A long dark wood table occupied a modest chamber within the castle Andrese. The fire was banked, candles lit and braziers burned, but the air was still chill. The rain pounded upon the hard ground outside, softened it and with the help of heavy wagons and horses and many feet churned it to soup. The wind did not blow off the ocean, at least, that was something to praise the gods for. Halstan paced the room, pulled a heavy, fur-lined cloak closer around him and consulted his parchment once more.
The problem of the Captain of the Guard had fallen to him. As all things that the queen did not want to deal with tended to do. She had taken her anger out on Cantan personally and so could not trust to keep him within reach for retaliation. If she had only listened to her Knife-steward and assigned another to the questioning, this problem would not exist. But who was he fooling with these thoughts? Only himself. Cantan Iridian had been a problem for much too long and Halstan rested a little easier knowing that he had been sent away. Far away. As far as was possible. But he was not totally at ease, not so long as the man still breathed. Not so long as the mess he had created still existed.
It seemed to Halstan that the Queen’s Guard had been filled with drunkards, wretches and the lowest of lowborn scum imaginable. From the Captain’s second, to the very man in charge of training new recruits, every last figure of power in the structure of the guard was not only incapable of performing his set tasks, but cruel, dishonourable, and an embarrassment to the name of Ur, the Hold of Andrese, and possibly the entire Kingdom of Loranya. How, in the name of all the gods and their fi, did one man manage to turn such a vital structure into a catastrophe waiting to happen?
It was Halstan’s job to make sure the Queen’s lands and holds were secure, and he hadn’t noticed the deterioration of the security of the estate under his feet? Well he had, but the queen had forbade him to remove Cantan from his position. He would mentally beat himself up another time. For now, he needed to assign a new Captain of the Guard and set him to reworking this mess.
There was a rapping upon the door.
“Come,” Halstan said. The door opened to reveal a woman in her late middle years, her salt and pepper hair arranged upon her head not unlike a crown, studded with little gems that caught the light and made him think of stars. She came with but a single diminutive serving girl, in the white and blue tabbard of Lentinan, crescent and sword.
“Lady Edode,” he said, offering her a low bow.
“Bel Halstan,” the lady replied, in a deep rich voice. “There are issues that must be raised as regard the shipping of lumber from my hold. There are bandits everywhere along the riversides, I need more soldiers to protect our common interest.”
“Bandits, now?” Halstan asked. He rolled a map of the holds out on the table and used his knife and heavy pin of office to hold the sides down.
“Here,” Edode pointed with a long thin finger. “In Yasuda.”
“Bandits?” Halstan asked again. “Or are they taxmen?” The Lady hardly blushed.
“There is no reason why Nile should pay taxes to Yasuda.”
“You are transporting goods through Yasuda.”
“Lumber for the good of Her Grace’s kingdom,” Edode sniffed. “Should be paid for by Her Grace. Yasuda will see no coin from Nile. You must make it clear to Thelep.”
“Make what clear?” Thelep Polozellus stepped into the room. The Lady was tall and broad, a distant cousin to Ur, she came from a long line of women who fought their own battles, in and outside of the court. She had a temper to match the thunderstorm of black curls upon her head, and was the most overbearing of all the nobles. It was common knowledge that she thought she was more well suited to the throne than the girl queen, she even went so far as to propose the capital be moved to her hold of Yasuda, for it was more in-land, and provided better protection.
Halstan bowed. Edode gave the barest of nods. Thelep curtsied deeply to them both, spreading her dark skirts wide to show the magnificently embroidered dragon, the symbol of her house, upon them. Edode gave Halstan a look. She would not brooch the subject with Thelep. She waited for him to do so! Typical nobles; could not even fight their own battles.
Halstan was about to open his mouth to greet the woman when a third noble entered the room.
“The Lion star has travelled into the house of Veinar Agis,” Lord Dendal Muscyra was a good decade older than Halstan, a thin, wrinkled man, whose walking stick had once been purely for show, but was now heavily relied upon. The snow white hair orbiting his head was like a crown of clouds upon the top of a mountain. He was devoted to the gods and read their words in the stars; a great mystic, always spouting prophecy.
“Good day to you, Lord Dendal,” Halstan renewed his bow.
“Good?” Dendal cried. “War is coming, boy! The lion is in the warrior’s house! It’s as sure a sign as any I have ever seen! We must begin preparing the castle. Food stores checked, arms increased, we’ll hunker down and bear it out like the Seige of Terra Sanctor in 986.”
