Innogen’s face went pale, her smile disappeared, but only for a moment. She laughed too loud and patted his face.
“You jest!” she cried. He turned away from her, certain now that he could not get through to her.
“Halstan,” he said, placing a hand on the old man’s arm. “You have to see. We’re all in grave danger here. I can feel it. We must double the guard. Shut up the gates and raise the bridge.”
“Would if I could, Captain,” Halstan muttered into his cup. “Her grace has us in thrall. We will drink and be merry until it kills us.” He downed the wine in his cup, eyes flashing to the sceptre.
Cursed magic creation! Bile rose in the back of Cab’s throat. How could she use that thing for so base a purpose? It was the very reason the Edict on Magic Use had been written up!
“Innogen,” Cab cried, taking hold of her by both arms. “Please.”
Her face clouded over with fury.
“You will let me go,” she commanded. His hands sprang away from her of their own accord.
“Drink,” she said, handing him her cup. “I command it.”
He shook his head, but could not stop himself from lifting the cup to his lips all the same. The wine was sharp with greenwood, no wonder she would bear no thought of danger, and he let most of it slip down his chin and onto the floor. She snatched the cup away when she realized what he was doing.
“Be gone from here,” she snarled. “If you will not join in our merriment.”
He stood, bowed and left the room the way he had come. He warned the guards at the doors to be on alert. Whether or not they would listen to him was another thing. He knew this creeping feeling of imminent doom came from the dream and tried to tell himself it was just a dream. But his gut knew that it was so much more than a dream or even simple paranoia. And when he didn’t follow the feeling in his gut, things tended to turn sour. No one would be laughing if he was correct and nothing had been done about it.
Ethamyn, beside his mother, only just barely caught what was being said when the new Captain of the Guard burst into the room. The man did not notice the boy prince leaning forward, listening intently. No one did. It was strange to be a prince, and still be unnoticed by so many. He turned to his brother after the man left. Cairbre was staring at the door through which the Captain had disappeared.
“Did you hear that?” Ethamyn asked. Cairbre only shook his head. He was often too quiet.
“He said the defeat of the Mornwor was a distraction. He thinks they’re going to attack again.”
“Stop it, Eth,” Cairbre said. “You’re making that up to scare me.” But when he looked into his brother’s eyes he could see no lie there. He punched his brother in the arm, angered that he had ruined the feast. All Cairbre had wanted was for the mourning to finish so that they could eat at the big table again, as they used to do, as they were now. But Ethamyn had to ruin it for him.
“You wreck everything!” Cairbre snapped, barely able to keep the tears from falling.
“It wasn’t me!” Ethamyn cried, grabbing his brother’s wrist so that he could not hit him again. “I’m just the messenger!”
Their mother turned to them. “Stop this,” she said.
“Mother, he said-,”
“I do not care what he said,” she snapped. “If you cannot behave then you will spend the evening in your chambers. Is that what you desire?”
“No, mother.” Cairbre pulled out of his brother’s grip, angry and sullen.
The sun was just setting as he stepped out into the courtyard once more. The air was already turning chill and the evening wind had picked up, blowing the smoke scented air up from beyond the inner wall. But the great pillar of black smoke was now thinner and paler, which meant that the fire had been contained after all.
He stepped up to the gate house and rapped upon the door.
“Corpa,” Cab said as he entered. Varn was seated behind his desk, a near empty plate in front of him.
“Captain,” Varn said, rising to salute, but Cab waved him back down.
“Corpa, what’s the count on the walls tonight?”
“Twenty five, Captain,” Varn said. “Because of the feast.”
“Twenty five is less than half what we should have,” Cab said.
Varn shook his head. “No,” he said. “We’ve been running fifty men for some years now. Simply haven’t enough bodies to man the walls as we used to.”
Cab’s heart started to thunder in his chest. “Gods,” he said. “Twenty five men.”
“What’s the matter, Captain?” Varn asked.
Cab stared at him a moment. “I don’t think we defeated the Mornwor army today,” he said. “I think perhaps we defeated a small part of it.”
“Two thousand men is a great deal more than a small part, Captain.”
“Two thousand? Gods. We are in for an interesting night, Corpa. I only hope I’m wrong. Send to the city, I want all able men on duty tonight.”
“But the queen gave a direct-,”
“And now I’m giving you a direct order, Corpa. Man these walls, or all our lives are mutton. Give them thirty minutes to round up our men and then you will close the gate and raise the drawbridge.”
“And you will not lower it before morning, except on my command. Understood?”
Varn licked his lips, eyes searching the small room. “Aye, Captain.”
“This night is full of shadows,” Cab said before he left. “Lady Bella is hungry.”
