The Tomes of the Seer: Chapter 9

Here is Chapter nine. Again, I added some horror elements and I think the story is benefiting from it. I would greatly like to hear the opinions of readers, though. Please, comment. Give me feedback, good or bad.

Chara

Curiosity was getting the better of her. She wanted Gherric to finish his story so badly that her lips hurt from forcing her mouth shut. When she had asked him to go on, he gave a look that clearly said that now was not the time. Looks like that often spoke volumes, though, and Chara found herself trying to reason out why Gherric wouldn’t, or maybe couldn’t, finish what he was telling her about her father. For that, she glared backward at the two Dursien farmers every now and again, sure that Gherric wouldn’t be holding back his tale if they hadn’t picked up those two strangers. She found a small pleasure in catching the confused looks between the farmers every time she glowered at them, but it didn’t do anything to reduce her anxiety of not knowing something. She hated being left in the dark, but Gherric was a stone.

The going was a lot slower, now that she wasn’t in a saddle. With her on foot, and Ghinri and Rhonnil bringing up the rear, it felt like they were never going to reach Lucansphear. Chara had been away from home for three days now, the longest she’d ever been away from home in her life. In truth, Chara hadn’t even been outside of Thrym for much more than a few hours. Every step, for three whole days, had been new to her, and none of them she thought, would make good memories.

Gherric, well he was still nice to look at, but Chara couldn’t pass the time flirting anymore. It had been in jest at first anyway, nothing to be taken seriously, of course, but now, in front of two other men, it would just be lewd. Not to mention, Chara knew the minds of men. She had certainly seen the way Rhonnil’s eyes held her a time or two, and she didn’t have to be a damned seer to figure out what it was he was thinking about. She’d met men like him before.

After their second night in the woods, Chara had started keeping an extra eye on Rhonnil. The fire was low, but she could still see his eyes crack open and twinkle a little in the light as he lied there, pretending to sleep, but really just watching her. She acted like she didn’t notice him looking her up and down. She pretended not to see when the rustling beneath his covers got to be a little too much movement to be confused with anything other than what she knew was really going on. He fell asleep shortly after, as men often did. Chara scoffed at the memory.

She could have told Gherric, she guessed, but she wasn’t sure how he’d react. If he beat him, dragging him to Lucansphear would take even longer. Not to mention, he’d probably have to beat Ghinri, too. Chara didn’t want that. Ghinri seemed a nice boy, especially when he looked at her through bashful eyes, as if ashamed of the way his uncle so often behaved. She sneaked the young man smiles every so often, more than anything just to show him things would be all right. He had developed an awful shake, and a sharp twitch in his neck, which his uncle said had started when the farm was attacked, and had been getting worse every day. Chara felt bad for the young man, which, in turn, made her start feeling bad for herself all over again. Mat…

That was another thing, altogether. With every further step she gaped the distance between her and the people she loved and cared for. Mat seemed almost a distant memory now, and even the image of her mother was fading away. It had only been a couple of days, but shocking days they had been, jarring loose whatever fragment remained of some life that had once seemed normal, even boring. Still, she kept putting one blistered foot in front of the other. The crunch of small stones beneath her feet suddenly brought her back to reality.

Chara and her mismatched comrades walked among boulders, some tiny and some as big as Gherric’s horse. The forest had been cleared here, and ahead of them spanned a field a jagged spears of stone, some stabbed into the earth, sticking out in pointed angles, and others thrown about at random, or shattered to pieces. Others seemed stacked, a larger one resting on two slabs turned upright, as if someone had attempted a house, or a primitive building of some sort, but had given up.

No trees grew. The forest stopped in what seemed a perfect circle around the chaos of the stones. The dirt, if you could call it such, seemed almost stone itself; one handful made up thousands of tiny, black pebbles as if it had come from a beach scorched to ash.

“What is this place?” Chara asked.

Gherric didn’t answer. Instead, he dismounted Widower and tied him to one of the jagged spears of rock in front of him. “I don’t want a horse with a broken leg,” he said. “These stones can be treacherous. You watch your footing as well.”

Frustrated, Chara turned to face Ghinri who was still standing with his uncle at the mouth of the trail that had led them into the clearing, giving him a look that suggested that he better have a better answer for her than Gherric did.

Ghinri looked to his uncle before speaking, who was eyeing his toes, keeping them from passing the threshold into the strange quarry. The boy looked down at his toes for a second too, before looking up and spotting Gherric moving undisturbed among the boulders. With a deep breath, he stepped onto the black sand, and froze.

Chara furrowed her eyebrows and looked him up and down. Ghinri slowly opened his eyes and let out all of his air in one huge breath. Chara shook her head at him, and turned to walk away, exasperated.

“Wait,” Ghinri called. “I know where we are.” Don’t leave — I mean…please, come over here with me.”

Something about the quiver in his voice and that awkward way he was tiptoeing through the sand and around the rocks made Chara suddenly shiver. “What is this place,” she asked again.

Ghinri slowly looked up to meet her eyes, and then he turned to take in the scene of the strange circle. Behind him, the low sun had just dipped its tip beneath the tops of the poplars and ash that made up the forest here, swathing his sweaty face in shadow. “I didn’t think it was real,” he said. He leaned down then, scooping up a fistful of the odd sand. He let it slowly trickle out of the bottom of his fist and he rubbed at his temples with his other hand. “It — it can’t be…”

“Ghinri?” Chara said.

He seemed to jump at his own name, tossing down what as left of the sand in his fist and wiped the remaining flecks on his already dirty pants. “The old ones home in Dursei didn’t really have a name for it,” he said, frowning. “They just called it ‘seared,’ or ‘scarred.’” Ghinri rubbed his hands along one of the stone pillars and then looked at his palm warily. A bead of sweat dripped from his hairline. “They never said exactly what that meant — seared – but I think I understand now.” He kicked at the blackened sand, spraying a fountain of it in front of him. He shook his head again, shocked, at what, Chara still didn’t know.

“What did they say about it, Ghinri…this place?”

“They told the stories when we were young, I suppose to keep all of the kids away from here. No matter who told the story, they always told it exactly the same. By the third or fourth time you heard it, you believed them, that’s for sure. And you never wanted to leave the farm again.”

A small chill withered Chara’s spine and she quickly rubbed the goose bumps off of her arms. Gherric eyed her from afar, seeming on edge, coiled like a snake in the grass, ready to spring on a summer mouse. She waved him off like he was an overprotective father brooding over a betrothal. She grabbed Ghinri’s hand and pulled him along. The boy’s behavior, so odd and out of place, was making her feel as if the air itself was about to explode. The closer they were to Gherric, the safer everybody would be. But still, she wanted to hear the rest of what the young farmer had to say. “Go on,” she said. “What were the stories?”

“ In the old days,” he began, “back before the Sh-Shadow rose to cover our lands — if you believe those things — Dursei, back then anyway, wasn’t much of a farmland, you see. Aye, they say that most men made their livings from digging things up out of the ground, here. In these hills, men from Dursei found all sorts of precious materials, a lot of which, you’d might see on ye‘ nobles of here or there. When the metals and jewels ran up, or they just couldn’t find anymore, they started cutting into the hills themselves, removing giant pieces of them, whole. These stone slabs, they would trade with builders or what have you, and some of those very stones, you can maybe see in a few of the oldest buildings left in Lucansphear, Grolmwood, or might be Hornhold, too.”

The story of the history of Dursei didn’t seem to have anything to do with the fear Ghinri had displayed before, and Chara was growing impatient. They had reached Gherric who eyed the Dursien boy cautiously, almost daring him to say the wrong thing. Chara saw his hand hovering near his dagger hilt, and gave him a threatening glare.

“Go on, Ghinri,” she said. “Gherric here just isn’t much one for stories, that’s all.” Ghinri eyed them both quickly, wrinkling his forehead as if he were oblivious to every bit of exchange the two had just had. He shrugged, and kept talking.

“As I was getting to,” he said. “These men would move these huge stones through the hills and off to lands far beyond — lands that don’t even stand upon this world any longer. The story told of them moving this stones quickly, too, more quickly than you or I could even imagine a thing to move.” Ghinri clenched his jaw, and gave a quick shake of his head. His eyes squinted as he dragged a pick through his memory, scouring for the words. “The old ones,” he started again. “What they told me, was that they hadn’t themselves known quite for sure how the miners had done it — moving the stones, you see? They said that they didn’t know if the quickness was received, a gift or power they had wished for, or if they created it themselves.”

