Varn had been leaning back in his chair, giving his eyes a bit of a rest.
“What is it?” he grumbled, setting booted feet upon the floor and walking to the door.
“A group of men on the other side, Corpa,” the young man, Sine said. “They want to speak with you.”
Varn glanced at the horizon as he stepped out of the gate house. It had to be somewhere round the middle of the night, he could see no light in the east or west. Perhaps the third hour of the morning. He climbed the steps to the top of the wall slowly, there was no need to hurry, after all he would only be sending the men away until morning. Likely it was the soldiers that had been enjoying the feast day, having been kicked out of the tavern for drunkenness, or some such, and wanting to crawl into their hard beds in the barracks. They had been called to come back and they had not, so they would just have to spend the night out in the city and wait. Varn’s breath billowed out in front of him. It was a cold night, but at least the wind had died down for the moment. No doubt it would start up again soon enough. That was the trouble with a castle on the seashore.
“Corpa Varn!” came the cry from below as Varn looked out over the ramparts. “Good evening!”
The voice was familiar, but, it couldn’t be, could it? A group of men stood on the opposite bank, it was too dark to tell how many there were, but it was a good number. Some held torches but it only helped to darken the faces around them.
“Captain Iridian?” Varn called. “Is that you?”
“Aye! It is!” the man laughed and said something to his companions that Varn could not hear. “Trouble is on it’s way, Corpa! We must supplement the castle garrison. Lower the bridge, I have men here to help.”
Varn looked to Sine beside him and then back down to Iridian.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Varn called. “Orders n’all. You’ll have to wait till morning.”
“By morning you’ll all be dead,” Iridian cried. “I have an urgent message for Her Majesty.”
Varn scratched at the stubble on his neck. This man was not his captain, he didn’t have to listen to him. In fact he was trying to get him to do exactly what the real captain had told him not to. But what if there really was an urgent message?
“Tell me the message,” Varn said. “I’ll be sure it gets to Her Majesty. You have my word.”
“I can’t do that, Varn,” Iridian replied. “Lower the bridge, this is your last chance.”
And now Varn’s heart started to beat a little more loudly in his chest. He tried to push the fear down. What could a man down there do with a ravine and a gate and a wall between them?
“You’re in no position to be handing out threats, Iridian,” Varn said. He turned to Sine. “Get to the castle. Wake the Captain. Tell him Iridian has returned and he’s got a small army with him.” He barely waited for the young man to nod before turning back.
“There’s not a hope in Mortholm that you’ll be-,” Varn faltered as pain blossomed in his side. He turned, wide-eyed to Sine, whose pale eyes were full of fear. The boy’s hands were steady though as Varn’s blood coursed over the hilt of the dagger he had plunged in the space between the hard leather armour. Varn did not get to ask why the boy had done it. His legs became suddenly weak and with a single shove, Sine had pushed him over the rampart to his death at the bottom of the ravine. He didn’t even wipe the blood from the dagger. Only walked calmly down to the mechanism that lowered the drawbridge and opened the gate.
The old Knife-Steward awoke from drink induced slumber, his bladder complaining. He sighed as he pulled himself to stand, mind still groggy from drink and sleep. It was not uncommon for Halstan to wake in the night. At his age, he would sometimes wake several times. He wondered briefly how long it was until morning, whether he ought to fetch something to clear his head or just try to go back to sleep. He was nearly asleep again on his feet when he heard the door open behind him. He turned, midstream, managing to piss all over the intruder’s feet. Outraged, the man, dressed all in black, with a thick cowl over his face, leaped forward, thrusting with a dagger.
Halstan’s instincts took over. He was calm and precise, struck the man an upward blow to where he supposed his nose would be, with the heel of his palm. There was an unpleasant crunch and the man fell onto his back, dead, blood soaking into the cowl. With the same calm, though he could feel the shakes coming on, he bent and picked up the dagger the man had carried. It was plain, though the blade seemed to glisten, as with poison.
He was rifling through the dead man’s person, trying to discover who had sent him, when the second man entered the room. Halstan saw booted feet and looked up in time to catch one under the chin. He was thrown backward and struck his head against the wall with a pain that blossomed red before his eyes. He took one last gasping breath before darkness enveloped him. The next thing he heard was the snick, snick of Bella sharpening her needle.
