She came down the long steps of the crumbling ziggurat in flowing robes of white. Her hair was bound atop her head, hidden beneath a scarf and veil. Her feet were bare. She came with a short procession of servants bearing large jugs of water, bowls of salt, empty jars and braziers of hot coals, to the centre of the necropolis. Here was a dry well, whose gibbet bore a different weight of late.
There was a line of prisoners held by guards, waiting their execution. The procession stopped before them and Elenarka lifted one hand in the air. A crowd had formed. These were her ragged citizens, zealous eyed and shaking with anticipation. Every person in the crowd carried an empty vessel, or two. They were eager for the sacrifice.
“On this day we call upon our Lord Eno and ask that he accept this sacrifice.” Elenarka recited. The first prisoner was brought forward to stand upon the stained planking that covered the dry well. He was striped of his clothes and the ceremony began. A servant stepped forward and placed a burning coal on the centre of his chest. The man flinched but made not a sound. The coal was removed and dropped in a hole in the planking. The man was then sprinkled with salt and a little water. One of the empty jars was passed beneath his nose and he breathed deep the near invisible smoke within. His eyes glazed. A noose was passed over his head and tightened at his neck.
Elenarka stepped forward. She plucked up the thin rapier from it’s ceremonial pillow. Slashed the symbol of the dead desert god upon his chest. Slashed lengthwise along his forearms and watched dark blood spill. It dripped off the end of his fingers and pattered softly upon the planking. She slashed his throat, just below the jaw bone.
“Mighty Eno!” she cried, lifting the rapier over her head that the blood upon the tip could coat the blade, turn the light it reflected upon the crowd crimson. “Our blood is yours!”
When the sacrifice’s glazed eyes dulled, the planking was removed, the noose loosed and the body fell into the darkness of the well. The sound of a body striking the dry bottom was not heard.
The next prisoner stepped forward. The ritual continued.
It was not until the last prisoner that Elenarka hesitated. This was a young lady, her dark hair cut in a close bob. She smiled at Elenarka. Smiled!
Some loose thought crashed into Elenarka’s head. Hoppers. She became overwhelmed by a memory, a dream.
“Lady Psil will pay almost anything for hoppers,” she breathed. The dark-haired sacrifice smiled and nodded her head before stepping up onto the bloody platform. It seemed to take Elenarka a thousand years to draw her sword arm forward, a thousand more for her lips to form the words. She finished the last sacrifice off without even noticing. The body slipped from it’s noose into the deep well and made no sound. The people around her were silent. Even the carrion birds made no sound as they circled overhead.
Elenarka’s mind was occupied with other things. She thought of the rooms deep within the ziggurat where they grew the crops that kept her people alive. Or, that’s what they were supposed to do. Of late, the crops had been devastated, every tiny new shoot and bud devoured by armies of little bugs with big mouths: hoppers. They ate her people’s crops before they were even close to ready. What better way to be rid of the terrible nuisance than to catch them and sell them to dear Lady Psil? Not only was Thracale the nearest hold to Elenarka’s own, but half their hold was composed of forest. She could trade pests for wood, kill two birds with one stone. She could practically hear the little beasts skittering feet as they tried to flee in the thousands. A smile grew upon her face as the sound crested in her mind. But the sound was not only in her mind. It was real. It was not the sound of many insect feet, but the sigh of water rising up out of the dry well to spill over the edge and flow out upon the hard dry ground. The onlookers rushed forward to fill the vessels they had brought, for the sacrifice did not happen as often as they would have liked. This was pure, true, fresh water, provided for them by their god, and as such had powers of rejuvenation beyond anything the people could understand. They filled their vessels, plunged their hands and faces into it, drank or bathed in it right then and there. The water would not last and they would enjoy it while they could. Elenarka stood still, the sacrificial rapier still dripping blood at her side, jostled by the crowd. She was lost in reverie, a beatific smile upon her face.
“Your Grace,” Halstan said with a bow. He had brought his queen her midday meal. She did not look well pleased, but she had just concluded a meeting with the Captain of the Guard, and it was common knowledge that they were not on such good terms as they had been two days prior. She was taking it out on the pickled herring.
