He argued with the wind, which had told him it was night and he should be sleeping. He replied that the wind had no eyes and so could not tell that the sun had been blotted out, perhaps it had been eaten by a giant hound, and that the world would be dark were it night or day. He told the wind that it was high noon and he should be getting his midday meal soon.
“You see,” he said, when he heard the footsteps and the jingling of mail that indicated guards mounting the stairs. “Here it comes now.”
The wind laughed and told him they were the guards sent to bring him to his death. The wind rejoiced that soon it would swirl and sway round his limp corpse as it hung upon the scaffold.
“Nonsense!” Cab cried. “It is dinner, I tell you.”
Iron key found its way into the lock and was twisted, the other keys seemed to laugh at this nonsense. The door was pushed open and a pair of guardsmen stood. They appeared to be entranced, their eyes milky white, their bodies propelled by some motion other than their will.
“I see the wind was correct,” Cab said with a sigh. “It is not dinner.”
The lych-like guardsmen took him in strong arms and carried him from the cell. He laughed and would have skipped had they allowed him. He was going to die! Finally! Unless this was all a dream, and he was sleeping upon the bed in the cell, with the door still firmly locked. It was a very sobering thought and he ceased his laughter.
“Am I dreaming?” he asked the guards. They did not respond.
“Am I going to my death now?” he asked. He thought for a moment. “The wind was wrong,” he said. “She would not hang me, she would strike my head from my body.” He lifted his hands to his neck and almost felt the blood flowing out. He wondered why he was so certain of this fact and then proposed that it had already happened. His head, perhaps, was sitting upon the inner wall, fly-ridden and rotting, but his mind still functioned and had dreamed that he was alive and locked in a tower cell. Or perhaps he was well and truly dead and the tower cell was Mortholm, the realm of Dark Bella, and she tormented him with scenarios of escape. Soon, he knew, he would wake to the rattling of the shutters and find himself back in the cell. Back in Mortholm. He held back a sob and then glanced from one guardsman to the other. They were blind, he marvelled, they were dead too, perhaps that was why they did not speak, they’d already had their mouths sewn shut by Bella’s needle. But he did not see any stitches.
“Where are the stitches?” he asked. But the guardsmen suddenly let him go. He fell hard upon his knees and looked up at the door before him. The door to the Great Chamber was ebonwood, inlaid with abalone and thin twisting strands of gilt. The story went that the doors had been carried over with the First Men of Ur, when they had been banished from their wondrous isle far to the...he couldn’t remember if it was west or south. But those stories of the First Men were all made up nonsense, supposed to fill a man with the might and majesty of Ur. Who would be fool enough to bring a slab of wood like this on a boat filled with refugees?
As he was mulling these thoughts over one of the lych-guards knocked three times upon the door. It opened and the two men turned and took up position to either side of it.
“Enter Cabriabanus,” came a soft voice from the darkness. It was hot in the room, the fire roared in the hearth, as soon as he walked inside the doors swung shut behind him and he was left trying to discern what was happening to him.
“Where are the stitches?” he found himself asking. As his eyes adjusted, shapes appeared in the darkness. A great four-poster bed dominated the room, made of the same gilt carved ebonwood as the door, a plush, downy mattress laid over with heavy quilts of rich foreign cloth, silken ivory pillows and hung about with velvet curtains of the deepest shade of blood; to one side a glass fronted case held crown and hawks-head sceptre, he knew though the light from the fire was all that could be seen upon the glass. The walls, he remembered, were hung with richly embroidered tapestries, whose designs were not visible in this light, the floor was thick with soft carpets. A large silvered mirror stood in a corner, a heavy wardrobe, a wash stand and table, all ornately carved and inlaid with gold. A few fat candles situated around the room threw off more shadows than light and a heady aroma weighed the air, worked to numb his mind and add to his bewilderment. Beside the fire a high backed, well cushioned chair and small table, upon which sat a pitcher of wine and two goblets. A dark figure sat upon the chair and he knew her to be Bella, Queen of Death, he could see the needle in her hand, ready to sew his lips shut.
“Just one question, your grace,” he said, gulping away his fear. “How did I die?”
Innogen was puzzled and tried to cover it up by reaching for the wine. This was not going as she had planned. When she brought the goblet to her lips and tasted the bitterness within, all became clear. She had been putting too much greenwood in the watered wine that was brought to him. He had started seeing things that were not there. She cursed herself silently and praised whichever god it was that had delivered the sceptre into the hands of Ur. She picked it up, whispered to it and wiped the now crusted blood from the hawks eyes.
Cab seemed to shudder at the small magic, as all good people should, but the veil of madness that had covered his eyes lifted. He realized that he was not addressing the Queen of Death but the Queen of Loranya. He was still uncertain, though, as to whether or not he was dreaming or dead. This situation did not seem like reality. Perhaps it was a dream, a dream of the past, but if it was why did Innogen look so old? When had she changed from the youthful sprite of a girl into this powerful matriarch? His head spun and when he tried to take a step forward his knees buckled and he sprawled on the floor. Cursing silently, for she must surely think he was prostrating himself before her, he lifted his face to her.