“My Lady,” he said, bowing. Though he was uncertain whether he even had a body to move. “Thank you.” All he could see were her eyes, glowing like embers in the darkness, but they smiled.
He woke with a sudden awareness of his surroundings like to nothing he had ever before perceived. It was like a dream that he knew was a dream. He could feel the heartbeats of the soft down-filled mattress beneath him, of the sheets and quilts and pillows, could sense the breathing of the heavy curtains that surrounded the bed. The night was full around him, it dripped with anticipation. He could taste the coals glowing red hot in the hearth.
Innogen, sat up beside him, she could feel it too and her eyes were wide. She smelled of sunshine and terror and clasped the blankets to her chest as a shield. Cab drifted out of the blankets on a cushion of air, was wrapped in a robe of shadow. The smoke from the coals drifted into the room, picked up the blade he had left on the sideboard and placed it in his hand.
A black blade, made from the dark cloak on which the stars lay at night, sharpened by Veinar Agis, the god of war, imbued with His grace and speed. The handle was a flame turned solid, warm and smooth, it seemed to melt to fit his grip perfectly. He could feel its power flowing into him, filling up the cracks, making him whole, strong. The darkness of the room gave way as the power entered his eyes and sharpened them on the grinding stone of the Gods. Everything was as a clear day, from Innogen vibrating in the bed, to every fold of fabric, every curved piece of furniture, every corner shadow. He saw, and the power crawled across his flesh like sleep.
The door sighed open, where normally it was silent. A man entered, blackened from head to toe, and then another, and a third. They did not see the shadow Cab had become. All they saw was their prey, sitting naked and terrified in her bed. But Cab could hear the movement of their very muscles, the whispering kiss as bones moved against joints. And as a shadow he fell upon first one, and devoured him, and then another and took hold of the third before he knew what had happened to his brothers.
But the third man, he held a spark of the power that enveloped Cab, a spark of favour. Their blades clashed, the sign of Veinar Agis emblazoned for one glorious moment in time. Cab could see past the whites of the assassin’s eyes, into his skull, where sparks flew like fireworks, commanding the movement of his arms, his legs, commanding him to fight for his life. He was fast, but not fast enough and soon lay in repose atop his brothers.
Cab wiped the blade on the dead man’s black-cloaked chest and straightened to look to the queen.
“Is this really happening?” she asked. He could see an aura of her shivering. He listened intently for a moment, but heard very little. If someone was storming the castle, they were doing it very quietly. Most like it was just a few assassins. But just as that thought pressed into his mind they heard the alarm bell ring once, before it was cut off.
More than a few assassins then.
Innogen had already shoved out of the bed as though it were aflame. “Shut the door,” she commanded. “Barr it.” He did as she said, turning back to find her nakedness covered in silken nightdress, dressing gown, slippers, cloak. Her hair bound atop her head with cunning grace. Cab quickly found his britches and boots, the mail shirt and the tunic Innogen had destroyed. She seemed to summon fire into her arms and threw it onto the bed, where it fed greedily on silk and goose-down. She took up the sceptre, the golden crown, the hawk’s ruby eyes ever watchful, golden feathers fluttering, and led him to the secret door as black smoke filled the room. Still wrapped in shadow, still floating on air, still tingling with the power of Veinar Agis, they raced through the short, narrow passages.
Cairbre woke in the night to his brother crying out in fear.
“What’s wrong?” Cairbre cried. The embers glowing in the fire threw off little light, and so he could only barely see a silhouette of his brother sitting up in bed, panting.
“Had a bad dream,” his brother said, voice weak as he never allowed it to be. He was supposed to be the strong one, the clever one, the king to be, and yet the dream had touched him like nothing else and left a mark.
“What was it?” Cairbre asked, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. His brother turned to him, though his face was dark in the darkness.
“Kobalos,” he said at last. “I dreamed we were captured by Kobalos.”
Cairbre felt his heart start to race.
“They took us someplace deep underground, it was like being inside a fire, I can still feel the heat.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “They locked us in cages and poked us with hot irons and-,”
“Stop, stop, stop,” Cairbre cried, covering his ears. “I don’t want to hear anymore.”