“What is this?” she snapped. “I won’t eat it.” She lifted her goblet of wine to her lips and drank.
“Your grace enjoyed the pickled herring yesterday,” Halstan reminded her. She was still so like the child she had been. She had been a woman for a little over two decades now. Halstan sighed inwardly. Some women, particularly those of the high blood, would always be children no matter if they were mothers or grandmothers.
“I won’t eat it,” she repeated.
“Very well, your grace,” Halstan stated. “May we speak of the matter of that troublesome village, my queen?”
“If we must,” she said, popping a hard boiled pigeon’s egg into her mouth.
“Your grace, I was wary to mention the whole story before the court. You see, the goetia made some rather unbecoming accusations before her death. Some of the men in the village thought they were curses, but one can never be sure of such talk from farmers. They do enjoy their tales.”
The queen raised her eyebrows and sipped her wine.
Halstan unrolled a scroll of parchment he’d brought with him.
“One farmer, a man who called himself Pater, son of Pater,”
“...has claimed that the goetia’s eyes turned red and a cruel deep voice issued from her throat that was not her own. He claims it was the voice of the Lady of Darkness herself.”
“Of course it was.”
“First she spoke in a sort of rhyme, something about the return of the lost moon bringing about eternal darkness, a little contradictory that, and then something about the moon’s love saving the sun. But the most interesting came next. She said, the hawk flew so high it collided with a star, was pierced by a crescent moon and devoured by a dragon. I believe you know which houses bear those signs.”
“Muscyra, and Polozellus. The crescent must be that of house Lentinan,” the queen mused, matching the symbols with the names of the nobles that occupied her small council. These were the three whose holds were closest to Andrese and who enjoyed the most privilege in the capital city.
“Nonsense,” the queen declared.
“But, your majesty, there’s more,” Halstan said. “Something about a-,”
“Nonsense,” the queen repeated. “A common tactic by the condemned to sow fear and discontent. I will not hear another word of it.”
“But, your grace-,”
“No, but’s, Halstan,” she snapped, gulping the last of her wine and slamming the goblet down upon the table. “More wine,” she said. “And then we will hear what you have to say of my estates.”
He sighed and waited as the queen’s cup-bearer poured more of the sweet and bitter vintage from the vineyards of Yasuda.
“Your grace,” he said hesitantly. “If I may ask about Lord Atholine?”
“Lord Atholine abandoned this hold, his duties and his people long ago. I believe he is dead.”
“My queen, I refer to the man-,”
“I know to whom you refer,” she snarled. “He is dead.” She sipped her wine. “How do my lords fair with their estates? What troubles do you foresee in the future for our great city?”
If there was nothing else, at least he could exercise his body. He ran on the spot, he did stretches and crunches and performed sword manoeuvres. He ate the food provided, drank the watered, bitter wine. He paced, he slept.
Slowly he came to the conclusion that perhaps she was not going to kill him at all. Perhaps she would keep him here forever. Until he went mad, until he broke. That was it. She was trying to break him, so that she could keep him like a trained animal. She knew he would break sooner or later, and she had all the time in the world. He, on the other hand, was already starting to go mad. He felt it stronger and stronger as the days wore on, or perhaps the minutes. He was a soldier, he was not meant to be shut up in a room to grow weak and fade until the wind blew him away. Very soon he would vow to perform any menial task for the rest of his days if only she would let him out of this cell. And now he could hear voices coming to him on the wind. He cocked his head to listen, but it was only the guards outside the cell.
“Not supposed to speak of it,” one said.
“Not supposed to gamble, neither,” the other replied.
“A’right, a’right, I’ll tell ya,” the first said. “Seems the queen got his own men to hold him down while she questioned him. An’ when I says question, I mean with that magic sceptre a’ hers.”
The second man shuddered audibly. “She cut him up?” he asked.
“I heard she drew words on him with the hawks beak, dark magic, she did. His lips flapped like a flag upon the battlements, friend. He admitted t’other landed right in his lap, five days past, that he knew jus’ who he was an’ did it anyway.”
The other guard whistled.
“Yeah,” said the first. “You know they was lovers, eh?”