“My dear, sweet Lord Dendal,” Thelep’s voice was far too sweet. “War? Don’t be foolish. With whom?”
It was common knowledge that the great enemy of Ur, Mornwor, were raising their swords and clashing their shields, readying for war. But Ur had defeated Mornwor time and again, and it was only through subtle treachery and patience that the entire bloodline had not been wiped from the map. Rumour had it they were already marching on Andrese, and there had been skirmishes in the hills and the deep woods of Vaillant that cried out the name of Mornwor. Innogen forbade any and all from mention of that name, and dismissed the signs as false. Halstan had given orders for preparations all the same, and as Dendal’s hold of Psy was Andrese’s primary supply of produce, Dendal no doubt understood the signs of his treasury, even if he did not look to the stars.
“That’s not all!” Dendal cried, ignoring Thelep. “The dog constellation has swung past the western crown and beyond the horizon! This is a very grave sign. Change comes, terrible change!”
The rattling of the shutters had become such a constant that Cab hardly noticed anymore. Days of isolation and the tower cell had become a dream or perhaps it was real, but he could hardly tell the difference. He would sleep and wake and the shutters would rattle. He would pace, pray, exercise only to wake in the small hard cot and wonder if it had been real or a dream. He ate the same pottage and drank the bitter wine over and over and an ache had begun in his chest that made him think of madness.
He stood, walked to the door and opened it. Was this the first time he had done this or the thousandth? The small space beyond was empty, the guards gone. He descended the stair, his back to the wall, inching down, deeper and deeper into warmth and darkness. Mortholm, he was descending into Mortholm, he thought. Especially when he started to hear the screams, smell burning of flesh and hair and stone. The reek of blood. Waves of heat and the stench of death drove him onward, to the massacre the castle had become, lit by the flickering flames as tapestries and carpets burned. And then he would step down onto the main floor of the castle, step into dark water or was it blood? There was no reflection off the oceans of black that seemed to coat everything. The screaming would continue, sometimes close, sometimes far, the sound of the castle collapsing, the roar of fire. He would run, stumble over pale corpses, suckled by shadows. Sometimes he found weapons, sometimes he did not. But he would always stumble upon Innogen, her hair and dress bloody, her skin pale as bone, and she would clutch at him.
“Our children,” she coughed, blood brightening her lips.
“No,” he would say and try to escape, but her grip was so tight. He held her and looked into her eyes. Sometimes he would see Hanesca reflected in those bright blue orbs, sometimes Cantan, but far worse was when he saw himself. He would wake, shivering, the door to the cell locked. These dreams were his only reprieve from his imprisonment. Even then he could not be certain. Were they real, and this cell the dream?
He threw himself against the door, yanked at it, banged upon it with his fists, threw his body against it, until a guard would come and tell him to settle down or they’d call the healer to put a spell upon him.
“Is this how you treat your prisoners?” Cab snarled. “Come in here and beat me! That is how you keep prisoners quiet!” He did not see the dubious look the guard gave him from without. He had already turned back and started to howl.
The boy woke to the sound of some sort of beast. He was certain it was in the castle. Beside him, on a second bed, his brother slept, soundly. He had not been awoken. But now that the boy lay still and listened he did not think he could hear a howl-
There it was again! It sent shivers up his spine. He lay on his back, pulled the blankets up to his chin and scanned the room with just his eyes. Should he call the guard? Was it some sort of attack? Or perhaps it was just the wolves in the eastern forest? Sometimes they would come to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the castle and stand and converse with the Lady of the Moon. When he was grown up, he thought, he would go into the woods and he would hunt them all out so that they could not keep him awake at night.
But this was not wolves, he was fairly certain. It didn’t have the same feel, and there was only one voice, not many. He took a deep breath, steeled his courage and got out of bed. He pulled on a dressing gown, slippers, strapped on a wooden practice sword and escaped the room through the hidden wall passages. It was awfully dark in the passages, they were thin and low, perfect for a child, but there were bits of rubble here and there which he sometimes tripped over or stubbed a toe on. He should have brought a candle or a torch. Oh well. The howling was even more dreadful in between the walls. It bounced around and magnified and seemed to come at him from all directions. He hurried along, eager to get out of the small, dark, frightening spaces. A door, there was a door around here somewhere....there. He felt the stone in the wall carved with a hawk in flight, pressed it. The door slid open to reveal the back of a tapestry. There were footsteps so he waited until they quieted and then slipped out, closed the door behind him. He was in one of the halls and the footsteps had been the Serenity’s as she hurried off. He could still see her retreating back, her white robes seemed almost to glow in the darkness. He scurried after her, for when a boy sees a healer hurrying there’s sure to be something of interest.
