Innogen paused in the hall, her grip tight upon her sceptre. What ragged creature was this? A wretched excuse for a man, she thought, as he stumbled, falling into the wall in front of her and crumpling. A guardsman appeared, blood dripping from a crooked nose, and levelled a spear at the wretch before he noticed the queen. He bowed his head, clamped a fist to his chest.
“Your grace,” he muttered. Serenity Aurelian stepped up beside the guard, saw the queen, and curtsied deeply. It was a thing that often amused the queen. To see her people going about their business, drop everything to bow and greet her. They would hold their positions of obeisance until she spoke or moved away. Like statues. What power she had. But it brought her no joy today.
The Captain of her guard appeared next, with another of his men. She caught the look on his face before he smoothed it over. He was full to brimming with rage. She hadn’t often seen him so wrathful. But she supposed the bloody cheek he sported had something to do with it, and something to do with the wretch at her feet. She felt the corner of her lips turn up in amusement. Two bloody nosed guardsmen and her captain bloody cheeked. She looked to the creature at her feet. He shuddered with every breath. Why? Because he was injured. Because he had been beaten. Which meant he was a prisoner. His head was covered in a mess of long dark hair, his clothes were dark, ripped, stained. He stank like a three day old battlefield. She remained impassive, though her nose wanted to curl. One of her ladies-in-waiting fainted behind her with a sound like a sack of potatoes hitting the floor. She did not take her eyes from the scene to see who it was or how the other ladies reacted.
“Captain,” she said. Iridian lifted his face to her.
“I beg your Grace’s pardon,” he said.
“As you should,” she said. “It is not every Captain of Our Guard that uses Our halls to exercise prisoners.” Blood burned in his face and rage smouldered in his eyes. It was like poking a rabid dog with a stick, so easy, so dangerous. But she did not fear her own Captain. Just as she did not fear the wretch at her feet. She was curious though, something stirred within her, something about the prisoner, though she could hardly see a man through the matted hair and filthy clothes. Iridian was as much a master of his emotion as she could be, but his rage showed clearly upon his face. Who was this man, to enrage her Captain so that he could not control himself?
“Who is he, Captain?” she asked. “Some poppets brother, out to avenge her soiling?”
“Your Grace-,” Iridian said through clenched teeth. He held them so tightly she thought they might crack, but she would not let him speak.
“Stand up, wretch,” she commanded, settling the point of the sceptre under the man’s chin.
“What do you suppose the power of the sceptre is?” she asked. They sat atop a grassy hill, the castle and the city far off to the right, the cliff edge and the ocean behind them. Dreamer’s moon watched over them, lighting up the landscape, and the horse they had hobbled at the foot of the hill.
“How does the rhyme go?” he asked. “ ‘Blood calls blood, Held in sway.’ Sounds like blood magic to me.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “It can’t be blood magic.”
“Why not?” he asked. “It was around long before the Edict.”
“Magic comes from a soul,” she said. “A sceptre can’t have a soul. It’s not alive.”
“Maybe it is,” he said, leaning back on his elbows. He kept seeing shadows in the trees at the bottom of the hill. He was tired, from dodging guards, hiding in shadows, fearing that the beating of his heart would give them away. His body was heavy with weariness, but every time she turned those bright eyes upon him it was like lightning coursing through his veins.
She looked to him now. “It’s more than just a sceptre,” she whispered. “It’s a weapon too.”
He thought about the hawk-head sceptre that he had seen in the king’s hand. It had appeared to be delicate enough, a simple length of wood, carved and gilded and studded with gems, topped with a golden hawk’s head, ruby eyed, with a hooked beak.
“Perhaps the beak is sharp,” he said. “I suppose it could be used as a mace, but if the head is gold then it is too soft to be used more than once.”
“The beak is sharp,” she said. “It’s bit me when I tried to touch it. But the head is only gilded. It is a heavy thing, maybe iron. I had a hard time lifting it.”
“Then it is a mace,” he said.
“It’s more than that,” she said, her voice filled with wonder. “Father found me looking at it. He showed me it’s secret blade. A simple twist in the middle. The top comes off to be wielded as a mace, the bottom is a short blade. Two weapons in one.”
“A secret no more,” he said with a light grin. Her eyes widened for a moment before she threw her fist down upon his solar plexus. He gasped at the sudden sharp pain, wondered if she hadn’t just stabbed him.
“They teach me to protect myself,” she said. “They teach me the tender places.”
He reached down with both hands to cover his groin, still gasping for air. She laughed and waited for him to recover. Finally his breathing returned to normal. He remained on his back, the long grass whispering back and forth in the breeze. The moon had moved over them, was on its way to its resting place in the ocean.
“We should return,” he said, wondering how much darkness would be left to hide them.
“There is a power in it, though,” she said, so softly he almost didn’t hear. “I could feel it, like it was a part of me that has been missing.” She glanced at him. “Perhaps it does have a soul.” She leaned down toward him. “Perhaps it is blood magic.” Her eyes searched his face, he tried to remain impassive. She plucked at the fabric of his tunic, flicked his chin with a finger, drew herself closer until he could feel her breath on his face, the warmth of her body beside his.