“What do you speak of, farmer?” Gherric broke in. “Out with it. If we’re ought to frighten ourselves into a stupor, wrought with the sweats of anticipation, I’d rather be through it by night’s fall, thinking of lovelier things than miners while I’m lying down to sleep. This story of yours, better prove worthy of the time I’m wasting listening to –” Chara sent her sharp elbow into his chest, sending out his wind. Instead of repeating herself for the thousandth interruption, she simply nodded to Ghinri, encouraging him to proceed.

Clearing his throat, Ghinri started again. “The old ones, they said that they themselves didn’t believe that they had this gift by sacrifice or enchantment. They told us that they believed the men of the mines had been drawing upon a power, using magic to cut and move the stones. As stupid as it sounds, the sitters of my village swear it to be true, and they know a lot of things and more.” He smiled then, as if recalling something he didn’t want to speak aloud. “And,” he went on, “that’s not even the good part. The miners used this power often, and they used it hard, but the old ones say that the miners must not have been very good at using this power, or magick, or whatever you’d be liking to call it. In the end, it failed them. They were greedy with it, or so it is said. The power they drew turned on them, here in this very spot. The old ones say that when it happened, a bright beam of light could have been seen for leagues and leagues as it shout down out of the blackness of the night sky. It scorched the earth here, and blew apart the stones the miners had been moving that night, and then it was gone.”

Chara gasped. Of course she had heard fool stories of magick and powers and things of that nature circling around like wildfires whenever a word performer came to town. Yes, she had heard those stories and always laughed them off. But now, standing in a perfect circle, almost seeming to be cut from the woods itself — that perfect circle with seared black sand, glistening black like eternal glass shaved from the darkness of the sky itself, and jagged rocks, too, spires, pillars, slabs, disintegrated, shattered, thrown feet deep into the earth, stabbing, littering, and lying useless all around her — it almost made sense. She could believe, if she really, really tried, that Ghinri’s story could be true. Before she could question any of it, or choose to voice her beliefs of incredulities, Ghinri opened his mouth to talk again.

“They say that nobody found any trace of the miners. People back then, they saw the beam of light from eons out, and they came to it, powder flies to a torch flame, they were. But when they got there — here — this is what they found.” Ghinri spread his arms and spun in a circle, pointing out the obvious to the listeners of his retold tale. “There was nothing. No tools lay on the ground, no bones, or bodies. Not a scrap of cloth. The only reason anybody at all knew that it was our miners who had disappeared at this spot was because of the stones. The old ones say that some of them still bear the Dursien miners-mark.” Ghinri stopped talking and rubbed the smooth side of one of the splintered stones stabbed in front of him. “If I knew what to look for, I’d like to see it.”

“I’ve traveled these lands since before the day your father even thought of putting you inside your mother, farmer,” Gherric said. “And I’ve never heard that tale.” He uncrossed his arms and looked away at toward the setting sun, just glittering its dying embers above the ringed tree-tops. Smoothing his moustache with his thumb and forefinger, Gherric looked wracked in thought. With a final wrinkle of his brow, he shook his forehead and sighed. “I don’t know, boy, you might be true. As I said, and I was as honest as they come, I’ve traveled the area for years, many more than you’ve seen, but I’ve never come across this place. If your people know of it, no doubt they probably know more behind it than I. This power you spoke of, aye, I know a little of that myself.

Chara felt the hair on her arms stand as she looked at Gherric, regret for the words he just admitted almost plainly written on his frowning face. She reached out and gripped his forearm and felt him flinch. “Sir — I mean Gherric,” she said. “What do you mean you –”

“Hold on, now,” Ghinri cut in, “there’s more to the story than that. My uncle, he knows it best. He could surely tell you the next parts in much better detail than I ever could. I believe he was just a young boy when the next bit happened, but he can tell you. I’m sure he remembers just as well as the last time he told the story to me. Isn’t that right uncle?!” Ghinri spun around to face the edge of the wood the wrung the circle to where his uncle had stood, refusing to enter the clearing, or even touch the black sand.

“Uncle?”

The sun dipped beneath the trees and where it filtered through it caught the great upright jagged edges of the broken spires, sending fragments of white and gold light directly into the eyes of the group who looked to the edge of the wood for Uncle Rhonnil. Through squinted eyes, peering under the shadow of her hand, Chara could see that the older farmer was not there, not where Ghinri had left him no more than a few moments before. “Mister?!” she cried. “Mister Rhonnil?” She turned and caught the fearful look on Ghinri’s young face, shriveled up and on the verge of a screaming fit.

Gherric’s sword shrieked through the air as he ripped it from his scabbard. It glinted, filled with orange in the rays of the falling sun. “Stay put,” he said. “Stay together.” Gherric — strong, brave Gherric — pushed the two of them together before running around the broken rock splinters and across the black, night-like sand.

Chara’s skin tingled and something made the hair on the back of her neck jump near out of her skin. She watched Gherric run, hoping, but only halfway, that Rhonnil was well and fine. The halfwit, she thought. He probably got too scared and wandered away. No doubt he’s curled up next to a log, half asleep.

She knew she was probably right, but part of her also didn’t know what to think at all. Guilt burrowed a nice little hole in her gut, reminding her how lowly it was to wish ill upon another person, even if it was only halfway. Another part of her felt a longing for something terrible to really have happened to Rhonnil. At least that way she wouldn’t have to worry about being alone with him, the way he looked at her and all, always watching, grinning, and seeming to foam about the mouth. But that thought, too, set fire again to the tinge of guilt she seemed to keep feeding in her stomach. Mixed in with those emotions that left her torn and feeling sorry and at the same time propitious at the situation, Chara also heard a little voice inside of her head asking if Gherric would come running like that after her if she were in some supposed danger. Deep down, she knew he would. Somehow, there wasn’t any doubt at all.

After a few moments in silence, Chara and Ghinri nervously glancing at each other, Gherric emerged from the now pitch-black woods. Alone.

“My uncle?!” Ghinri called out. “What’s happened? Is he –?”

Gherric waved off his questions as he approached, looking sour and brooding, face getting harder with each step. “He’s fine,” he growled as he spat on the ground.

Ghinri’s neck twitched again and Chara looked at him oddly before gesturing to Gherric to continue his explanation before Ghinri had a fit. The poor boy looked on the verge of collapse, with sweat beading down his forehead despite the evening chill, and that twitch that always made him look as if he were swiftly disagreeing with something.

“Ah,” Gherric muttered. “The man’s a fool. You can be sure he’s heard all of the stories young Ghinri here has been relating. Probably more if I’m not mistaken.” He ran his fingers through his long hair before setting himself down on a low shelf of rock. “If he hadn’t seemed such a coward, I might have knocked him into a dream and dragged him in here to catch sleep with the rest of us.”

Chara could imagine exactly how their conversation had gone. Surely Rhonnil had vehemently refused to step another foot near the ring of stone and sand, retelling the exact things that Ghinri had been in the middle of explaining. Gherric most certainly called him a halfwit and berated him into joining the rest of the party, probably even threatened him. She could see it now, Rhonnil the stubborn old man, sitting with his arms crossed on top of his bedroll refusing to move.

In truth, it didn’t matter to her. It’d be nice to sleep peacefully without having to hold an eye half open. Not that she expected Rhonnil to ever act on his lustful stares, but it still pricked at the back of her mind most nights. Not tonight, though. Tonight she would sleep easily.

Gherric gave out orders to her and the young farmer for the next half hour or so, and just as the sun’s final sparks died behind the ominous shadow of trees, they had a small fire going and a sturdy lean-to to rest under. Gherric said that it didn’t feel like rain, but you couldn’t be too careful — especially as of late. Chara couldn’t agree more.

After they ate their small meal of wild oats and honey-dabbed dried beef, they made up beds for the night. Ghinri was nice enough to give Chara his roll and make up a bed of soft gravel and sand for himself. He said he’d be warm enough, but Chara could see him shiver in the firelight.

Gherric had been mostly quiet after his argument with Rhonnil except when he was giving orders to set the camp up. He looked deep in thought there across the fire, squishing up his brow and puffing lightly on his pipe. The smell of wood and berry floated over to her, and it brought Chara flooding memories of a few nights before.

