Darkness. His breath billowed out in from of him. The walls glistened with icy moisture, and even the torch flame seemed to shiver in the cold. All is silence but for the flickering of the flame and his heavy breathing. The circular room is not large. Four small cells, each with a set of iron manacles bolted to wall or ceiling. To his left was a table, upon which, glinting in the torchlight, sat a knife, a hammer and a whip. He moved away from the cruel objects and peered into the darkness of the first cell holding the torch high so it’s light might scour every corner. But it was empty, as it always had been. He knew that all the cells were empty but one, still the dream took him through the motions, his breath caught in his chest, unable to escape. He searched the second cell and moved to the third. Dread was thick in his chest, it constricted his thoughts, his breath, his heartbeat. The third cell appeared to be empty, as the others were, but he knew that as soon as he lifted the torch a little higher he would see the ugly truth. The floor was not level, there was a small dark mound in the middle of it. His heart plummeted into his gut and his legs felt weak and shaky. He lifted the key from round his neck and unlocked the cell door. Part of him, the part that knew that he was dreaming, screamed to wake, screamed that he has had enough of this punishment, surely he has had enough. The door swung open easily, knocked over a wooden pail, spilled dark liquid. There was no scent in the cold dungeon, deep within the castle tor. He took a step toward the shape on the floor and everything slowed to a halt. Forever reaching his hand forward, inches away from knowing, inches away from breaking. He touched the damp fabric and the thin shoulder beneath, rolled the body onto its back. The torch fell from his grip, rolled away across the uneven floor as he gasped for air, pulling in only icy death.
He awoke to a mournful, angry howl. It took him a moment to realize that it came from his own throat. Her tea had been strong, too strong. Others in the chapel stirred, awakened from their dreams by his anguish. He hoped, as he took deep steadying breaths to keep from sobbing, that their dreams were sweeter than his. His coarse hair clung to his sweat soaked forehead as he sat up and put his boots on. Lit candles were moving toward him, but he moved away, strode through the semi-darkness toward the main doors. He snatched the knife and axe from the niche, knocked the glass beads onto the floor with a clatter and pushed his way out into the icy evening air.
“Curses upon you, Dreamer,” he muttered as he strapped the knife to his belt once more and hooked the axe back in place. He pushed his hair back out of his face, surveyed the muddy streets that had hardened into strange shapes, like a frozen, roiling ocean. A cold wind moved in from the water, brought the scent of death and waste and salt with it. It was enough to make the sweat seem to freeze upon his body. He had forgotten how harsh the ocean wind could be. Had forgotten the smell of salt and fish, the icy bite that made winter seem so much nearer. The late autumn forest was all frost and early snow, but the seaside was bitter winds and icy sprays of salt water. The wind howled through the city, Bella’s own voice calling out for what was not yet hers.
That dream, that constant dream was what had driven him mad. Perhaps he would have been able to deal with the loss if it weren’t for that dream. Perhaps he could have gotten over it, stayed in the city, helped to keep things from falling to pieces. But Dreamer had drove him to the edge, and he had run from the city, from the work his father had started and he had failed to finish. He kicked a stone, part of a crumbling building. He was a fool if he thought he could have done anything to stop this decay.
He followed his feet up to the High Cemetery of Bella on Nobleman’s Hill.
It had been too long since he had paid a visit to his father. Why was it always death that brought him here? He did not want to think too hard about it. As he knelt before the old man’s grave, clearing away dirt and plant matter in a remote, automatic sort of way, it was not his father’s face that came into his mind, but Innogen’s. Where once her face had filled him with love and longing and a deep sense of loss, now all he could feel was his fury. Why? He snarled in his head, why had she lived, a woman cruel beyond words, a woman who did not understand how lucky she was, when so many others had died? The scent of burning reached his nostrils. He remembered not Eponina, whose body he had burned in the forest, but of Rora. The one who had died in a cell below the castle, the one who had carried his child in her belly.
He bowed his head, rested it against the cold stone of his father’s grave marker and sobbed, his heavy shoulders shaking.
By the light of the lantern hung upon the outside of the guardhouse, the night watchman had seen the flickering shadow that was a stranger skip over the low wall and enter the graveyard.
The night watchman shook his head and glanced at the candle on the table. He looked to have another few hours left of his shift and sighed with the knowledge that he couldn’t get out of this one. He took another look out the window, it was easy to spot the man among the tall, ornate headstones, though he was wreathed in the darkness of Bella’s moon.