“Could you love a blood magician?” she breathed.
“Do I have a choice?”
“Your Grace,” Varkas said into the sudden, heavy silence. “If I may perform my duties?”
All eyes turned to the healer. The Queen’s gaggle of Ladies came suddenly to life like a flock of geese; all ruffling and preening their feathers, looking about with eagerness in their eyes. The one who had fainted, Varkas had a hard time distinguishing one from another of them, was thin and pale in all aspects. But Varkas felt no dire need from her. It was the prisoner she wished to heal. Her own wrist ached with the break, and she rubbed at it without thinking. Her entire body was a dull ache.
“Varkas,” the Queen hissed in frustration. She swept the sceptre away from the man and motioned the healer forward.
“What game is this, captain?” the queen asked. “Who is this prisoner, to bloody you and your men? How is it that he is running around in my halls?”
“Escapee,” the flock twittered behind her. She turned to gaze upon them with the intensity of her frustration. She could feel it hot in her face and was somewhat glad of the veil to hide her colour. But if these women could not keep themselves civilized they would feel the wrath of the Hawk. They felt her gaze and the lot of them stopped their titters and lowered their eyes. There was a bare shuffling of feet and the quiet hum as Varkas set to work on the prisoner.
“Well, Captain?” she asked.
“Your Grace,” Iridian began. “He is of no great consequence. His exit from the dungeon was pure luck. I will not let him sully your halls again.” He lifted his head and took his chances looking into her eyes. “I will see to him personally.”
“I did not give permission,” the queen hissed and he dropped his eyes and begged pardon.
“You will see to him personally,” the queen repeated. She turned her gaze back upon the man. Something tugged at her heart, something about the prisoner. It was not uncommon for Iridian to desire to torture or kill prisoners, she knew his lust for blood and pain, but something about this one....the tone of his voice when he spoke, as if the man were his alone, his right.
“Varkas,” the queen snapped. “What are you doing?”
The healer had finished her work and was whispering to the prisoner.
“Your grace,” Varkas said, calmly rising. “Many still fear to be healed, they fear the magic. I was merely letting him know that he will be weak for a little while. He must be fed, your grace, in order for the healing to work.”
“He must be fed if our Captain wishes to keep him as his personal punching bag for very much longer, you mean,” the queen said, with a slight glance toward the captain.
“Yes, your grace,” Varkas said with a curtsy.
“Varkas,” the queen’s suspicions had not been quelled. “Look at me.”
Varkas turned her grey eyes up to meet those of her queen. Her queen, whose pain still burned so greatly as to blind the healer from the minor pains of the bloody nosed guardsmen. Her queen who could look into her eyes and see into the deep places where Varkas tried to hide her lies.
The frustration turned to fury when the queen found lies in her healer’s eyes. Her Captain was hiding something from her, and now her healer was as well. And it all revolved around this stinking, hunched, hairy creature cowering at her feet. The rage swelled in her breast, she wanted to beat the two of them with the heavy headed sceptre, but she took a breath and calmed herself.
“You may heal these men,” the queen said, waving a hand at the guards. “And then go. Find us after the midday meal. We will speak further.”
“Yes, your grace,” Varkas breathed and curtsied. They both knew exactly the punishment the healer would receive and exactly how long she could hold before her lie would bubble up from pursed lips. The Serenity moved off to heal the others.
The queen clenched her empty fist to hide the shaking. “Now, stand, wretch, before I grow angry.”
Cab rose slowly to his feet, a hand upon the wall to hold him steady. He was dizzy and weak, the world swooned around him. With the queen before him, his body fell into its old habits and he saluted in military fashion before he could stop himself. The queen cocked her head slightly, her eyes seemed to pierce the thin layer of fabric, to see into his very soul and he gave a great uncontrolled shudder.
“Do I repulse you?” she asked as she stepped closer. She ignored the muffled gasps from her ladies-in-waiting, ignored the stink of the man before her. That same something that had tickled her memory before was tickling ever harder and she found her heart pounding in her chest, pounding out the very rhythm of her breath.
“No, your grace,” he whispered. She was close now, he knew it would not be long before she discovered who he was. He was a rat in a trap now more than ever and the game in his head was wondering if she would be more or less kind to him than Iridian had been. If he forgot everything else about her, her rage would always be remembered.
“Who are you?” she asked, she was now speaking so quietly as to be heard by the prisoner alone. She scanned his face, hidden under ragged black curling beard and a veil of dark hair. There were his eyes, which he kept downcast, hidden from her.
“Just a poor woodsman, your grace,” he muttered. He could feel her wrath steaming just below the surface, could tell by the way she barely controlled her breathing that she was floundering in emotion. It would be easy now, a distant part of his mind thought, to snatch the sceptre from her hand and open her throat with the sharp beak. It might be his final revenge, for though it had been Iridian who had performed cruelties and murder upon Cab’s wife, he was not too much a fool to know that the order had come from the woman standing before him; the jealous hawk of Ur.