Images flashed in her head of that day, and she tried to focus on something else to dull the pain. She saw King Boraan and Prince Ludrin brutally ended all over again. She saw that monster, swapping skins with that poor broken Knight. She remembered the feeling of the wind, that sweet damp smell of the wood and the harsh slashes across her face as she ran from that monster that seemed right behind her, even when she knew he was so very far away. She reached up to feel the crook of her nose, where she knew it was still a little black and blue. Gherric had done that, but it had been her fault, running like a scared little girl. She pushed on her nose, savoring the biting pain as it flushed out the thoughts of what terrible things might be happening to her sweet brother and poor mother. A tear slalomed coolly down her fire-warmed cheek, and she wiped it away just as Ghinri broke the silence.

“I still can’t quite believe that I’m here,” he said.

Gherric took the pipe out of his mouth and looked down his nose at him across the fire. “I thought we were done with this talk,” he said.

“Aye, we are,” Ghinri said. “But, there is more to the story. I mean, if you’d be interested in having it told.”

Gherric rolled his eyes and began sucking on his pipe-stem again, watching the rolls of smoke bond with the fire’s and disappear high into the air. “If you’ll be telling it, I haven’t much choice but to listen. I always knew the men of Dursei had stories, but to be hearing them is a story in itself.”

Chara burst out laughing and so did Ghinri. Even Gherric cracked a smile as he leaned back and took a huge satisfied pull off of his pipe. The smoke wafted over to Chara again, with the sweet sickly smell that would forever fuse with her memory. She felt ill, and suddenly realized that it had grown very quiet.

Ghinri still held a slight smile on his face, but something about it seemed almost regretful. It was soon obvious why it seemed that way. What he said ruined the mood their laughter had just lifted them to.

“Years ago,” he said, “was the first time it happened.”

Chara sat up on her elbow, leaning in to put an ear closer to Ghinri. He was whispering now.

“A few men from town whose crops were fairing ill in that last drought came into the hills in search of our ancestors lost trade. They found this place, or so the old ones say, and they began to steal from it. If you really look around, and I can see it now, a lot of the stone slabs are still good, almost perfect, and surely would catch a fair price in a town or city that needed some repairs. I can see why they camped here, the men from Dursei.”

He stopped, looking around at the stones that surrounded them, and chara saw him visibly shiver. She felt small prickles of skin raising down her backbone, but she resisted as hard as she could, knowing if she shivered, fear would set in, and she she’d be shaking through the rest of Ghinri’s story. Fear like that is what causes a girl to seek the beds of men, she knew, but this was neither the place or time. Comfort, though, would be nice. With all that had happened, it’d be nice to grieve with someone special. Someone with nice strong arms, and –

Her thoughts were interrupted as Ghinri cleared his throat. She was glad for it. She shook her head, shaking loose whatever lustful wants had crept their way in there against her will. She smiled to herself as Ghinri began to talk again.

“They probably slept somewhere around where we are sleeping now,” he said. “Aye, they must have…after they had their haul roped off and hitched to the horses. They must not have considered it thieving, knowing that their ancestors had carved the stones themselves and just left them to anyone.”

Ghinri got a dark look on his face and tilted his head down toward the fire. It cast long dancing shadows up his face, giving Chara the chills again. This time, she did shudder.

“They never asked themselves ‘why?’,” he said. “Why didn’t they wonder the reasons that nobody since the accident had taken the stones and sold them? They never stopped to ask any of themselves any question like that. They just went on about their business and stole, took things that belonged to the dead — took the reason and the object behind the death, the accident itself.”

Goosebumps flared, ripping down the whole of Chara’s shaking body, but yet she stared in awe at Ghinri’s lips as he talked, excitement, terror, and elation all squeezing through her veins.

“And in the night, where they camped, right in this very spot,” he continued, “they heard something awful.”

“What?!” Chara blurted. “What was it?!” She could see a smile stretch across Gherrics face, and heard Ghinri stifle a small chuckle. Red flamed in her cheeks, and she slunk down, avoiding the laughing eyes of her companions. Still, she ached for the rest of the story. It seemed like forever before Ghinri spoke again.

“What they heard?” he asked. “What they heard, Chara, was this…” Quietly at first, so quiet, Chara couldn’t understand what he was saying, Ghinri whispered, “Pick…pick…pick.” Again, a little louder this time, Ghinri leaned a little closer to Chara, and whispered a little harsher this time, “Pick…pick…pick…”

“I don’t understand,” she said. “What sound is that…what could that mean?”

“Pick. Pick. Pick,” Ghinri said a bit faster and a bit louder. “What they heard, Chara, was this…” He drew a dagger from his belt, and picked up a piece of the shattered stone next to where he was lying, and then he tapped the fat, round steel head of the handle on the stone three times.

Pick

Pick

Pick.

The sound was unmistakable. Miner’s tools, clinking away on stone, breaking them apart piece by piece. Chara covered her mouth and threw the bedroll around her shoulders, shivering, shaking, wishing she never would have asked. Gherric’s face had gone blank, as if all the blood had rushed out of it. His eyes twinkled with a small hint of something, something a little less than fear, but almost there, almost matching her own.

“Those men,” Ghinri said. “They disappeared.” He shook is head slowly, staring down into the dirt. “They made it back to Dursei,” he said, “and they told their tale. A sad thing really… Nobody believed them, nobody at all, yet each and every night they swore they heard the miners out there in the woods, picking away at the stones, picking away at nothing. They said for three straight nights that the sound was getting louder, getting harder; they spoke of nightmares and things looking into their little windows at night. Still, nobody believed them, but on the morning of the third day, they were nowhere to be found. All that was left were ashy, stone-white footprints — bootprints — left inside their houses. They never cried out. They never screamed. They just…were gone.”

“That’s enough, farmer,” Gherric said, standing up taller than the fire to point a finger directly into Ghinri’s sullen face.

He put his hands before him in defense, but his demeanor didn’t change. He looked down, deep into the fire instead of up at Ghinri. “It’s true,” he said. “That’s my reason for not wanting a part of this place at first.”

Gherric sat back down on his slab of rock where he rested his own bedroll and sighed. “I think it’s best we get to rest,” he said. “We’ve a long day tomorrow, and I’m going to push hard. I want to be through to Lucansphear by nightfall. Thanks for the story, Ghinri, may your dreams suffer more than mine, you Dursien bastard.”

Ghinri and Gherric both busted into bright laughter, and Chara tried to force herself to chuckle, but the words Ghinri had spoken still echoed in her mind. Not just about the men disappearing, but about all of it. The miners and their powers. The beam of light. The lack of knowing anything about it grinded at her. Gherric had said that he knew of this power — this magic, but when she looked up at him with a questioner’s frown, he shook his head at her and kicked a little sand on the fire to stifle it lower. She knew what that meant. Story time was over.

They all settled on their backs and nestled in to whatever bed they had for the night, and soon Chara could hear the unmistakable snores of Ghinri — he had them every knight — and she could see that Gherric had his eyes closed and his hands gripping his dagger. She doubted he ever really slept, but just sat in some sort of waiting, in between sleep and action. She knew if she moved a finger width, he’d spring up, dagger and all.

She tried to forget about the story that still had her skin tingling, so she stared up at the stars rather than close her eyes and think upon more frightening things. Above her, the tiny lights twinkled and winked as she counted them. She never could get very far before her eyelids would begin to close and she’d have to start all over again. This time it was different.

Above her, where the stagnant stars always waited, always looking back still and the same, a small circle of them began to churn. It started in the middle, one little light getting brighter and slowly changing shape and size. It moved, slowly at first, turning in wider and wider circles, until the other stars that made up its constellation followed, spinning, whirling, swimming in her vision. As the circle of stars waved and grew, it drew in other star groups and lapped them up, funneling them together.

Chara stared in awe, enveloped in the beauty of it all so much that she didn’t question its reality, as if it were always like this, the stars dancing in the ebony night. She didn’t question any of it as it all began to move together, growing brighter and bigger, becoming one mass of white light.

Her eyelids synched closer together and tiredness filmed her eyes. The stars heaved, one giant mass now, one bright circle of light, one giant dot in the knight sky. She felt her eyes close, she felt the warmth of the star mass weighing on her flesh. She felt sleep coming — one awesome wave, sweeping her up from her toes to her head. Sleep. Taking over. She felt like she was falling, her body just tipping through the surface of the world, a pebble slowly breaking through one wet film of parchment. Her face smiled as she slipped deeper in to the sweet waves of sleep. Faintly, somewhere beyond it all, she heard a noise.

Her eyes shot open. No, she thought. It can’t be.

