Part 2: Chapter 20
He kept expecting to awake from this dream. It made his chest hurt. It seemed to flare up when he was introduced to the men of his guard.
The castle Andrese was built upon a small promontory. To the north lay an inlet, full of crashing waves, to the south, the river Oajute, and the drawbridge over it, cut the castle off from the rest of the city, though the drawbridge was hardly ever raised. The castle stood alone, surrounded by its tall curtain wall, effectively impenetrable. The first thing Cab did as Captain-again, was to examine the castle gate and drawbridge, under the command of Corpa Varn. Varn was the only man in the guard who took pride in his position. He gladly showed his new captain around, displaying the regularly greased mechanics of both bridge and portcullis and apologizing for his actions when Cab was under his care. Cab waved the apology away.
The other two Corpa’s under his command were less accommodating. Corpa Dolan, whose nose was now misshapen, in charge of Shore Watch, was surly and quiet, and Cab could not be certain he did not smell alcohol upon his breath. He barely saluted and refused to respond to Cab’s inquiries, pretending he did not hear.
Corpa Kiret, of the main gate, that which led from the southern most tip of the city out into the hold itself, was even less helpful. The men in his watch were suspicious of Cab and hardly believed that he was Captain of the Guard, and Kiret did not even try to assure them of the truth. They very nearly tossed Cab from the city.
His work was not going to be easy.
Moreover, the attacks upon the eastern holds continued. Storehouses were being burned. There was a massacre near Widowain, when a mill was set alight and exploded, destroying half the village, and most of their winter stores. That meant more refugees would come to Andrese for succour. There was still the worry at the back of his mind that the Mornwor were moving through Ciden with the leave and perhaps even the blessings of Lord Sarcos.
Besides all that, the people in the city seemed more wretched and poor than he remembered. There were mad scrambles at the White Chapel when scraps from the castle were brought for the poor. The White Sisters had a hard time keeping the crowds of hungry poor under control and had requested some burly guardsmen to stand by and help keep the peace. Cab had sent some men, but he wasn’t certain how much they could do. Hunger makes men desperate.
He approached the large stone manor in the eastern quarter of the city and asked the servant for an audience with Lady Yffa Sarcos. The servant led him into the parlour and offered him refreshments while he waited for her. He declined and proceeded to wait. And wait.
He was uneasy, and it wasn’t just the waiting that made him so. There had been a dream he’d had, not long ago, and sitting here waiting had seemed to jog it from the place where it had hidden in his mind. In the dream, there was blood and fire. Not uncommon, he always seemed to dream of such. But something struck him in the centre of his chest when he tried to think about it. A great pillar of black smoke rising up from the city and behind it, in the bay, strange boats approached the shoreline. Thin and long, with fifteen oars to a side and two men per oar. Warriors, big bearded men, their heads shaved, their eyes wild, their hands shaking with anticipation; these were the Mornwor, coming to destroy Andrese, to murder the line of Ur. And in the dream when he turned back to the castle, it too burned, though Mornwor had not yet reached the shore.
It pecked at him, this dream as he sat waiting, and though he tried to think on other things his mind always drew him back there. He could almost smell the smoke, the blood.
After far too long, he’d had enough and concluded that he had been forgotten. He decided to wander the house in search of a servant that he could remind of his presence. Moving around would help to keep his mind from the dream.
What he found was not the servant but the lady herself. She lay naked in another parlour room with several handsome young men. He pounded upon the door as he entered to the lady’s screams and the cries of the young men who all but hurried away to find their clothes. The Lady covered herself quickly and screamed for her servants and guards, while demanding to know just who he was and what he was doing sneaking about her house. One of the young men, naked and unafraid, levelled a rapier at him.
“I am the Captain of the Queen’s Guard,” he said, touching the pin that held his cloak. “And I have been awaiting an audience for some time.”
“So you feel that you can just blunder about my household looking for me?” she demanded, her face flushed. “Runae!” which was evidently her servants name. “Guards!”
“I require only a few moments of your time,” he insisted as the servant and a pair of guards entered the room.
“Then send a formal written request,” she declared. “That is what is proper, not charging into a Lady’s household and demanding an audience. Get him out!” This last to the guards, who took him gingerly and led him out. He ground his teeth and wondered if it were all the gods working against him, or just the majority.
It was on his return to the castle that he heard the screaming. Not a single voice but many. The market square was empty and a great plume of smoke rose up into the sky from the North West.