But it was easy to have thoughts of murder, carrying them out was another thing altogether. As surely as he could murder her here, he would be murdered here as well. His death was of no consequence, almost he could welcome it. But now that he was face to face with her, all those feelings seemed to melt into the floor to be replaced by other feelings, older, deeper, stronger ones. How could he kill this woman? When he looked at her he did not see an aging monarch, full of power. He saw only the girl he had known, the girl he had grown up with, had loved, despite her constant teasing, or her biting temper. And as the memories of innocent Innogen flooded his heart and mind he made the final error and turned his eyes up to gaze into hers.
Black eyes. The world seemed to stop. Everything faded to nothing. She was falling into darkness, into those black eyes that she thought she would never see again, that she told herself she never wanted to see again. It couldn’t be true, she tried to tell herself. Her heart seemed near to bursting. Whether from shock or fear or something else she did not want to say. She tried to keep herself composed, she clenched her fist and held the sceptre tight to keep from shaking. She took a deep quiet breath. The rage inside her was jostling to come spilling forth. Her eyes burned with tears she would not let fall. He had come back.
How dare he come back! How dare he return to her like this! It could not be, she tried to tell herself. There were others with eyes as black as this man’s. Surely there were. This man was too tall, too broad of shoulder, too hairy, with too many of his bones sticking out, too anything, everything. She bowed her head, touched her fingertips to her forehead in the sign of the Dreamer. She focused on the rustling of fabric as those around her did as she had done.
Realization dawned in her eyes and they became a storm in the bay, battering her senses like wind and waves batter great ships. A quick succession of thoughts passed through his mind about what she might do and he wondered if he were the only person who could see her struggle. She was going to faint, no, she was going to burst into tears, no she was going to smash his head in with the sceptre. But she struggled to restrain herself and took a step back, making the sign of Dreamer.
“Nora,” she said with a softness that the servant had never before heard in her voice. “Wine.” The girl scurried off. The queen’s ladies had the good sense to keep their silence. It would not do to point out her obvious distress. Best to keep quiet and pretend they could not see.
“Captain,” the queen said after a moment. “You may return to your duties.”
“Your grace,” Iridian began, voice hard. This could not be happening. No. Not after all the years of dreaming. Not after all his waiting. He would not give this man up so easily. He was not finished. He calmed himself. “I beg a word.”
“We shall have words, Captain,” the queen snapped. “You may be sure of that. I will send for you.”
“But, your grace-,”
“I do not like to repeat myself.”
Iridian gritted his teeth with vigour enough to keep himself from loosing his temper. He bowed, hand upon breast. “As you say, my queen.”
“Your guardsmen will remain.”
“As you say.”
The wine was light and bitter and the queen tried not to gulp it too obviously. But she was the queen and she could bloody well do as she pleased, she thought, knocking the glass back. She set it gently on the tray.
“Girl,” she said, referring to the servant. “Arrange food for the prisoner. Bathe him and cut off all this ridiculous hair. When he is presentable, bring him to me.”
“Yes, your grace.”
“These two,” she waved vaguely at the guardsmen. “Are at your disposal.”
That would rile them. Guardsmen left in the charge of a servant. It almost made her smile.
The Queen did not look at him again, but swept past, motioning for her flock of ladies-in-waiting to follow. He wondered briefly to where they were headed, and why she felt so comfortable as to wander the hall with only a gaggle of geese for protection. What would she have done, he wondered, if he had attacked? Would she throw those poor women at him? Were they only fodder to her? He supposed they were and was brought to the present by a light touch upon his arm. He turned, slowly, to the servant girl. She was dark of hair and eye, her face angular, her bones big. He reached a hand up to touch her hair and one of the guardsmen stepped forward with a levelled spear. He froze. The guard’s nose was healed, but the blood had dried upon his lips and chin and he had not been handsome to begin with.
“Please,” the servant girl said, touching the spear lightly. “Her grace does not like to be kept waiting. Can you walk unaided?”
Cab nodded, but as he did so the edges of his vision darkened. He resolved not to do that again and took a step forward. Yes, he could do this. Slowly.
The guards took up their places to either side of him and just out of his periphery. The servant led the way.
The walk was a struggle. He felt the weakness in every muscle and almost he wished that it was the pain he felt again instead of this wretched weakness. He tried to remain calm, tried to breathe deep and even, taking each step with care, but the harder he tried to remain calm the more his senses rebelled against him. When finally they came to the Balnea the steam struck his face and nearly bowled him over. He clutched the door frame to keep from falling and the guards assumed he was resisting. His legs felt like jelly. The edge of his vision was going dark. The guards poked him in the small of his back with the tips of their spears.
“Keep moving,” Kiret said gruffly.
“I...” Cab began, but the darkness quickly closed in.
The sound of trouble was the heavy wet thump of a body striking the smooth tiles of the Balnea. Nora whirled around, her eyes snapping from the prone prisoner on his face on the floor to the two guards standing, spear points out.
“What did you do?” she hissed as she knelt beside the man, checking for injuries.
“Nothing,” Kiret snarled. Nora rolled the prisoner over with some difficulty. He seemed to be breathing fine. It was probably just the steam.
“Fetch the Hartshorn,” she demanded. “And send to the kitchen for something to feed him.”
She set about peeling the filth-stiffened tunic from his chest.