closed the door, and she heard the lock settle.
“No!” she screamed and banged on the door. “Let me out! He will have my head! Let me out!”
“My apologies, my lady, but rather your head than mine,” said the Duke through the door. “The King will be grateful for my generous gift, and you will be my settlement for a pardon. What he does to you afterwards is not my concern.”
Laughing shrilly, desperately, she wailed, “He will have your head just for putting me through such distress! When he finds out you’ve kept me your prisoner, he’ll rip your limbs off one by one, and you’ll die slowly!”
“We shall see.”
“You coward!” she screamed as sobs started rising in her throat. “May you burn in the belly of Baeltic!” She took aim and spat on the door and threw the dagger onto the floor before falling to the bed in desperate cries.