The noise sounded again and this time she was sure it wasn’t a dream. The stars were back in their normal places, no bright mass of light grooming her like the fires of heaven, no swirling elation. Just fear. The noise sounded again, and terror shot through Chara’s frozen veins. It was closer now. Louder now and closer with every beat. It sounded again, and Chara screamed.

Pick

Pick

Pick.

The Tomes of the Seer: Chapter 8

Here is chapter number eight. I’m fairly happy with this one; however, I would like an honest critique of it if any of you who have read the rest would be willing to give one. I broke perspective in this chapter at the very end, also. I think it works, but I could be wrong. It’s the first time in the story I’ve done so … maybe the last. Let me know what you think, please.

Illurin

 

The evening sun still burned even through the gloomy haze of the milk-like fog that choked the Swathed Hills. Night approached. It had almost been a full day’s worth of running since Illurin fled the castle she once called her home. Her legs ached and her lungs burned with each ragged breath. The waste-stained, ragged breeches and blouse she wore was a far cry from the beautiful blue and ivory silk she had worn just a day before. She had sat a throne, a Queen, and was now heir to nothing but her own corpse.

She had escaped the castle through a drainage tunnel that doubled equally well as a secret passage. Her husband had shown it to her one day when she was his new wife. Few knew of it, and she was sure that the new King Hyrren hadn’t. Still, she had to sneak her way to the entrence to the hidden door beneath the cistern that sat under the waste chamber, and then wade waist-deep through foul sludge. The whole way, from her bedroom to the chamber, King Hyrren’s wife’s screamed, her wails echoing throughout the great halls of the inner castle. If one hadn’t known better — known the creature her husband had become — those screams may have sounded like shrieks of pleasure, more than content in her returned husband’s throws of love. Illurin knew better. Those had been cries of terror — of pain, and torment.

Regret pressed at her harder with each step. She wished that she could have done something for the woman, no matter how angry with her she had been at the time. She remembered that smug sneer Naira Hyrren had given her, gloating over her as her husband usurped her. It was enough to make her cringe again, feeling shame over her actions and reactions in the throne room. However, she now felt more shame at ignoring the cries of the women as she fled the castle. She thought that she could probably be able to hear Lady Hyrren’s screams echoing throughout her head for the rest of her life. Deep down, though, what could she really have done? Lord, a depleter…

The whole thing seemed ages ago, now, what with the way her body screamed at her for rest. Illurin had had no horse, no food, no map. She hadn’t had time to plan any of it. Riefwhin had told her to go, and she knew he had been right. Her motions were set from that moment, and the screams of Naira had only worked to move her along faster. She put on fresh clothes, and made a small bundle using the sheet from her bed top. She had only time enough to throw in one proper dress, a pair of underclothes, a split skirt for riding, and a blouse or two. All of the heirlooms of her family, and the memories of her husband had been left behind. Even if she had wanted to grab one of the great swords, or even a bastard sword off the wall, she knew it would only have slowed her down, if she could have carried it at all. Instead, she sheathed a small dagger and tucked it in to the waist of her breeches. It was all for the better. She had never been trained in swordplay anyway.

Luckily, she had so far avoided ever even having to pull her knife. She made it deep into the hills by the morning after she had run, and hadn’t run into much of any problem. None that required violence, anyway. Most of the day had gone by smoothly, with Illurin running through breaks in the fog, lying down beneath thickets of mossed elm when she had heard noises, or walking slowly, checking her feet when the mire densed too thick with the whitened haze. The fog was surely stifling, though. It seemed at some times to be seeping from the ground itself, as if leaking from great pores in the dirt, acrid bile ducts, spewing rotted breath. Other times it seemed as if it were smoke, thick and choking, billowing from pipes linked to stoves beneath the earth. She tried her best to shake those thoughts away. It’s just your fears at play, she told herself. It’s been quite the day.

Now, as nightime came ever-closer, and her footsteps slower, and fewer and farther inbetween, she found herself letting her eyelids close more of often than not, until the point when she began stumbling over things that hadn’t actually been there at all. If she went on much farther in that state, she knew that she was bound to hurt herself, one way or another. With each step, it seemed that the woods grew darker, and more dank. But, with the night came cooler air that forced some of the fog back to whatever place it had come from.

Moss hung like severed sinew, thickly spilling from branches high and low. Shadow grass made thick veins on the trees, spreading from the roots and thinning out near the top where it wrapped itself, strangling the life out of trees thick and thin. Illurin didn’t care. Any spot now was as good a place to lie as another. She found a fallen willow that had crashed into a great birch tree, shattering and crippling it. The smashed trees lay together in a mound, the fallen branches creating space underneath that appeared dry, and hidden. It even looked as though the dead birch leaves, and willow vines rotten on the ground beneath would make a soft under-bed, after Illurin spread her sheet over it.

It was more comfortable than she thought, but nothing like her oversized bed at the castle had been. As for tonight, she didn’t care. After spreading her sheet, and curling up with the other clothes she had brought, her eyelids had simply refused to stay open. Somewhere in between consciousness and sleep, she listened to the sounds of the forest, singing her goodnight lullabies. A branch creeked, a frog belched. Owls hooed, wind blew, and falling leaves and twigs pattered softly on the dampened soil all around. A creek trickled. Crickets crooned. Locusts sang their mourning songs, and the Shadow Grass began to crawl…

-

Thunderous galloping awoke Illurin late into the night, crashing through the bushes and branches that swarmed the forest floor. Screams filled the air — no, not screams. She listened harder as it got closer. She had heard cries like that before. They were without a doubt the unmistakable, terrorized cries of a wounded horse. She sat up, peering into the darkness to where the noise was coming from, and suddenly, a great, black stallion burst through the ferns. It reared, kicking its hind legs and stamping its hooves maniacally into the ground.

Illurin’s heart felt as if it were about to burst right out of her chest as she watched the thing safe from within her hidden grove beneath the trees. The horse pushed closer to her a little more, and by the way it bowed its head forward, and how its thick shoulder muscles heaved, she could tell it was pulling away from something, struggling to move forward just a foot, just an inch. The horse drew closer, screaming, stamping, and throwing its head all around. Illurin peered from her little hollow, squinting her eyes to see better in the dim haze of the glowing moon. The horse gasped, out of breath as each lacquered muscle bulged beneath its skin. It was kneeling now, but struggling, fighting with everything it had just to stand up again. A sickening crack splintered the night and Illuring nearly wretched as the horsed front legs snapped, bones ripping flesh.

She gasped, throwing herself backward and covering her mouth at the horror of what she was seeing. Thick vines — Fallow grass, still tethered to the earth wrapped the creature. They spiraled up the stallions great legs and looped around its back, stretched taught and yanking the poor creature closer and closer to the ground. She watched as more vines, thicker and spinier, shot up from the dirt not ten paces from where she lay, to lasso themselves around the horse’s neck, spiraling around like a constrictor snake, squeezing, tighter and tighter, cutting of its air.

The horse’s eyes bulged, seeming as if they were about to burst from its face, as the fallow grass continues its deadly wrap around its head, inching closer to the nose with every further loop. To her horror, Illurin watching through half covered eyes as the horse was pulled flat to the ground and a thick bundle of the vines shot up through the forest floor and forced its way into the horse’s mouth. The vines flowed continuously, seeming endless and they slithered their way down the horse’s throat.

Without thinking, Illurin jumped up, reaching for her belt knife. She had to do something for the creature. She gripped the knife hilt and took a step toward the fallen horse, its labored breath coming slower and slower, and suddenly, she found herself face down in the dirt. Something cut into her ankle and twisted, tearing skin, and crushing her bones. She screamed like she had never screamed before. She didn’t have to look down to imagine what it was.

The fallow grass seethed, thickening and thinning, throbbing as if keeping heartbeat with the woods. It wrapped her legs and began climbing, slithering up her pulsing calve, spiraling and snaking its way up the softened flesh of her inner thigh. She slashed at the thicket that wrapped her and felt it tighten at the hit. Her face shriveled in pain, but she forced herself to roll onto her back and sit up to grip the vine at its connection. She pressed the blade to it and began sawing. The vine hissed, spraying stagnant green fluid from the slashed marks, and smoke poured from its wounds. Just before she sawed it all the way, she felt another one whip around her wrist that she was propping herself up with. She slashed at it, catching it just in time before it tightened, and she severed it clean. The vine hissed, and spat at her, unwrapping itself from her leg and sucking itself back into the dirt.

