5: A Time of war
The night was dark and still. Issic and his father led a group of ninety-eight riders over the Hollow Reach fields. Everything was silent. There was no moon that night, and relying on their torches to help them find their path, the men pressed on.
The Hollow Reach fields are farm lands. Acres and acres of farm land, both crops and herds, which stretched beyond sight just north of the town of Hollow Reach, the last city north of the Capital.
As the men strode on in aimless darkness, one of the horses began to panic and then reared, tossing its rider and his torch to the ground. The rider struck the ground hard as the others dismounted to try and calm the horse down. The man’s torch fell a few feet to his left, and when the rider got up to go get his torch, he understood why his horse knocked him off.
Ennic who led at the head of the host heard the commotion among men and signaled Issic to follow him to see what had happened. When Ennic approached the men, the commotion fell silent, and the men seemed fixed on something. “What is going on here?” asked Ennic, looking at Sir Hurst who had fallen from his horse.
To see Ennic better, Sir Hurst raised his torch. “My lord, my horse got spooked and…” he hesitated.
Ennic dismounted, walked up to Sir Hurst and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You look troubled sir. What happened here?” Ennic frowned at him with suspicion.
“I think you should see this.” said Sir Hurst. He beckoned Ennic to follow him.
Issic stretched his neck in curiosity, then dismounted and followed Sir Hurst and his father. A few yards away they came upon the other men circled around something on the ground. “Make way!” Ennic ordered as he pushed past the men to investigate the scene.
Issic began to push through the crowd of riders when he noticed that his father had gone silent. “What happened?” he asked his father. When Issic looked down, he saw the horror. A cow or what were left of a cow lay dead in front of them. The poor animal was torn from head to toe, its white coat stained with blood, and its guts hung from its belly. Issic’s eyes were fixed on the poor beast.
Suddenly the sky flashed purple and the sound of thunder came after, loud and almost deafening. Issic got a scare and had to cover his ears. Another flash lit the field but no thunder and for a second Issic saw the true horror. The entire field was ridden with animal and human corpses and all as gruesome as the cow at his feet. “What is happening?” Issic yelled out. When he turned to get an answer, no one was there. Frightened, Issic turned his head back and forth searching in panic. He kept turning alone and in the darkness of the moonless night. But when the purple light flashed once again, a man appeared in front mere inches from his face. The face resembled that of his fathers, only withered, aged and tainted with cuts and running blood. Issic screamed, and when the purple flash disappeared the man was gone but something was left behind. Issic lowered his eyes and saw a shiv stuck in his chest, and his surcoat was stained with fresh blood. Issic felt very weak and began to shake before his body gave up and fell to the ground
When Issic woke he found himself being shaken awake by Anbel. His body was covered in a cold suet. “You had a bad dream, my lord.” Her bright blue eyes sunk to the floor when Issic looked at her, and her cheeks turned red. She wore the same kind of rough-spun cloth dress that she was permitted. Her dusty blond hair was braided to one side today. “Are you alright? Would you like to talk about it, my lord?” she asked with her eyes fixed upon the ground.
Issic sat up. “I’ll be fine, and I can’t remember.” He said frustrated as hit the bed with his fist.
He had been having many nightmares about his father lately and he always woke up in a cold suet remembering nothing. Issic had mourned his father’s death for two weeks before those dreams began, and when they did, Issic didn’t have the patience to mourn during the day anymore.
Anbel backed away a little at the sight of his frustration. “Apologies.” She said in a soft voice.
Issic climbed out of bed and took Anbel by the hands. “There’s nothing to apologize for. You’re not to blame my dear.” He let go of one of her hands and raised her chin. “Why must I ask you every day, not to stare at the floor?” he smiled.
Her cheeks reddened when their eyes met and then she turned away. “I… I will gather your days clothes and I’ll pour you a hot bath my lord.” She scurried away as quick as she could go.
When he was bathed and clothed, Is-sic marched down to the porch, to enjoy a small breakfast. Before he could reach the porch, a knock came at his door. Anbel was the one to answer. Issic did not pay much mind to the door these days. He simply went on and sat down in his chair on the porch with a platter of food laid out for him on the table next to him.
The view from his porch was lovely. It overlooked the castle courtyard on the left side. From up there you could see how perfectly level the stone cut paved floor was and the white marble fountain in the center towered beside him. If one looked beyond the courtyard on the right side, one could see the castle training grounds. Issic liked the view and the sounds that came with it, but no matter where he went in this house, the thought of his father always pressed down hard on him.