But he could not follow her for long. He hung back in the shadowy hallway as she crossed the main doors, passed the guards and ascended one of the towers stairs. The prison tower. There was no way that he could sneak past to follow her, and the guards, if they saw him, would certainly send him back to bed. Or perhaps call the nurse, and then he would be in real trouble. He sighed and then jumped when he heard another howl, echoing down the stairwell that the Serenity had disappeared up. At the top of the tower were cells for high ranking prisoners, they must be torturing one. He had thought the torture only happened in the dungeon, below the castle, so that the prisoners screams did not wake the inhabitants of the castle. He would have to speak to Mother about that.
Varkas lifted her skirts and ran up the steps. What, by all the gods, were they doing to him? He was howling as though they were stabbing him with hot pokers but she could not sense any physical pain from him. There was something though, a familiar feeling which she could not place.
“What in the gods-,” she stopped. The pair of guards were outside of the cell. The cell door was bolted shut. The prisoner sat within, howling like an animal.
“What have you done?” she asked.
“Nothing,” one guard replied. “He just went mad, started howling. Suggested I come in there and beat him, but I’m not about to lay a finger on the Queen’s little pet, now am I?”
“He’ll wake the entire castle!”
“Then shut him up!”
“Let me into the cell.”
The guard eyed her warily. “And if he turns on you? Hurts you? No, no, I think not. I’m not losing my head for your stupidity. Put him to sleep first. Then I’ll let you in, if you really must.”
She gritted her teeth, moved to the door and opened the slide to peek inside. He sat amidst the straw that had cushioned the little bed. The bed itself was bolted to the wall so he could not destroy or move it. She whispered words to calm him and he opened his mouth to howl but no noise came out. He turned and gave Varkas such a look of pain and sadness that she almost did not see the subtle glint that denoted the madness that was beloved of the Lady of Dreams. He was on the edge. And there was nothing she could do.
“Be strong, Bel,” she whispered. “I will do what I can.”
He awoke to the screech of the metal tray on stone. He lay on the cold floor, the bed straw strewn all over. His head and throat ached and he could not get the dying face of Innogen out of his mind, and her last words on bloodied lips, our children.
He shook his head. He was no father. Not of princes.
He fumbled to his feet, soaked in sweat and shivering. He choked on the words he wanted to say and thought perhaps he could cough up the dream and the nasty feeling like being covered with dripping, sucking shadows that it left him. It was caught in his throat so he snatched up the cup of wine and brought it to his lips to ease its burning, but stopped. There was that smell again, the one that minded him of Innogen, and now it came to him: greenwood. Innogen had been poisoning her own wine with greenwood for sometime, that was the bitterness. She said it eased her mind. But there was something else too, and it raised his hackles. Very faint, just hidden beneath the greenwood, was a familiar floral scent, slightly sweet, slightly spicy. He dipped a finger in the wine and tasted it. Yes. So familiar. It was Dream tea.
He tossed the wine cup against the door, kicked the tray of food over and shoved it back out the slot in the door. Curse that woman! No wonder he could not tell reality from his dreams! Not even high ranking priestesses of Dreamer drank the tea every day! She was trying to make him mad, and it was working! He felt his stomach rumble, but he ignored it. He would not eat. That might catch her attention. And then what? Perhaps his anger, perhaps the madness that was sucking at him like shadows would be fuel enough for him to effect his escape.
Innogen woke, groaning in the darkness. Nora was there, stoking the fire. The queen pulled herself from the tangle of sheets, pushed her unruly hair out of her face and moved to stand before the silver mirror. She touched her belly and turned this way and that, examining herself.
“What will your people think,” Nora said. “When their widowed queen becomes pregnant?”
“I am not,” she said, and added more quietly, “yet.”
“You play with the fate of your city as much as you do with the fate of your soul, my Lady. There is a big difference.”
“I will forgive your insolence this morning, Nora,” Innogen replied. Nora brought her a dressing gown and helped her on with it. It was still early, the light of the sun was visible but it had yet to peak over the eastern horizon.
“Did you hear the wolves last night?” Innogen asked. They had suffused her dreams with panic. She didn’t like wolves any more than the next person.
“It was not wolves, your grace. It was the prisoner.”
Innogen turned and gave her a sharp look. Nora only nodded.
“Gods damn that man,” she hissed.