She ran then, tears flooding her eyes, and dove to the head of the horse, stabbing ferociously at the thick bundles that had stuffed its way down the creature’s throat. She sawed feverishly as the vines unwrapped themselves from around the horse’s legs and back, and almost smacked her in the face as they unwound from its neck. The thick vines, barbed and almost black in shade, began ripping itself from the horses mouth, sucking itself out and sliding with a hiss back into the dirt. The horse began kicking wildly, and Illurin Had to step backward. She watched, breathlessly as the last of the vine exited the horse’s mouth, trailing with it gobs of innards, and a long tail of grey intestine. The horse stopped kicking.

A cool wind blew from the south this time, not east at it had been most of the day. It rustled the leaves of the trees and bushes of the wood, making it seem as if they were lurching about — living things that shook with the anticipation of her gruesome death. Of course, that was nonsense. At least it seemed nonsense before, but now staring down at the mangled hide of the great, black stallion, she wasn’t so sure. Not sure?! Illurin shook her head and cried out in a laugh that even surprised herself. The forest had just come alive to kill this poor creature before her, and even attempted to do the same to her. The wood was a living thing. She had heard of, Lord, even seen Fallow grass before, but never in a lifetime could she believe it could do something such as this.

Suddenly, she felt the need to vomit. The wind brought odd noises from deep within the forest, and along with them, a putrid smell like thousands of animals lying dead and rotting. The truth of the smell hit her before she could prepare herself, and she hacked up the small amount of food she had managed to fill herself with during the day. The acrid taste of past-gone cheese and salted beef clung to the insides of her cheek and under her tongue. Not animals, she thought. My husband…my son…

Before she could get herself worked up to the point of sobbing uncontrollably again, Illurin stood up and sheathed her knife. She noticed then that the dead horse at her feet had a small saddle strapped across its back. Nothing fancy, just boiled leather and iron clasps, but upon taking a closer look, she saw the name Bayre etched into the grip. Bayre. The horse had come from Thrym, one of the commoner’s horses. Someone else was out here, or had been. Looking at the strips of flesh ripped from the horse’s hide with jagged broken bones poking through, Illurin didn’t want to think of what horror could have befallen its rider.

Still, it gave her hope. Maybe someone from the battle had lived. Maybe there was a witness who could ride with her to Lucansphear to speak to the King, backing what she already knew to be true. That hope was hard to cling to, though. With what had happened that night, Illurin had only thought it pure luck that she had escaped the Fallow grass with her life. The rider of the stallion could be leagues away, and there was no telling if they were dead or alive.

She tightened her lips and shook her head, knocking loose any far-wishes that still clung inside her head. Heading back to where her sheet and belongings lay under the fallen trees, she glanced back at the contorted horse, seeing her reflection eclipsing the moon in its big black eyes. She shivered, and bent to roll up her things in the sheet once again to be moving on. The ache in her legs and head, no matter how harsh, could never get bad enough for her to lie back down in that wretched part of the forest. Illurin had rested enough for one night, and even if she wanted to, she knew the memory of the vines — of that awful hissing green goop within — was enough to keep her eyes pried open for probably nights yet to come.

The forest grew thicker and colder in some spots, and vast and warm in others. In some clearings, the moon shone through the canopy and illuminated beautiful groves of giant hemlock trees with old yellow pines filling the gaps between. The floor blanketed with soft needles and fallen moss seemed the perfect bed, but every time she thought that though, she swore she could hear, even feel the Fallow grass slinking nearer, just inside the shadows.

After crossing a small stream, Illurin found herself looking down what seemed to be an old, beaten path. It was lined with great, soaring, white poplar trees, reaching up to the night sky, and in the glow of the moonlight, they seemed blue, like beautifully odd street lights guiding her to her destination. The floor of the path was smoothed mud, but held no indentations from cart or wagon tracks, and Illurin found herself wondering how old that part of the woods was, and if she was really going in the right direction at all. Any place seemed better than the swathed hills at night, though, as beautiful as they sometimes could be. The road had to lead somewhere, she knew, and walking on it was much easier than jumping fallen logs, and wading shallow streams. The memory of the horse and the vines was still there, too, and that pushed her along much faster than she would have liked.

It wasn’t long down the path before she started hearing the singing. A woman, belting out into the night beautiful melodies, so sorrowful and full of pain that they called to Illurin, reverberating off of every painful bone and nerve in her body, breaking open stifled pockets of agonizing memory. She sank to her knees in the middle of the path, mouth open and eyes welling with tears. Her head swooned to the song, and she watched as what seemed a tiny yellow light in the distance grew closer to reveal a lantern, swinging in a leathery hand.

The words became clearer, the notes harsher and more devastatingly heartbreaking with each of the singer’s steps. Illurin knelt, frozen in dejected agony, listening to, absorbing each and every word.

When the wind comes from
The southron fold
The sheep lie down forever

The closer the singer came, the more Illurin could feel the words, each syllable pressing against her heart. Tears streamed down her cheeks, stinging each scratch on her dry and blistered face, but yet, she listened.

And when the drums
Begin their roll
The claws reach out to sever

Closer the singer came, a women, she could see, cloaked in sodden gray, and swinging that old dusty lantern. She peered at Illurin through fogged over eyes, and cocked her head to the side, smiling.

Black and bold
A stolen soul
Ignites the northern stars

The great bell tolls
A kingdom folds
The Shadow claims its scars

“What is a pretty thing like you doing out in this place?” the old woman said. “You can’t go believing all of the old tales, this is true, but dear, some of those tales have histories as real as the mud on your shoes.”

Illurin, still sitting on her knees, tears still wetting the curves of her cheeks, looked at the old woman in awe. The song had stopped, but the memory of the words still clung to the fibers of her soul. Her heart physically ached from those words — those beautiful, awful words. The song played through her head again, recounted with ease as if she had known it her whole life. The meaning — it couldn’t be coincidence. Everything the woman sang matched up exactly with what had happened. Every word struck home in the most painful of ways. She looked up at the old woman, wanting to ask her what the song was; where she had heard it. Instead, all she could say was, “w–what?”

The old woman smiled as she lifted her hood from her head. She knelt in front of Illurin and pressed a knuckle to her cheek. “Dry those tears, child,” she said. “It’s just an old song. I hadn’t meant to be scaring you.” She stood, brushing the mud and leaf crumblings from the knees of her cloak, and pressed her fists into her hips. “The night is long yet, dear. It is best I be taking you back to warmness and a soft bed. Follow me if it pleases.”

She hadn’t answered Illurin’s question, or made anything of her strange appearance make much more sense than anything about the night so far. In fact, the old woman’s appearance, by that point, was about the least odd thing that had happened. Illurin thought for a moment as she stared at the back of the crone as she walked ahead down the path. Something about her seemed off, but hadn’t just about everything since the other day seemed off? Everything, all things, seemed to have some invisible sheen of oddness — some taint that made them seem like objects in a dream. The old women was no different. Illurin questioned herself suddenly about whether the women was really there or not. Eventually, the prospect of warmth and a bed won her over, and she followed the cloaked staggering form of the hunched over lady, swaying obliquely in the sick light of the moon.

They walked, and they walked. The moon never seemed to change position in the sky, and the tall white poplars never lost their sapphire, downcast glow. The woman hadn’t sung anymore, and she seemed unable to recall what song she had been singing, even when Illurin had quoted some of the lines from the thing. The crone shrugged nonchalantly, saying simply that she had known many songs in her time, and that sometimes one popped from her mouth whether she drew it up or not. It was coincidence, Illurin retold herself.

After a while, the poplars shortened and became fewer between, giving ground for the ashlars and elms, and blossom bushes that encroached the path. Through them, the trail thinned to a lovely stone walk, dropped deep into the earth, lined by herbs and plants of all sorts. At the end of the walk, a small, log-lain house stood, back against a row of tall pines that cast the house in the darkest of shadow. If it weren’t for the short, yellow candles, single-lit in the small, front windows, the house would have been impossible to see. That, and the observably man-set stone slabs that made up the front walk. Illurin looked behind her to remind herself of the beautiful way she had come, but, for the life of her, she couldn’t find the path again. Her eyes drooped further with every step. He back slumped, aching for that bed she was promised.

Pretty soon, she found herself inside of the little house, sitting at a small, round table, sipping something warm and earthy-tasting. She had asked what it was, but just accepted it as it was handed to her. The chill of the night had set into her bones, and she wasn’t about to argue some nice old woman out of caring for her.