“My lord, there’s a man here to see you.” Issic got a small scare. He did not see Anbel come out onto the porch.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“Sir Walter, my lord. The king’s messenger.” She answered looking straight into his eyes.
“Thank you. You may send him in.” he smiled. Anbel nodded and stepped away.
The man that stepped out onto the porch had been the king’s messenger for nearly fifteen years. He was a rather plump man with a round belly and face. He always wore tight clothes, mostly linen striped with red and white with gold trimming.
Issic turned around in his seat to have a quick look at his guest. He got up and walked over to greet the man. “Florence!” he laughed smiling. “My good Florence, how have you been?”
The man smiled back at Issic, but Florence’s face went grim at the question. “Today is a better day, but my thoughts have been weighed heavy of late.” His smile disappeared. “I am truly sorry for your loss my lad. None can understand your loss more than I.”
Issic couldn’t help but agree. Sir Florence Walter had been one of his father’s oldest friends. He would visit several times a week, and they would talk about times long past. There wasn’t a night that went by without a laugh when Florence made a visit. Florence had always been considered as part of the family. Issic always saw him like a goofy uncle.
A flash of discomfort flashed across Issic’s face. “Thank you.” he replied, trying to change the subject. “But come and sit down and have a drink so that we can talk about better days.” He signed at the chair beside his.
Florence hesitated. “I must apologize. I am here on duty today.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter. “I am to deliver this to you and take my leave.” He handed the letter over to Issic.
Issic thanked him and shook his hand. “Very well, it was nice to see you as short as the visit were.”
Florence smiled. “Take care, lad.” He gave Issic a quick bow. “Good day.”
“Good day.” Issic replied and bowed. Then, Florence took his leave.
Moments after Florence’s departure, Anbel stepped out onto the porch and found Issic standing beside his chair. “Do you require anything my lord?” she asked. When Issic didn’t answer her, she stepped up to him and placed her hand on his arm. “My lord?” she asked again.
“Sit with me.” his eyes were focused on the closed letter. Anbel’s eyes shot wide-open, and her arms fell to her sides. All she could do was stare at Issic with uncertainty.
Normally, salves and servants were not allowed to share the same table as their masters, but it was clear to her that Issic didn’t care for such formalities.
Hesitantly, she sat down at the table in the chair next to Issic’s. He sat down next her and continued to fumble with his letter. Anbel could feel something wasn’t right with Issic. “My lord is something troubling you?” she asked in a comforting voice.
He did not even look at her. “This is the king’s seal.” He showed her the wax seal that bound the letter with a weary look on his face.
Anbel was confused. She did not understand why Issic would hesitate to open such a letter. “What’s wrong with that?”
He turned to her. “Good news never travels with the king’s seal. I have seen my father get letters bearing the king’s seal and now look at him.” Anger flashed across his face as he squeezed the letter in one hand.
“Open it my lord, perhaps it’s not as bad as you think.” She reached for his hand, but Issic pulled away.
Frustrated by what it might say, Issic opened the letter, fearing the worst again. His face immediately changed as he began reading it. “I can’t believe this.” He was baffled.
“What is it?” she asked. “Is it bad?”
“I don’t know what to make of this. They want me to take my father’s place on the council and the King requests my presences tomorrow at court.” He was surprised. “Why would they choose me? I can think of plenty with more experience than I to replace my father.”
“Do you mean to refuse my lord?” Anbel asked.
Issic was surprised by that question. “Of course not!” he said offended. “If they want me to be part of the council then I will oblige. I shall make myself present tomorrow!” he declared.
Anbel squeezed his hand and gave him a small smile. “I am truly happy for you.”
“Thank you Anbel. Now come let us have breakfast together.” They nibbled on the fruit dish they had on the table.
Issic did not go out that day. He stayed inside or on the porch and read only to fall asleep in his chair and wake up the next day.
When he woke up in his chair, he felt confused and lost for a moment. That feeling soon passed when he realized he was sitting in his chair on the porch. He called out for Anbel and as quick as lightning, the girl was there. “Yes my lord?” she waited for instruction.
“I need to prepare for today’s court. I will need clean clothes and a nice bath.” Something in his mind made him hesitate the order he gave Anbel.
“Yes my lord.” She left to begin her duties when all of a sudden Issic rose from his chair and took her by the wrist. “Wait.” he demanded. “There’s something weighing my heart down, and I need to speak to you. Maybe you should sit down.” He let go of her. Anbel was confused and unsure.