Cab ran, but already the white chapel was engulfed in flames. A circle of guards stood by, in case anyone tried anything stupid, but the heat was so intense that none could come too close. Most watched in silence, though there were some who cried. A group of Black Brothers stood to one side, repeating the motions of the silent prayers for the dead and dying. Cab could feel tears forming and knew that it was not from the heat. How many, he wondered, had been caught inside when the fire started?
He looked past the plume of smoke, fear clutching his heart, to the bay. Scanned the water desperately, hoping against hope that the strange boats from his dream would not be there. The bay was calm, held only a few merchant barques, nothing more. He breathed deep with relief and prodded his mind back to the present, where he was Captain and action was required.
“What happened here?” he asked one of the guards.
“Aye, Cap’n,” the man produced an imperfect salute. He stank of ale. “T’was a bit of a tussle over th’afternoon’s scraps. Candle flames too near the grease.” The man grinned, his few remaining teeth were brown. He was one of many who joined the guard for the provided meals. There was not enough food in the city, despite what Muscyra was sending. Now the White Chapel, the last hope of the poor for food and succour was turning to ash.
“What is your name?” Cab asked.
“Uh, my name?” the man fumbled. “Sharn. Uh, Bel.”
“Sharn,” Cab suspected it was a lie. “I expect a full report by you and your brothers when this is dealt with. If you cannot write, report to Corpa Varn, he will have it written up and delivered to me.” He turned back to stare at the burning building. The flames were bright and hot and the smoke obscured what little else he could see but he thought that the large front doors of the chapel were closed. The building groaned ominously.
“Get men standing by with water,” Cab commanded. “We can’t have this spreading.”
“Uh, aye, Bel,” Sharn said.
“Sharn,” Cab grabbed the man’s arm. “If you don’t report on this before the sun rises tomorrow I will come for you. Sharn may not be your name, but I won’t forget a face as ugly as yours.” He pushed the man away, who was only too glad to go. Cab turned to go when a voice rang out.
“They did it!”
Cab turned back to see a beggar woman, her soiled garments now black with char, her face coated with ash. She stood among the thin crowd of onlookers, catching their attention.
“They burned down the house of our Lady! On the queen’s command, they did it, her guard! They set the fire and locked them all within!”
Cab’s heart started to hammer, loud enough for him to hear it over the blaze and the woman’s words. He surveyed the crowd, tried to see if any who were listening were paying any real mind. A riot against the guards was the last thing anyone needed, especially when there was a building burning in front of them all. The guards, he noted, seemed to be melting away, he hoped in search of water.
“Curse them all!” the woman cried. “Dreamer curse the guards and our so-called queen!”
The pain struck Varkas in the very centre of her mind. She dropped to the floor and lay there, each breath shorter than the last, her head filled with horrifying visions. She saw the white chapel, her sisters gathered, trying to ensure order among the desperate. Guards delivered crates of food from the queen’s own table, some half eaten meals and some food on the edge of spoiling or already spoiled. The people in the chapel did not care. They were all so hungry. She could feel the pain of their hunger in her own belly, though it was full. She felt the crush of bodies, all surging forward at once, all so desperate for the tiniest morsel. The fear of the guards was plain on their faces. People were pushed, shoved, knocked down and trampled over. The priestesses were calling for order. A guardsman drew his sword and bodies were shoved onto it. The table was knocked over. People were crying out. People were dying while others tried to stuff their faces. None noticed the candle strike the edge of the table, the flame that caught the bark drying for incense. Guards slashed their way out of the building, their voices drowned in the noise of the hungry people still trying to get into the chapel, unaware of the danger. Flames licked across the straw strewn floors, across the pallet beds and up the walls. Smoke filled the chamber and now people were clamouring the other way, trying to get out as the flames sucked up the air. But as the guards ran from the building they slammed the doors shut behind them and let the bar drop, trapping the people within. The building moaned, the people screamed and Varkas finally felt a pain that eclipsed that of the Queen. She felt the pain of multitudes burning. And her heart could not take it.
The guardsmen, poor as they may have appeared to Cab, seemed to wield enough common sense amongst them to be able to set up a line of people with buckets from the shore to the burning building. With that underway, Cab hurried back to the castle. Just as he reached the gates he heard the thunder of the building collapse and stopped to look back down the hill. It was hard to tell if the bucket line was still functioning due to the thick pillar of smoke blocking them from his view. But there was very little near to what had once been the House of the Dreamer and so very little to catch the flames and spread the fire out across the city. He tried to see past the smoke to the bay once more, but all was obscured and it unsettled him. He turned back and hurried through the gate, too distracted to notice that there were no guardsmen on duty there.