Illurin peered through half-opened eyes, looking around the room at all of the trinkets and charms that lied about or hung from the walls and ceiling. The old lady sat across from her, staring blankly through faded eyes. Illurin wondered how she could see at all, but the woman had no trouble holding eye contact, or refilling a tea-cup when needed. Illurin had so many questions to ask, but none seemed very important compared to everything else when she really thought about it. Hyrren was still a monster, vines consumed living things in the woods, and here she was, a former queen, sharing drink with a peasant of an ancient forest. Through all of the darkness that clouded her mind, Illurin’s former nobleness still poked through.

Clearing her throat, she bowed where she sat, pressing a hand to her chest. “You must forgive me, I’ve been in such haste. My apologies for my rudeness, I’m afraid this night, and truthfully, days passed have gotten my mind as clouded as a thunderhead. You’ve allowed me shelter, and shared with me this — tea, is it? — and I haven’t the courtesy enough to even ask your name!” The cheeriness front lining her own words almost made her sick. It was almost too much to speak that way.

The old woman didn’t seem to notice her discomfort. “No bother,” she replied. “It’s nice to have any visitors these days.” She laced her fingers together, and then smiled in the air at nothing in particular. “Oh, I’ve gone by a good many names over the years. In truth,” she looked down, smoothing out the lacey cloth that covered the table, “I haven’t even thought about it for quite some time.”

“I–I’m sorry,” Illurin said. “I didn’t mean to–”

“Mogwhein.”

E–Excuse me,” Illurin asked?

“Mogwhein. I believe that is the name I was last called.” She laughed to herself then, leaning back in her chair, a thin, raspy wheezing sound coming from her throat. She stopped as abruptly as she started, stifling her laughter with a fist against her mouth. “Yes, Mogwhein,” she smiled, clearing her throat. “The men from the mines used to call me that when they’d stop through on their way back to Dankmire.”

Dankmire, Illurin thought. Why does that sound familiar? “Mogwhein, huh?” she asked, trying not to dwell on the questions in her head. “It favors me having met you. You may have saved my life, whether you’ll believe it or not. My name is –” think, damn you — “Nirulli,” she blurted. Stupid. What kind of stupid name is that?! Backwards? What were you thinking?

Mogwhein thought on the name for a moment, smiling and nodding, as if lost in, and responding to her own thoughts.

“Nirulli, is it? Lies do not suit you, Queen Illurin Boraan.”

Illurin jumped at the sound of her actual name, sliding her chair back across the wood floor a few paces. “H–how d–do you know? Who are you, woman?” She tried to hold her voice steady, but the fear shone through with ease. She could hear it tremble, dancing on the vibrations of her vocal chords, betraying every emotion she wanted to hold in.

The old woman laughed again, but gave an honest smile. The skin around her eyes looked like little birds’ feet as she crooned for Illurin to come closer, beckoning with her old, wrinkled hand. “I didn’t mean to frighten, child, but I knew your name before you were ever even born. Come, sit. I have many things, new and old, that you may be of want to hear.”

Illurin gaped, but still picked up her chair and slid back closer to the table. Curiosity, now more than fear tickled her thoughts. As tired as she was, the sudden urge overcame her to sit with this woman and hear every single thing she had to say. What else could she know. What marvelous things had she seen and experienced in all of her long years? How old was she? Who was she? Illurin picked up her tea cup again and took a long sip, ignoring the heaviness of her eyelids, suddenly wondering if the tea itself was speeding along her desire for a bed.. “How–?” she said, tilting her head to one side, squinting at Mogwhein as if she were only an apparition, set to disappear at any instant. She forgot what she wanted to ask.

“‘How’ is not important. One shouldn’t question the gifts given to us by our creators. We are made of the stars, child. It is not for us to ask ‘why’ a thing is a certain way, no, but only to live it. Our paths have been ingrained — decided upon — since our ancestors took their first sips of air.” She smiled again. “Who knows, maybe even longer.”

Illurin stared, now more confused than she had been a moment before. First she had simple questions, which she thought could have been answered easily, like how Mogwhein had known who she was. But now she was just drowning in confusion. Nothing the woman was saying made any sense, and her ability to comprehend, or even retain anything Mogwhein was telling her was fading quickly.

The old woman sat smiling, rocking a little in her feeble wooden chair, staring into space at nothing in particular. Illurin studied her while she waited for her to speak again, unable to formulate any more questions to ask. She studied her, half asleep, until she could see the morning rays of the rising sun gracefully crawl across the table to climb the woman she was looking at, waiting for her to speak. Soon, she could no longer hold back the yawns. “I have so…so many questions,” she said. “But…I can’t — I can’t seem to keep…my eyes open.”

“No bother, dear. It’s to be expected,” Mogwhein told her, laughing. “When you wake, we can talk. I know important matters lie at hand, but you never know if some story, or some piece of knowledge I have to share may end up helping you on your journey.”

Suddenly, Illurin realized she wasn’t sitting at the dining table at all anymore. She was walking in a haze, trance-like, being led to a small pallet in the corner by the old women. The woman was still speaking, and Illuring was trying to listen, but none of the words seemed to make it through the thick haze that her tiredness had her head wrapped in. She didn’t care anymore. Her eyes were closed before her body hit the pallet, and snores rang through the room before Mogwhein had even fetched a blanket.

No dreams came to Illurin that night. She had been right about the tea.

The Tomes of the Seer: Chapter 7

Here’s chapter seven for you guys. Enjoy.

 

Tullin

Bloody foreigners. Bloody highborn foreigners. Tullin brooded in silence, slumped on the floor against the wall of the stable. He tugged at the little bit of hair he had under his lip as he stared blankly at the floor, thoughts flickering through his mind, too numerous to pick one particular to dwell upon. Da’, why’d it have to be you?

The oddly dressed men with the stupid sounding names he could barely remember, still sat together in the corner with the King‘s adviser of all people, talking gibberish no sane man would want to listen to. No wonder Mat had been interested. Child shit, Tullin thought. What were they doing there? They were dressed like bloody nobles meeting with a noble, and their coin purses at their belts bulged and clanked with every step. Why were they there bothering him? The royal stables were big enough to house the entire cavalry, especially now that everyone was dead. Not likely their horses would be coming back alone, if they hadn’t been slaughtered themselves. No. There was simply no point in these outlanders taking up any more of his time. If they needed to talk to Riefwhin, why couldn’t they do it at the castle?

“Why are you here?” Tullin asked for what seemed like the hundredth time.

The two men standing just outside the doors to the stable yard glared his way before going back to their conversation. The other two, the bigger men, stepped toward him a pace or two and rapped their fingers against their sword hilts. Tullin rolled his eyes. The bigger of the two, Jaquat, he thought, leaned up against the wall next to him, putting his foot against the wall, level with Tullin’s head.

“We’re here because we have to be, stable boy.” He crossed his arms over his huge chest, clearing his throat. “We’re not here to make your miserable life any more difficult. You’d do best to remember that. Xia’an here is getting wretchedly tired of hearing your complaints.”

Tullin looked to Xia’an, who was glowering from the door. No smile from the joke crossed his tightened lips, and he had his cloak pulled back, tucked behind his sword hilt. Tullin rolled his eyes again. Yes, the men acted strongly, but if he were going to get run-through just for asking questions in his own family’s stable, so be it. There wasn’t much left to live for anyway. Not that he wanted to die, of course — it simply wasn’t worth it to tiptoe around everything that bothered you. Lots of people acted that way. Lots of people lay dead in the dirt not a half day’s ride south, his father being one of them. His father had been a good man. It only made sense that Tullen acted the opposite. Good men died.

Suddenly, the horses inside the stable barn began to snort and stamp their hooves, tottering back and forth banging against the sides of their pens. They reared, and when they were held down by their tied reins, they kicked backward, exploding splinters from the walls that held them.

Tullin looked outside to see that the horses that were in the yard were running, racing around the encirclement, spraying gravel and dust, and thrashing their heads about. All except for the foreigners’ horses, who stood near the barn door, backing up slowly when one of the old mares or geldings that were busy in a panic got too close. There was nothing he could do about them. Better to let them run it out and calm themselves than to be run down by one just over some excitement coming from who knew where. As for the horses tied in the barn, all Tullin had to do was whicker to them, pull on their reins a little bit and rub their long faces. They whinnied a while longer shook their heads about, but they knew Tullin, knew his voice and his gentle touch, and soon he had them calmed.

Xia’an stood by the street door, holding it open a crack, and staring out. “Commotion in the road,” he said. “I see soldiers. They’re flooding by the inn, looks like they’re taking the main road. Headed to the castle, I’d say.” He sniffed loudly. “The boy must have let them in.”