The man was tall and the shadows on his face might have indicated a beard, though it was difficult to tell as the hood of his cloak hid him well. His true size the nightwatchman could not judge from this distance, what with the wind blowing against the lantern making the light dance and flash across the graveyard. He appeared to be wearing a thick mantle of fur and that further disguised his true appearance. Whatever he was physically, he was fast, for already his shoulders shook with the motions of pulling golden rings from long dead fingers. He was well practised, this one.
The door came open with a bang and his companion entered, carrying another lantern.
“Adelrick,” the other watchman said, fighting against the icy wind to close the door behind him. “It’s bloody freezing out there. Next time you hear a noise, you go out and see what it is.”
“Willet,” Adelrick said, pointing out the window as he shrugged into his cloak. “Look.”
Willet was a short man, this made him burly and quick to anger, he had to pull up a stool and stand upon it to see out the window.
“What in Dreamer’s name is he doing?” Willet asked.
“He’s robbing the dead,” Adelrick said.
“Do you understand the meaning of the word rhetorical, halfwit? I know he’s a bloody grave-robber, I can see that. Why’s he doing it so obviously? He must have less brains in his head than you do.”
“Or its some kind of trap,” Adelrick suggested.
“Trap,” Willet scoffed, jumping down off the stool. “I’ll see what kind of trap it is with Punchy.” He picked up the crossbow, aptly named for it had punched through mail, brigandine, steel plate and several dozen soldiers chests and skulls during the Defence of the Southern Pass not three years gone.
“Find a runner to fetch up to the castle and let them know what’s coming,” Willet said, checking the bolt was secure in its place and releasing the safety catch. Adelrick was only too happy to put as much distance as possible between himself and what was to come. He knew Willet too well, and had a bad feeling about this stranger.
This will not end well, he thought as the door was whipped from his grasp by the howling wind. He made the sign of the Dreamer to ward off the murk of the night and the cold fingers of Bella and then scurried away from the cemetery on the hill. He cursed himself the night watch, if the bright light of the sun shone there would be packs of boys milling about waiting for a shining soldier like himself to give them something to do. But boys did not mill about the cemetery at night, and in all likelihood he would be running to the castle himself to tell them of the stranger Willet was about to kill in the High graveyard.
“You there,” the voice was rough as barnacles scraping bare flesh and sent a fresh flurry of goosebumps across Tanis’s flesh. “Stop what you’re doing and turn around slowly. I am armed.”
He lifted his head from his lament and turned slowly. The man behind him had set a lantern down upon the ground at his feet. He was dressed in the tunic and britches of the night-watch, thick black wool with hard leather scales. A crossbow was loaded and at the ready cradled in his arms, gloved finger upon the trigger. The watchman was a dwarf, his head barely rising above Tanis’s hips, with a gruesome scar across his mouth that caused his lower lip to sag, revealing the remains of rotting teeth. But the little man was broad of shoulder, with thick arms and held the crossbow easily, ready to use at the slightest movement from his quarry.
“State your name and business,” the watchman growled. “Ah-ah-ah,” he added, shifting the crossbow’s aim a little higher. “I’ll have a bolt in you before you can say God’s bless the queen. Show us your hands and you may yet live to see the light of morning.” Tanis placed his hands on the gravestone and pushed himself to his feet.
“Your name, stranger,” the watchman insisted. Tanis said nothing, lifted his hand to shield his eyes against the light of the lantern, to scrutinize his surroundings. The grave markers upon the hill were tall and ornate but he had left himself open, within clear sight of the guardhouse. There were always two men on watch duty, no matter whether they guarded the bodies of the dead or the queen’s crown and sceptre. Where was the second man?
“Ask Dreamer for my name,” Tanis replied. Was that a movement, there, to his right? He tried to look with just his eyes, but the light from the guardhouse swung wildly in the wind, and the lantern at the watcher’s feet near to blinded him. It could have been a man, sneaking around to flank him. It could have been no more than a flickering shadow, a trick of Bella on Her black night.
“It matters not,” the watcher said, taking a step forward. “You have trespassed upon the privacy of the noble dead, on Bella’s night no less, I am surprised the Lady of the Long Dark has not taken you for Her own already.”