“Captain and the queen?”
“Yeah, an’ t’other one too,”
“All at once?”
“No! Not all at once, bloody Mortholm. This un first. Then t’other. ’At’s why the one threw t’other in the dungeon. Ain’t you never heard the story how Captain got that scar?”
“Ain’t never seen Captain’s scar.”
“Well it was from him. Found out ‘bout the queen messin’ bout with him too an couldn’t stand to hear it.”
“That’s not true,” Cab muttered to himself.
“Ran him through and run off like a cowherd, ’fraid to face the consequences. Lucky for Captain, we got that freaky white lady ’round, knit up his flesh real neat like.”
“And now what? Captain’s been bloodied by his lady love? ’An this un’s locked up ’ere? Don’t serve to swyve royalty, it don’t.”
“Certainly don’t. That’s what sets us apart, you an’ I. We’re clever.”
“Aye, yeah, clever. Clever like a royal straight of cups?”
“You cheatin’ bastard,”
“Yeah, yeah,” there was the distinct sound of coins moving. “No worse’n you. ’Nother go?”
That was the most exciting of the conversations Cab listened in on. He tried to follow the game in his head, but they said very little after that, as they played. It was shortly after they stopped speaking that the wind started to rant at him. It spoke of escape, of leagues of ocean or grasslands that it flew through, it spoke of the drop to the ocean below. If only he could fit through the slit of a window he would have given leaping to his death a great deal of consideration.
With the change of the guard came another tray of the same food and watered wine. Every moment seemed to meld into the next, creating one long drawn out torture. He tried to remind himself that it was better to go mad in a tower cell than to be beaten to death in the darkness below the castle. But part of him longed for the noose.
Innogen tossed and turned in her bed. She’d had much more than her usual wine, embittered with greenwood and instead of making her sleep soundly with a few colourful dreams, this night it made her wakeful. She could not stop thinking of Cantan.
“Five days past,” he’d breathed, pain evident in his voice, his face white with rage. She had laid him out on the rack and ordered his two dogs, Kiret and Dolan, to hold the wheels. Their eyes burned with hatred and fear, their knuckles white upon the wheels.
“Five,” she repeated, carving the number into the flesh of his belly, just below his ribcage, with the beak of the hawk’s head sceptre. Blood oozed up from the wound and trickled down his side. He had withstood worse than this.
“And when were you going to report to me?” she asked. She wiped his blood over the beak and eyes of the golden hawk head, effectively silencing and blinding the guards around them. But they could still hear. She tapped Kiret’s arm with the sceptre and he turned the wheel with a grimace. Cantan groaned as his arms were further stretched.
“Your grace, please,” he cried.
“Please, what?” she asked.
Now she wished she had never done it. She wished she had sent another in her place, but she had to be so damned proud, so damned angry. And now the captain of her guard, her paramour, languished in a cell under the castle and she lay in her bed, guilt-ridden and unable to sleep. Since when is the Hawk of Ur able to feel guilt? She asked herself. The Hawk is strong and proud and pure, her motives are her own and she may do as she pleases. Even when it leaves her lonely, and, she didn’t want to admit it, afraid.
She had gone beyond what was needed and nothing in all the realms of gods and men could change it now. Cantan would never forgive her and she could never again trust him. She wondered if she should have trusted him before now, wondered if she should have him killed. Hanesca would have done it easily; that proud fool had always hated Cantan, hated the love his wife had for the man. And now look where it had gotten her. She growled and threw herself from the bed, moving to the bell pull and railing upon it. Not a moment later Nora arrived, but Innogen did not have time for formality. She cut the girl off mid ‘your grace’ and told her to fetch a dressing gown. The girl did and in moments the queen was draped in a soft silken thing.
“Fetch a pitcher of wine and two glasses, lay up the fire,” the Queen commanded, she picked up the sceptre from the glass case where it rested, cut open her palm and smeared the head with blood, whispering a barely audible incantation. Nora went about her task in a dream-like state, unseeing.
Innogen opened the doors of her chamber and addressed first one guard and then the other.
“You, fetch parchment, ink, quill and my steward. And you...”