It wasn’t until he entered the castle courtyard that he noticed the unusual quiet. He stopped and stood for a moment, craning his neck this way and that. He could not see any guards in their red and gold tabards walking the walls, there were no servants fetching water from the well, no groomsmen in the stables. A chill came over him. The place was empty and all he could smell was smoke from the fire, all he could hear were the raised voices of the men trying to put it out. He could not even hear any gulls crying. It was very like to the vision from his dream and he could almost see smoke rising from the castle itself. Panic in his heart, he raced to the main doors, pushed his way into the quiet dark of the castle. He did not wait for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but barrelled straight into the grand hall, throwing the doors wide.
The grand hall was set up for supper, with long tables cloaked in rich red cloth, dozens of plates and cups reflected the candlelight. Lords and Ladies, richly dressed, sat and conversed and drank and ate merrily, while servants hurried past with platters of fine foods and pitchers of wine. There was even a roaming minstrel who played a lute and sang as he paced along the table. All was the opposite of how Cab felt inside, the turmoil that blustered in his chest was invisible to the people gathered here.
All fell silent as Cab blustered in, smiles slipping from faces.
“Captain Atholine, of the Queen’s Guard!” the decrier announced, and all in the room gave a mighty cheer and applause as a pair of guards closed the doors behind him. Cab moved down the table, ignoring the cries for him to ‘sit here, Captain, let me fill your cup!’ He came to the head of the table, to the queen, whose children sat to one side of her, with her Knife-steward to the other. He fell to one knee, bowed his head.
“Your Grace,” he said.
“Captain,” Innogen replied, smiling as she sipped her wine. “You’re late. Have you heard the good news?”
“Your Grace,” Cab said. “The walls are bare of guardsmen, and-,”
“It’s a feast day,” she gestured down the table at the men and women, in varying states of drunkenness. “We run the guard at half capacity. It is a feast of victory over the shadow. Drink! Death to the Man-Eaters!” she cried, lifting her cup and draining it.
“Death to the Man-Eaters!” the assembled host repeated with vigour, hoisting glasses and calling for more.
“Your Grace,” Cab tried again. This time he was interrupted by the Knife-steward.
“Atholine,” Halstan said, a hand upon his shoulder. “The Mornwor army was caught marching through Vaillant. Lord Belotas is the hero, he sent word to Yasuda and Lady Polozellus marched her army to meet them. With Belotas’ army behind them and Polozellus before them...” he laughed. “Well, they were caught between the anvil and the hammer! It was a crushing defeat, with barely a loss to our side.”
Mornwor defeated. But Cab could think only of the dream, the men in the boats whose faces seemed that much closer, that much clearer to him in this moment, as though they might walk through the door at any moment and start to murdering. The defeat had been easy, easy enough to raise suspicion, if only in a man already on edge.
But if history had taught him anything it was that the Mornwor were not so easily destroyed. How many wars had Ur fought, how many times had Mornwor been decimated, defeated, destroyed, without so much as a trace of a distant cousin left to bear the burden of the name? And yet, the fighting had always continued. Certainly there had been quiet times, times when Ur could rule in peace and forget about the Man-Eaters. But those times were only peaceful for Ur and her people. Mornwor always survived. There always seemed to be one left, a sole survivor, filled with the rage that gathered fighting men and waited for the perfect lull to strike.
Such as this.
“Do you not suppose,” Cab said quietly. “That it was a ruse? The army, the defeat, all false? Created to distract us with a victory, that we may make merry, lower our guard, sit unprepared for a full-scale attack?”
Cab’s eyes roamed the long table, the Lords and Ladies were all well into their cups. They laughed. They drank. They sang along to the minstrel. At any moment Cab expected them to get up and start dancing. And the guards, supposed to be walking the walls, where were they? In the barracks, drinking and whoring? Why was he the only one gripped by fear?
“We are not wholly unprotected,” Halstan said. “There are men on the walls, simply fewer of them.”
“You worry so, Captain,” the queen stated, as she placed a hand upon his shoulder. “Andrese has never fallen. We sit high upon this rock, protected on all sides by water. Mornwor have never taken us, nor shall they. We are safe in the arms of Dreamer.”
Protected by water, but none had ever supposed that the water might deliver unto them the enemy.
“Your Grace, the House of Dreamer has caught fire. It’s burned to the ground.”