Varn did as he was told, though he wondered if bringing this man back as Captain had been so great of an idea. Where had the man been these last ten years? And where had this paranoia come from? To think that Mornwor could have raised an army large enough to send two thousand men to their deaths as a mere distraction was madness. Mornwor had been obliterated at the battle of Wincham’s Field a mere... gods, was it really two decades ago? Still. Mornwor could hardly raise an army of such proportions as the Captain suggested in two decades, could they?
Varn shook his head as the candle he used to measure the time fizzled out. That was it. How many men had returned from their drinking and whoring in the city, to take up their posts? He’d counted twelve and shaken his head.
Soldier’s these days were only poor men, signed up for the Queen’s army, not to protect the Queen, her city, her land, her people, no, men did not care for these things as they once had. Times were hard. Hard enough to join the army in order to eat two meals a day. Where had the discipline gone, had it left with Captain Iridian? Atholine had held his position for too little a time to earn anyone’s respect. And he had not seemed to care if the men he Captained were disciplined or not. What good was a Captain if he did not perform to a standard? There was no honour left in this world. Varn well knew that the honourable men had all gone the way of Tanis Atholine.
“How many?” Varn asked the young man, Sine, at the gate.
“A dozen, Corpa,” he replied. “A dozen more’n I’d thought.”
“Shut the gate,” Varn said. “Raise the bridge. Pray to the Gods that our Captain is mad. I do not feel like fighting tonight.”
He stumbled and fell against the wall. Gods, he was tired, too preoccupied to eat. Now his stomach rumbled and his body was sore and his eyes drooped. He couldn’t even walk without stumbling. But still, the faces of those warriors from his dream haunted him. Gnashing teeth. Bloody faces. It was difficult to forget why the Mornwor were called Man-Eaters. Some said they had done it to terrify their enemies, others said that it was out of necessity, that their leaders had starved them into a blood frenzy. He had never seen it, but had heard of it from men who had. And when he had asked his father about it, though the man had not replied with his words the look in his eyes had confirmed the fear.
His stomach turned at the thought and he decided he was not hungry after all. He made his way to his bedchambers. A cold room, only slightly larger than the tower cell he had been kept in. It was in the North-West wing, the one that watched the sun sink into the endless ocean, the one that felt the buffeting of the winds most dearly. He stuffed up the shutters, with straw from the bed to keep them from rattling. He would go insane if he had to hear that sound any longer.
But the icy winds seemed to eek through the stone itself, bringing with it the scent of burning and blood. He wondered if he was dreaming now. Fire and blood. A brazier burned in one corner of the room, unable to fend off the cold. His bed was not unlike the one he’d had in the tower cell.
He lay down on the bed. He had found the armoury and put on a mail shirt under his clothes. Had strapped a dagger to his belt and brought a fine sword into the room. The links of the shirt pressed between his flesh and the hard bed, would likely leave a mark, but it was not the first time that he had slept in armour. It would not be the last, though sometimes....
The noise of the guard patrolling the hall was like thunder to accompany the howling wind. Strange, he thought sleepily, he did not remember the guard as being so loud before he went away.
The thunder stopped outside his door and there came a rap-rap-rap. He was awake in an instant, fear and suspicion rearing its ugly head within him. He leaped from the bed, pulled the sword from its sheath as silently as he could and stepped to the door.
“Who’s there?” he asked, bending his knees and shaking out his limbs.
“Her Grace, the Queen, wishes to speak with you in her chambers, Captain,” came a familiar voice, that of Nora.
“A moment,” he said, sheathing the sword and slipping it under the lumpy straw mattress.
The bedchamber was dark, though his eyes were already accustomed to such, the halls not being much brighter. At first he thought it smelled of blood and smoke, but that was just something that lingered in his nostrils. Or perhaps only his imagination. The room was awash with bloody light, however, the fire burned bright in the hearth and beeswax candles burned throughout the room, dyed the bright red of passion.
Innogen threw her arms around him the moment he entered, almost before the door was closed. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. She pulled away, a sloppy smile upon her face and he knew then that the revelling in the grand hall had been a success. She was well and truly drunk. Her vibrant hair caught the light of the fire and seemed to flicker and crackle upon her head, as though it too was a flame.
“My Cab,” she said, wrapping her arms around him once more. “Back where you belong.” She squeezed him, tight enough to push the breath from his chest, and then pulled back, one arm still on his waist, the other fumbling at the neck of his tunic. She pulled it down, trying to rip the sturdy fabric, revealing the mail shirt.
“Found the armoury, have you?” she asked.
“It does not do to walk around unprotected,” he replied. She laughed and stepped away from him, over to the table by the fire where she picked up a goblet and tossed the contents down her throat like a barbarian.