There, again, a flickering shadow of movement off to the right. This time Tanis could not help but turn his head to look. The graveyard was empty but for the two men and the dead, what had caught his eye was the shadow cast by a stone marker in the shape of a little girl. Except the shadow moved now, with eyes that glowed blacker than black, a slow rising motion as of an assassin assured of his kill. Something gleamed in the shadow’s hand, a rapier, no, no it was much worse. The needle of the death goddess, long and thin and fierce, gleaming in the lantern light, moving like a snake through the darkness until it struck him square in the chest, knocking him backward. He landed on his back on the cold hard ground, the breath knocked out of him and something heavy upon his chest. He gasped for air, unable to fill his lungs and seemed to struggle for an eternity, longer, until all he could feel was the icy fingers of the Lady of the Long Dark squeezing his lungs, squeezing them, tighter, tighter. The darkness swallowed his vision and the realization struck him that he would die here, on the grave of his father. A kick to the groin roused him, brightened the darkness with stars of white pain and the demon that had been sitting upon his chest seemed to dissipate into the shadows around him. The watcher stood over him, holding the crossbow at the ready, his face a study of wariness.
“No more trickery,” the watcher said. “On your feet. It’s off to the dungeon for you.”
The darkness swam on the edges of his vision and he rolled onto his side, body wracked with a fit of coughing. The fit ended and he spat and tasted blood. With a shaky breath, and the vision of that deathly shadow still before his eyes, he gathered his strength and rose to his feet. The little man looked up at him, begrudging the stranger his height, and motioned with the crossbow for him to move along. Tanis did as he was bade, fully aware of the dwarf’s carelessness with the loaded weapon.
What was that shadow that had overcome him? Was it a messenger from the Lady of Darkness? Was it a sign of his impending doom or had it been mere imagining? His chest hurt, an icy pain right in the centre, a pain to outmatch that in his groin. Had he summoned a minion of Bella? Had the dwarf? Or was it a sign from the Goddess of Death? And if so, what did it mean?
He took a breath to calm himself, hands in the air as the dwarf commanded, and walked out of the graveyard, toward the guardhouse. There was no use trying to escape a man with a loaded crossbow. He would simply have to talk his way out of the whole thing. Surely the Captain of the Guard would understand a man wanting to visit the grave of his father, wouldn’t he?In the darkness the castle seemed a beacon. There was no moon to cast light upon the white stone walls, but they shone all the same, as though from within. It was some sorcerers trick from long before the Edict on Magic Use forbade such things. The castle, built centuries earlier, imbued with the light of Dreamer, that it might remain a bastion of hope for the people who had risked their lives to find a new home in a new land. A sign for any other, lost along the way.
It towered over Tanis in the back of the dog cart with his hands bound in front of him with rough hemp cord. The second watchman had appeared with the cart not long after the first had forced Tanis into the small hut. The dwarf remained behind to hold the post and this second man, tall, thin and terrified, drove the cart onward with many agitated lashes of his whip to the slow plodding donkey. He kept glancing back at Tanis as he lounged, apparently unconcerned about his fate. Was it the unconcern that frightened him, or was it merely Tanis’s size and visage? The watchman was thin and weak, as men who guard things that need not be guarded tend to get. He was a starving mongrel dog of a man who drove the cart, compared to the man of the wild, the well fed wolf. Cities destroy men, Tanis thought. They had destroyed him.
A particularly large rut in the road snapped Tanis from his reverie as the cart dropped out from under him and then rose up to strike his already tender parts. He held in the groan of pain. It would not do to let the watcher feel at ease. He might have laughed at his captor’s fear if he did not still feel the pain in his chest. He could not suppress a shudder at the memory of the shadow’s inky eyes.
The castle loomed higher and higher above them, glowing like a vision of the Lady of Dreams herself, bright white and mesmerizing. They drew upon the gate and the men there called out.
“Watcher Adelrick,” the cart driver responded. “I’ve brought the man I came about earlier.”
“Bring him to the sally port. We’ll take him from here.” A voice shouted from above and the door to the side of the main gate swung open with a hiss and a clang. Adelrick stayed where he was as two men came to take the prisoner. Both were in better shape than Adelrick, being castle guards, and much more cautious. One stayed back, crossbow loaded and at the ready, while the other stepped up to the cart.
“Out,” was all he said. Tanis took a deep breath and hauled himself to his feet, making sure to seem unsteady, and jumped down beside the man, stumbling a bit as he landed. He did not need to look close to know that these guardsmen were fully attired in mail shirts beneath their red-gold tabards, or that their britches were sewn up with concealed metal plates for further protection. The man had a sword at one hip and the hilt of a poorly concealed dagger stuck out of the top of his boot.
The guardsmen took him through the sally port and Adelrick watched them go, unease still resting upon his skin. He shook it off and turned the donkey around.
The stranger was not his problem.