The two were silent for a moment and very carefully Cairbre uncovered his ears. He lay on his back and pulled the blankets up to his chin, despite the tale already having made him hot with fear.
“They’re not real, though,” he said after a moment. “They’re just a story made up by stupid commoners, right?”
“They seemed real in the dream,” Ethamyn said, after a pause.
It was a long while before Ethamyn lay back down in his bed, and he did it with a great deal of discomfort. He still felt hot from the dream, and thought he could smell smoke. He tried to stay awake, they both did, but sleep swept over them like a tide, forcing their eyelids to droop. They fought valiantly, Cairbre even pinched himself a few times to stay awake, but it was no use. He was falling, falling into the realm between dreaming and waking, falling into his brother’s nightmare.
He was in a cage, raised up off the ground on a track, which moved with maddening slowness round and around. His clothes were rough and scratchy and his body was slick with sweat and he felt like he wanted to vomit even though his belly growled its emptiness. He scratched at his chest under the rough tunic but it brought no relief, only stung from his sweat and made him itch more. He wanted to cry. And then a hand reached up and clasped the bars of the cage before him. An abnormally long hand, pale green with ragged, sharp nails; it gripped the bar and soon a face appeared. A hideous face, round and green, with a crooked nose, too-large bulging eyes and a mouth that took up more than half the head, filled with hideous sharp yellow teeth. It cackled in a way that made the itching and pain disappear, replaced with a bone-deep fear. The boy cried out as the creature’s hand snaked forward and grabbed the front of his tunic, shaking him.
“Cairbre!” it hissed. “Cairbre, wake up!”
The boy struggled, tried to cry out, but a hand came over his mouth. It was not the kobalos hand, gnarly and long, no, this was the soft, delicate hand of his mother. He was awake, struggling against his mother, her face set in a hard expression, her eyes full of fear.
“Mother!” he cried, or tried to, but her hand was still over his mouth. When she realized he was awake she put a finger to her lips and let him go. He threw his arms around her and sobbed. She held him tight for a moment, rubbing his back to soothe him. But it could only be a moment, for there was little time.
“Cairbre, my sweet boy,” she whispered in his ear. “We must be strong now, darling.”
She pulled him away, wiped the tears from his cheeks.
“Hush, baby,” she said. “We’ve got to get up now and get dressed, quiet, and quick as a hare.” Cairbre turned to find his brother standing beside his bed, a replica of his mother’s expression clear on his face despite the darkness.
“What’s going on?” Cairbre whispered. His brother put one hand to his lips to silence him and used the other to find and squeeze his hand. Ethamyn was already dressed, in polished boots and thick wool britches and tunic, with a heavy hooded cloak. Their mother paced about the room, gathering this and that into a pair of small satchels. As Cairbre finished dressing, his heart still pounding from the dream, and the confusion of what they were doing, Ethamyn helped him to buckle the clasp of his cloak and then slipped something into his hand. Cairbre looked down at the sheathed dagger.
“What’s this?” he whispered.
“It’s your Vottepa dagger,” Ethamyn replied. Cairbre wondered now if he were perhaps still dreaming. The Vottepa dagger was given to a boy when he became a man, usually during a ceremony of much pomp and significance, with plenty of burning of incense and prayers. And, most important, the killing of an animal with the dagger to prove one’s manhood.
“But-,” he started.
“Hush,” their mother hissed, panic lighting her face. She shooed them into a large wardrobe in the corner and crouched down behind Ethamyn’s bed.
“Put it on your belt,” Ethamyn instructed, voice less than a whisper, lips pressed against his brother’s ear. The boy did as he was told, trying to peek through the crack between the doors to see what was going on at the same time. Their mother crouched there, looked as though she might be praying, except that he was fairly certain she held a long dagger in her hand, or was it simply the Hawk’s Head Sceptre?
The door to the room opened and shut, they could hear it but could not see. All they could see was their mother, sitting tense for a moment. And then a voice.
“Innogen?” it whispered. The queen bowed her head in relief and motioned for the boys to come out of the wardrobe. They did so, and stopped in shock. The man who had just come through the door was their dead father.