“Fill my cup,” she commanded, breathless from the long drink. Cab moved to the sideboard where sat the silver pitcher. He lifted it to his nose, eyeing the cabinet. Within, upon a plush red cushion, sat the Crown of Wings, a circlet of golden, ruby-eyed hawks that seemed to flutter and stretch their wings in the flickering firelight. Behind it, stood the sceptre, the hawk eyes cruel and sharp. It reminded him of Innogen’s father, King Thaydbolde. A cruel slender old man, with eyes sharp as a hawks and a temper to match. He had been cunning and quick, it was a shame that he died before he could pass his extensive knowledge on to his only child. Though if he had, perhaps Cab’s head would be on a pike instead of on his neck.
It was honey-wine, in the pitcher, embittered with greenwood.
“What is it with you and the greenwood?” he asked as he stepped across the room to fill her cup.
“It calms me,” she said, her blue eyes dull in the darkness. “Be-headings are down since I started.” She laughed. He couldn’t tell if it was a joke or not.
“It’s dangerous,” he said. “Too much could kill you.”
She laughed again, sipping the mead. “You’re looking out for my health.”
He scoffed, but was too tired to be truly angered. “You made me swear to protect you. What good would it do to let you poison yourself?”
Her eyes widened. “You’re not going to take it away from me,” she stated.
He watched her a moment. She reminded him of the young girl she had been. She seemed so small and helpless, clutching the cup to her chest as if it were a child.
“I swore to obey your commands,” he reminded her. “Except when they contradict my vows of protection.”
She stood a moment, sipping from the wine. Her hair flamed down her back, she wore a simple gown whose colour he could not be sure of, was it white or red or orange? Everything was tinted the colour of blood. Her feet were bare upon the thickly carpeted floor.
“Why did you ask me here, Innogen?” he asked at last. She set the cup down with some weight upon the table.
“You are the only man bold enough to call me by my name,” she said. “When it should be, Your Grace.”
“You brought me here to argue with you, Your Grace?”
She turned and plucked a small dagger up off the mantle. “I am your queen,” she said, holding it out in front of her, tensing her body as if to strike.
“The more you remind me,” he said cautiously. “The more I think you are trying to convince yourself. What is it you think you are going to do with that?”
In answer she drew the blade forward and down in a quick motion, slicing through the fabric of his tunic so that it hung open, revealing the mail shirt more fully.
“You will dull your blade doing that,” he told her. “Why not put it away and tell me why I am here.”
“You know why,” she said, lashing out with the knife when he put his hands up. She caught him across the knuckles and he clenched his fist and took a step away from her. He wiped the oozing blood on his britches, his hand hesitating over the handle of the dagger in its sheath on his belt.
“Go on,” she said. “To third blood. I command it.”
This was a game she had loved to play as a young woman. A testing of her knife fighting skills, though very few were ever successfully commissioned to play. Who would dare to draw the blood of a princess? Or mark her fair skin? And so she loved the game all the more, for she could never lose. And how would his oath fare against the game? He could not hurt her.
“I’m going to win,” she said, lunging at him. She was clumsy from drink and lazy from the greenwood and he slipped easily past her. They turned to face each other again and she grinned as though she had hurt him. A moment later he felt a trickle of warm blood course down his right arm and looked to find his sleeve slashed. She showed him his blood upon the dagger.
“Kobal meat,” she said, lunging once more. He slipped past her again, his hand straying to the dagger at his back, but he kept himself from taking it out. He was bound by blood not to hurt her.
“Kobal,” he called her. She gave a laugh not unlike the wretched cackle of those small green-skinned beasts whom few actually believed existed in the mountainous forests. This game was one of theirs. Toying with their prey, tenderizing them with fear. He knew it all too well.
Her next lunge was aimed low and instinct had the dagger in his hand to parry the blow before he could think of another way to stop her. But the attack had been too obvious. She laughed, twirled in a circle, rejoicing in the play that she had pulled off successfully.
“I knew you had a dagger,” she cried, sipping from her cup and wiping the spillage off her face with the back of her hand. “I win, now.”
“Good,” he said. “Because I give up.” He tossed the blade onto the sideboard at his back and she ran at him, feinting high and swiping low. He had known it would come; he crouched and stood in one swift motion, catching at her before she could plant the blade in his eye by accident. He had her over his shoulder, one arm around the back of her knees, the other holding the wrist of her blade hand. She wriggled and writhed, trying to get him to drop her, but he held tight and spun around in a circle. She dropped the blade with a small cry and it went skittering toward the fire. He tossed her down on the bed and she kicked her feet up with glee and laughed like she was a little girl. It was contagious and he couldn’t help but laugh too, as he took a sip from her cup of wine, despite the fact that his head was still spinning.