Jaquat and Quev’et pushed open the shutters to a window and stared out, not saying anything on the matter until Riefwhin joined them. “From Lucansphear,” the adviser said. “Late. We sent for men before–” he trailed off, looking sideways at Tullin.

Tullin wondered what that was about, but didn’t say anything on it. He knew what he was talking about. The battle in the pass. These must have been reinforcements, only just now arriving.

Xia’an squinted his eyes, and pressed his face into the wood frame of the door, trying to get a closer look without revealing himself. “They’ve got blood on their tunics,” he said. “Shouldn’t be blood — not if they’re just aid for a battle they never got to.”

“He’s right,” said Jaquat. “But, they carry the banner of King Lanier. Not much between Lucansphear and Thrym. If they came straight through the Hills, they probably passed through Hagen’s Field or Dursei. Maybe Black River. Either way, I wouldn’t think that lot would be like to give the King’s soldiers any trouble. Not the blood spilling kind, anyway.”

“An odd thing,” Riefwhin said. “But, a thing to be dwelt on later. Thrym is in need of a new army. Especially, if we are to defeat the wind walker.”

Tullin choked on his own breath, coughin into his fist and doubling over at the mention of the monster. After he was done, he turned on the old man, finally demanding his questions to be answered. “I thought this creature was defeated! I thought it odd, yes, that three men from the strange land up north come here, HERE of all places, demanding to stay, saying they’re waiting to meet with someone. Odd, yes, odd indeed. Even more odd, I thought, when you showed up at my door. Even stranger, you, over in the corner huddled up, talking about stars, and prophecy, and ages only spoken of in whisper. Now an army appears, blood spattered, but not in battle, and you talk of using them to destroy a depleter. The depleter our new king slew himself. Why is it you are really here?” He kicked the door shut in front of Xia’an’s uninterested face. “You are in my stables. Answer me, or leave.”

Suddenly, there were two sword blades just a pin’s width away from his face. “Master Reifwhin has to do no such thing,” Jaquat said.

“Nor Master Quev’et,” Xia’an added, sliding his sword up Tullin’s cheek, pulling at his forming stubble. “I do not wish to kill you,” he added. “But you must not interfere.” It seemed then that something other than hatred or anger filled his face. There was a sense of fear, hiding deep within the recesses of his dark and knowing eyes, as if the answers to Tullin’s questions were too terrible and unknowable to be talked of then.

He look at the man thoughtfully before slowly pushing the swords away and apologizing. He had been acting the fool. Yes, the men had intruded, most importantly relinquishing the little time that he had to be able to grieve his dead father. He held that against them more than any other trespass. But, he realized, had he been listening, had he not been such an arrogant, sultry shit, maybe he would know more, would have been given more information. Maybe those men from the north wouldn’t have wanted to kill him to protect — what?

At Quev’et’s request, his soldiers sheathed their swords. He approached Tullin gently, and put an arm around him, leading him away from everyone else. “We’ve been unfair, I’m afraid. You men and women of Thrym have been through a great deal, and you deserve our respect as much as we have been demanding yours. You lost someone, surely? A terrible misfortune, and for us to barge in on you must be a trying ordeal.” Quev’et patted him on the back, adoringly. “I’ve been neglectful of your reaction, fearful, in truth, to tell you the details of our visit.” He took his hand back from Tullin’s shoulder, and began steepling his fingers. “I’m afraid that you’ve been involved in our mission, by no fault of your own, to be sure. Fate throws its own die. The same is true for the young one, Mat. It was him, who fate chose to allow us entrance to the city, and it happened to be you, who was here when we came calling for a shelter. For that, you had to hear things that you never should have–”

Tullin tried to interrupt to tell the man that he hadn’t really heard much of anything — that he surely wasn’t involved in whatever now seemed so important, so serious and perilous, or at least that he didn’t want to be. Quev’et had cut him off, though.

“As I was saying — Tullin, is it? — you are involved. It has been seen. I will only explain to you as much as I feel is needed, however, and that is dependent entirely on what choices you make.” Quev’et sighed, and dipped his head before going on. “The new king, a former knight by the name of Tovin Hyrren, I’m sure you heard — well, he isn’t what he seems. He is–”

“We’ve got company,” Xia’an said, stepping back a few paces and holding his sword firmly at the door. Jaquat joined him, with his short-sword in one hand, and his belt blade in the other. They stood as one unit, unmoving, not a tremor of fear between the two. Tullin’s skin prickled as he stepped backward more quickly, grabbing Riefwhin’s cloak and pulling him along as well. Quev’et stood only a step or two behind his two protectors, eyes closed and muttering to himself, lips moving as quick as any legible thought.

The door burst inward, and four armored men, clad neck to toe in plate came stumbling in. Two held wine flagons that were sucked in on themselves, clearly empty, and by the way the men swayed, it was clear that those flagons had been finished recently. Their armor was bright and shined in the midday sun, undinted and flawless, except for the flecks and splashes of dried-brown blood that stained all of them. None wore their helms, and stubble and grease blotted their sneering faces.

Jaquat and Xia’an didn’t move, two stone figures, unbreakable and unmoving. The first knight drew his sword and leveled it toward the two men guarding Quev’et. “Sheath your swords, stable hands. You give me and my men your horses and we won’t be taking those swords from you and sticking them in your mothers.” The other three knights laughed, and one hiccuped.

The two knights in the rear, still near the door stepped out from behind the one who was threatening. They eyed Jaquat and Xia’an carefully, before looking at Quev’et. “They’re from Hornhold,” hiccup. “In the north. These ones aren’t stable hands, you drunk twat.” They circled left, coming around the side Jaquat was on, flanking them. “You better do as he says, northmen. Or give us all your coin. Maybe we won’t be handing you to the rest of the lot. You northmen are prettier than half the girls in this fleabag hole, and you’d not like how some of these men get when they’re away from the whores for a time. It’s been a long walk, shall we say.”

Jaquat turned to face the man, and Tullin could see his expressionless face, as solid as if he were simply quiet in thought. He stood firm, front leg bent with his weight on his toes, his other foot turned, pointed away in case he needed to parry. He held the sword up, instead of forward, inviting the knight closer. “You never been far from home, have you, soldier?” he said. The soldier made his first mistake, cocking his head back at Jaquat’s odd question, throwing off his balance.

In an instant, Jaquat’s front leg flashed out, catching the knight behind the heel, throwing his footing off, toppling him to the ground. His sword came down like an ax, entering the man at the top of his shaved head, and came to a stop midway through the man’s chest. Blood fountained the air, and the room erupted.

The horses panicked, tossing their heads and rolling their eyes as they screamed. Jaquat, pure stoic apathy, pulled his belt knife, and lept over his stuck sword at the man who was frozen, gawking at his dead friend; his blade finding a home in the soft flesh behind the man’s left ear. The big knight who kicked the door in swung his long-sword horizontally, trying to sever Xia’an in two. The alcohol had made him slow. Xia’an stepped back, sucking his stomach in, and in the next moment was whirling on the man with belt knife and short-sword at once, swinging and twirling his arms, spinning wildly, hacking and slashing.

After he was done, blood flowed continuously from the weak points in the man’s armor. Each arm or leg joint — groin and all were puncture and sunk inward, and the knight’s face had little left to distinguish it as a man’s at all. The body, still standing, toppled backward with a great clang to reveal one drunken knight still remaining. Vomit stained his lips and the front of his armor, and at the sight of the two Hornhold warriors turning toward him, faces like stone, he dropped his sword and turned to run. Xia’an flipped his belt knife in the air, catching it by the blade and sent it flying after the man. His body fell forward, knife hilt sticking out from the back of his skull.

It had happened faster than any sane man could have protested. Tullin stood, clutching the sleeve of Riefwhin, jaw hanging down to his chest. Suddenly, he felt light-headed, and the screams of the horses and commotion in the streets seemed so far away, and fading still. The room seemed to enclose on him, his vision penciling, spiraling, until blackness swept violently over him. In an instant, he was weightless.

He awoke into darkness. He lay on his back, resting on something cool and hard that felt like damp stone. As he braced himself with his hand, and tried to sit, pain shot through his head, and even in the blackness, he saw stars beneath his vision. His head throbbed, and every muscle in his body felt as if it he been tenderized by a blind butcher.