Her unease was noticeable when she spoke. “Did I do something wrong my lord?”
“Do not call me that anymore.”
“I don’t understand.” Her eyes sunk to her lap.
“You have been my father’s servant six years, ever since you were ten years old. You and I grew up together. I don’t like the prospect of master and servant. That was something my father did, and I will not!” he held her hand and looked her in the eyes. “I want the awkward moments to end.”
Anbel did not know what to say. Her eyes grew with tears, and her cheeks turned red. “I…” it was the only words she could manage.
“I am giving you the title of freedom. You may do as you will. You are welcome to stay with me if you want to, but you will live here as a free woman not a slave. No longer will you have call me lord or take orders from me. To tell the truth…” he hesitated. “I… I have grown very fond of you of late and I rather have you by my side, but as a free woman.”
Tears welled in Anbel’s eyes. “I …” her words were all messed up. She did not know how to respond. “I don’t know what to say.” She gasped.
“I’ll go prepare for court by myself. Please think on what I’ve said. I shall expect an answer on my return.” He gave her hand a nice squeeze and smiled.
After Issic was washed and clothed, he made his way towards the door. He saw Anbel still sitting in the same chair he had left her. “I’m off to court. I will be back in the evening.”
Anbel did not answer. All she did was nod with her back facing him. Issic understood that she needed time to sort out her thoughts, so he left for court.
He made his way down the eastern tower that led up to his front door and came out at the bottom beside the keep’s gardens. Issic then turned left, crossed under an archway and emerged at the north-eastern side of the courtyard. The sun shined hot today, which made the white stone courtyard sparkle. The fountain in the center of the yard was running strong, and the sound of the days training bounced off the stone walls of the keep.
As Issic was crossing the courtyard, he heard a voice call out to him from a distance. “My lord!” the sound of this voice sounded familiar to him. When Issic turned to have a look, Botley came running up. Botley was clad in a full suit of armor but held his helm tucked up one arm. When finally he reached Issic, he was out of breath and panting. “My lord, do you have a moment?” he asked between breaths.
“What is it Botley? I’m needed in court today. Walk with me and speak your words.” Issic said.
Botley’s large blocky face seemed discomfited. “I wanted to apologize to you for being such a fuck on the training grounds during your instructions. I deemed you a lesser man. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and for that I’m sorry.”
That took Issic aback. He never expected to share a sentiment with Botley. “It is alright Botley.” That was all Issic could say. “Was I wrong about him? He doesn’t seem anything like he did on the training grounds when he contested my judgment.” he thought to himself.
“And I would give any one-service you wish of me as payment for this debt.” Added Botley.
Issic shook Botley’s hand and placed another hand on his shoulder. “Thank you. I will remember those words my friend.” Issic released Botley’s shoulder and walked up the steps to the castle doors. The old castle doors were very tall and rusted at the hinges. They were more ornate than they were to be used. The door were made of a dark redwood and fortified with gold braces. Etched into each door was the goddess Melingra in human form. Her hair was painted with, gold and her eyes were made of emeralds. Their arms were stretched out towards each other, and their hands held each other’s in the center where the doors met.
Instead, Issic entered through the side door in order to avoid opening the old, noisy doors. Once inside, the large doors that led to the Kings hall on the far wall were closed. The guards posted in front of those doors beckoned Issic through. Once on the other side, Issic walked out into the Kings hall but it was empty.
The Kings hall was always full of people normally. Beggars, merchants, priests, soldiers and land owners would swarm the keep on other days, but today was different. Issic found himself walking down the long hall alone. His footsteps echoed off the dark red wall and golden beams. The windows streamed the light in and gave the hall a beautiful glow. A common long wooden table sat on the dais at the end of the hall and lined up behind it was the King and Queens chairs along with the council members chairs.
Issic walked up to the dais and rubbed a hand on the soft wooden table in admiration. Suddenly, Issic heard foot-steps that weren’t his own. He turned around and saw a man emerge from the hallway that link to the left side of the Kings hall.
“Issic!” said the man in a seemingly cheerful mood. “I’m glad you made it, my lord.”
Issic knew the man who greeted him. “How are you, Sir Walsh?” Issic stepped down from the dais and shook the man’s hand.
Sir Walsh was an elderly man in his sixties. He always wore his armor, heavy and steel plated with the colors of the crown. He had long served the King, first as his squire, then as his lord commander and now as his most trusted advisor. He was the man second in command, the kings will and word. But not the next in line for the throne.