It was difficult to focus on her face when the dim light seemed to glow upon her lily skin. She wore a cloying gauzy gown, no, not a gown at all but a vague white mist that captured the light and illuminated her like a god. Her smile was wide. All that fool paint had been washed away and her face was her own once more, a spattering of delicate freckles upon her cheeks, those vibrant eyes, lips the colour of coral. She turned to pour wine into a goblet and handed it to him. He sat at her feet, devouring her with his eyes, telling himself that it was a dream, and one of the best dreams he’d had since...since he did not want to remember. His head was full of fluff and he looked down at his ghostly reflection in the goblet, which rippled and would not show him anything but shadows.
“Drink,” she said. The wine was so far the opposite to the watered vintage he’d been provided in his tower cell. Not at all like to vinegar, this was thick and sweet and spiced; as cloying as the queen’s gown, it tasted of cherries and cloves with a hint of bitterness.
“Talk to me,” she said softly.
Sweat trickled down his back. The fire was a welcome warmth, compared to the blustery chamber, but at the same time it was a little too much. The room was like to a hot summer day, except without the ocean breeze to cool him, though outside winter was coming on. He leaned against the hearth, stretched out his legs and tried not to be too obvious as his eyes roamed.
“I thought I was dead,” he said, the first words that came to his tongue. They dried his mouth out and he lifted the goblet to take a sip of wine only to find it empty.
“Do not speak of death,” she said, bending to refill his goblet. His eyes wandered and he cursed his muddled thoughts.
“You are going to kill me, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Please, Cab,” she whispered. “Do not...” She bit her lip.
“Do not what?” he asked. “Do not question my captor? Do not worry about death?”
“Do not start an argument.”
He set aside his wine and got to his feet. His legs felt weak, his joints conspired against him to try to make him fall but he focused all his energy.
“What are you doing to me?” he asked.
“I would have thought it was obvious,” she replied, standing and stepping closer to him. There was perhaps a span of hot, muddled air between them.
“You are muddling my mind,” he told her.
“You never complained before,” she replied. She reached out a wary hand to touch him and he took her by the wrist.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked. “I thought I was...” Was what? He could not recall.
“You’re shaking,” she said.
“Yes.” She closed the gap between them. He could feel the heat of her, could not stop his hands falling upon her silk robed hips. He remembered this, the softness of her skin, the taste of her.
After they were spent, they lay by the fire, sweat glistening upon their bodies. His wariness gone, Cab lay on his back, the fire flickering hypnotically at his feet. Innogen rested her head upon his chest.
“War is coming,” she said.
“Mm,” Cab replied. “War is always coming.”
“Our ancient enemy is knocking at my gates,” she said. “Soon they will knock them down.”
“Open them then,” he muttered.
“They will kill me. They’ll kill our children. The line of Ur will end.”
That was funny, he thought she’d said our children. He almost laughed at the absurdity.
“Everything must end,” he sighed. “So it can begin anew.”
“Do not give me that black nonsense,” she snapped. “No one wants to die, not even the worshippers of Bella. Theirs are the most heinous lies of all.”
“Death does not lie,” he found himself saying.
The dream came, as often they do, upon him unawares. He opened his eyes to see his breath chill the room, which made his heart thud in memory of the black dungeon. But he was not in the black dungeon, he was in the queen’s bedchamber, in the queen’s bed, and she lay beside him, sleeping soundly. But hadn’t they fallen asleep upon the floor? The fire had burned down to glowing orange embers and the air was crisp. It took a moment for him to realize that someone was watching him. There, standing at the foot of the bed, a figure all cloaked in shadow so as to be barely the shape of a person. It was watching him, though he could see no eyes, and its gaze filled him with fear. He could not move, speak, could hardly breathe. She had come for him, he felt a sob try to rise in his throat, like the terror that filled his chest. He finally managed to utter an oath, half-curse, half-cry for help.
He gasped, sitting up. He was not on the bed, but still upon the floor. The fire had burned down to coals, and the room was cool, but not chilled enough for his breath to be visible. Innogen lay beside him. If ever an opportunity had presented itself, it was here, now. He could effect his escape, leave all this madness where it belonged, in the breast of a sleeping queen, the last of a dying line of fools. He donned his clothes and moved to the great chamber doors. They opened in silence and the guards turned to take him, their eyes still milk-white. He cursed himself a fool, only just remembering the secret paths between the walls.
At the top of the prison tower the rain came down as sleet, but at least the wind wasn’t howling. A strange silence, the shutters did not banter and creak, the guards outside the door did not speak, Cab could hardly hear his own thoughts, likely residue from the magic Innogen had worked upon him. He sat on the hard bed, wrapped in the thin wool blanket for the air was chill enough to show him his breath, and leaned against the wall. He half-slept, until the clatter of the tray being shoved through the slot in the door woke him. Today was bits of hard old bread softened in a bowl of wine. He supposed the wine was near to vinegar. There was a glass of wine, as well, and he got up to fetch it. Sour and harsh, but at least it wasn’t bitter, with an aroma of...what was that? He recognized the smell, and it reminded him, somehow of Innogen. He couldn’t place it. Perhaps, still further residue of the magic. He drank the wine and ate the sops and sat back down to try to keep warm.