“I have been well Issic…”the smile on his face left briefly. “…despite what has happened.” He tapped Issic on the shoulder. “Come, we are waiting in the king’s private conference chamber.” Sir Walsh led the way down the hallway to the left the turned into another hallway on the right. At the end of the hallway, they turned right again and headed up the stairs to the king’s private chambers. The guard waiting outside the door beckoned them in. Issic had never been in the king’s private room before. When he entered the entrance way to the chamber, Issic stood in awe. Plush dark red carpet lay on the floor and wall were painted a matte gold. Issic walked forward and to his left the room opened up behind an open archway. He stepped through, and he was amazed by the beauty of the conference chamber. The red carpet covered the entire floor and golden paint on walls shined in the torchlight. The walls also had beautiful etchings and moldings. On the far wall stood a massive hearth and etched all around it were leafy vines. In the center of the room stood a breath taking table made of rich dark mahogany. That is where everyone was waiting for the meeting to begin.
All the chatter in the room fell silent when Issic entered. The sight in front of Issic made him feel a little uncomfortable. The council members were sitting around the table, but the king wasn’t there. But the thing that troubled Issic was the many men in full body armor that stood all around the room. Issic stood near the archway with Sir Walsh just behind him.
One of the soldiers on the far side of the room shouted. “All kneel for the king!” and everyone dropped to one knee. As the men kneeled, the king walked out of his bedroom from the door on the far left side. He wore a shiny dark red robe with golden fur trimming. He walked over to Issic and gave him a slight hand gesture, telling him to rise. The rest of the men rose just after.
The King had deep and powerful voice, the kind of voice that was meant to rule. “Issic my boy, I am truly sorry for your loss.” Issic had never heard the king speak like that before. The king had such a comforting voice that it seemed unnatural, but it quickly changed. “These are troubling times my lad.” His voice sounded grim. “There have been reports among the common people that a particular some-one has been spreading the word of our little issue up north. ‘Dragons’ seems to be everyone’s favorite topic at the moment. Now, look at me boy and tell it true. Have you told anyone about the incident up north?” His voice raised.
“I didn’t know the subject was to be kept in secrecy. Nobody told me.” Issic replied as the color flushed from his face.
“A lie my king.” Sir Walsh stated. “I had the king’s messenger deliver the message a week ago. He said that the servant girl took the letter.”
“I am not lying!” shouted Issic.
“They say lies are a coward’s weapon.” the king stated. “Your lies only prove to us that you’re your father’s son.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Issic’s hand began to shake.
“Confessed reports had been brought to my attention that your father fled the battle field just before he burst into flames and vanished leaving nothing behind but his sword.” Replied the king. “Don’t deny it. You told that little slave of yours everything. Oh but I almost forgot. She isn’t a slave anymore, is she? Very strange isn’t it?” the king grinned.
“She didn’t do anything. Please your grace. There must be a misunderstanding somewhere.” Issic pleaded.
The king showed no remorse. “I can tolerate the fact that your father was a coward, but for you to stand here and lie to your king’s face is a great offence.” The king paced back and forth in front of Is-sic.
“Your Grace, please listen to me.” Issic began to suet in the heat of the moment.
“I have heard enough from you boy!” the king’s voice echoed. “Let’s see what your little bitch has to say. Bring her in!” ordered the king.
Anbel was brought forward by the shackles around her wrists. Her upper lip was cut, and bleeding and her left eye was swollen and black. Issic was speechless. The look he gave her was one of utter confusion. Issic turned back towards the king. “What have you done to her!?” he shouted.
The king turned back to and punched Issic in the face. “Keep your mouth shut!” The king walked up and stood close to Anbel. “Now my dear, tell everyone here how Issic told you everything.”
Anbel did not say a word. The king nodded to the guard holding her shackles. The guard quickly turned her towards him and slapped her across the face. The king grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head back. “Speak! Tell us the truth!” ordered the king. But she would not make a sound save that of crying.
The king grew inpatient and let go of Anbel. “Guard, find her a cold and musty cell.” But before the guard could take her away, anger overtook Issic, and he lunged at the king. Fear flashed across the king’s face as he saw Issic attack him. Before Issic could even land a punch, Sir Walsh grabbed Issic by the collar of his shirt, drew his sword and hit Issic in the back of the head with his hilt.
Anbel shrieked and wept uncontrollably.
The king regained his composure and pointed at Issic who lay unconscious on the floor. “There is your proof. A cowards attempt at freedom.” cried the king. “Take his bitch away!” the king pointed at Issic again. “Sir Walsh, take this one to the pits.”