As his eyes adjusted, Tullin saw a small, pale light, flickering somewhere far off. It looked to be in the corner of a dark room, casting small, faint, elongated shadows. Bars, he thought. No, that can’t be. Shaking the grogginess from his swollen head, Tullin stood from his stone slab, and stumbled toward where the light was coming from, and felt about to faint again.

He had been right. Thick iron bars covered the small window in the middle of a solid oak door. Tullin gripped them, shaking them, trying to pry them apart if not pull them straight from the door. He screamed, yelling to no one in particular, demanding to be set free — to be told why he was in that wretched place. No answer came, and Tullin let go of the iron rungs, and sunk to his knees against the door.

“I already tried that,” a voice spoke at the back of the dark cell. “It didn’t work for me, either.”

“Master Riefwhin,” Tullin asked, “is that you?”

“It is,” said the old adviser. “How is your head, young man?”

Tullin hadn’t thought much about his head, but for the grogginess. Now that he focused on it, he could feel a beast of a headache sneaking up on him. He must have hit his head when he fainted. He suddenly remembered the blood, all of it spraying and soaking in to the wood and hay of his barn. Knives slashing and entering and tearing flesh. The horses screaming, rearing, kicking at the walls. Tullin slumped back down near the door, woozy, trying not to faint again. “I must have hit my head pretty hard,” he said. “I’m not one to do well with the sight of blood.”

Tullin heard something screech a high-pitched, terrible cry as he stepped forward and felt something soft squish under his foot. He heard the thing skitter away into the corner, and stop to screech again. His skin crawled. The rats in the market town had been enormous, living on whatever food, scarce as it was, was left in the streets. Some of them were often hungry enough to climb the legs of your dinner tables, risking certain death for just a taste of warm food. He didn’t want to think what the rats in this dank place were capable of when pushed to starving. He tried not to think of it, anyway.

“You did faint, that is true,” Riefwhin said. “But, hitting your head isn’t what I was asking about. You got that lump from the knife hilt from a soldier of Lucansphear. I got one too, for telling the man it was senseless hounding, the brute.”

Tullin shook his head in disbelief, and wished he hadn’t at the shooting pain it caused. He sauntered slowly back over to the stone slab, and sat painfully next to the old adviser. “So what’s gotten us locked up, may I ask. I assume we’re in the king’s dungeon — none other in the lands — but, bloody why?”

Riefwhin laughed so abruptly that it turned into a coughing fit, and Tullin had to wait patiently for him to stop before he could hear the full of their predicament. Riefwhin told the whole of it, starting from the moment Tullin lost consciousness. After the last of their assailants had fallen into the street with Xia’an’s knife sticking from the man’s head, the barn was rushed with knights and soldiers. They clobbered Tullin even though he was already down, and clobbered Riefwhin even knowing who he was. They accused them of being in league with Shadow Slaves — accused the men from Hornhold of being Shadow Slaves, and the last Riefwhin saw of the northmen, they were mounting their horses and cutting down men left and right. As the two of them were being carried off north toward the castle, Riefwhin said he had looked back to see a mob of soldiers setting the stables ablaze, horses fleeing into the streets, and no sign of the northmen at all. “I don’t know if they made it out of the madness alive,” he said, voice sounding on the verge of cracking into sobbing.

Tullin tried looking at his cellmate, squinting to no use in the pale gloom of the single candled glow. He felt bad for the old man suddenly, after realizing what he had gone through that day. Riefwhin was clearly friends with the man from the north, the man they called Quev’et, and certainly knew his two warrior friends well. Now, he sat in a dungeon, a far cry from his earlier position as an adviser of Kings, not knowing whether or not his friends were alive or dead. Tullin hung his head.

“As far as for ending up in this place,” Riefwhin went on, “we were thrown, bound, before King Hyrren by the soldiers sent by King Lanier. We were named to him as friends of Shadow Slaves, and it was proposed that we be beheaded at once. King Hyrren thanked them, but declined in favor of trial, and had us sent to here, to the dungeons saved for Servants of the Shadow. Needless to say, we are the only cell occupied.”

Tullin couldn’t believe it. What a mistake it had been! Him, of all people, serving the shadow? His father dead, his stable burned. Who knew what befell his mother, or their house right across from the stable yard. All of this, because three men he had never met before decided to tie their horses up at Byrne’s Barns. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. All he knew was that he needed to get out of there, needed to make things right, explain if he could to the king that there had been some great mistake, that he, of all people would never be colluding with the darkness itself.

Why is this happening? he thought. The urge to blame the men from the north was almost overwhelming, almost furiously blinding, but suddenly, ripping those thoughts violently from his mind came the sudden memory of who the true villains actually were. The Hornholders had been peaceful, if not just a touch rough, but it was clear they had important business. Riefwhin certainly had done no wrong at all as far as the day was concerned. No, the true enemies here were the men that were supposed to have been there to help his people. The soldiers, sent for to help the men of Thrym. Yes, them, who came late, and only showed up to prove themselves villains, bursting into his stable to rob them of their horses and all of their coin. The vile soldiers, who even threatened to violate them because they hadn’t had women in some days. Tullin’s heart hurt just wondering what was happening in the streets of the market town, to all of his neighbors, and family — to everyone he every cared about. All of the people he had ever known were in the town, held now, certainly, by the same type of soldiers who had gotten him where he was now. Liars, he thought. Thieves…brigands. All of his friends and family, out there, suffering, all except Chara, he suddenly realized.

He felt a tear trickle down his sweat dampened cheek. “My mother,” he said, “she is ill.” His voice quivered as he tried to hold back the tears. “It’s the Fallow-fang. That barn was all we had to pay for her mending. We’ll have to leave our homes — search for work somewhere to the east.” Panic suddenly broke through his crying, and snapped upright and gripped Riefwhin by the shoulder, squeezing rigidly. “What are we going to do?” he yelled. “If I’m marked as a Shadow Slave, we’ll be strung up in the streets. My mother — she may already be hanged! I have to get out, by the stars, I have to get out!”

Tullin sobbed to himself, unstoppable, no matter how hard Master Riefwhin tried to console him. Sleep eventually took him, and he had dreams of being beaten through the streets of the Market town with his mother at his side. They were naked, and long gashes from lashings streaked their flesh. Rocks and rotten fruits and other foods bruised their bodies as they were harried toward the tall courtyard tree the townsfolk used sometimes for their personal executions. Child-lovers belonged on those ropes. Mutilators, rapers…not Tullin and his sweet, sick mother.

In his dream, it was as if he could actually feel the loop of rope go over his head and rest against the skin around his neck. He could feel that dry itch, that nauseous bubble of vomit rising in his gut as the rope tightened. He watched as the townspeople pulled the end of the rope that looped up over the tree limb, and he felt his airway close as he was slowly hoisted into the air, his poor mother still at his side. As black, choking death slowly enclosed, Tullin saw his neighbor Chara watching from the crowd. She sat his favorite black horse, and she had tears in her eyes. Just before his vision faded entirely, he saw King Hyrren tear her howling from the horse.

He awoke to the sound of someone screaming. It sounded like his mother.

The Tomes of the Seer: Chapter 6

Sorry I haven’t posted in so long. Here’s the sixth chapter. Enjoy.

Side Note: I changed the character Jyrim’s name to Tullin, instead. I hated that name.

 

Mat

The morning sun hung idly in the sky, casting elongated shadows from the high stone walls that circled the town. It was still odd not seeing men walking back and forth on the ramparts, peering out between the battlements, or carrying messages from the tower guards at the bastions to messengers on the ground. The walls were still empty, but Mat wondered, suddenly panicked, what was beyond the gate he was supposed to be sitting. Even at night, when Quent would sleep and leave the gate unattended, he was always there to keep watch. His sleeping quarters were a small room at the base of the gatehouse, with a hollowed wall nearest the gate hinge. If anyone came calling, it would certainly have been heard. Mat would have slept there in the night if his fears hadn’t been for his mother, her being alone, and, well, if Quent’s quarters hadn’t been locked after all.

After he had left the three men from Hornhold, and bounded through the streets faking swordplay with a splintered board he found, he raced through his small home’s doorway to find his Mother sitting stiffly at the table, knitting away as she always did. She looked up at him and smiled, telling him that there was long pig on the spit, honeyed pears cooling, and fresh milk for him, and wine for his father. She asked him if his father had been almost through with the sheep; asked if he was on his way in. Mat looked to the fireplace, and the cooling spot near the window. There was nothing, cooked or cooling.

Mat sighed and kissed her on the forehead. Nothing was even different. He doubted if she had even noticed he was gone, him or Chara, too. Surely, she had no idea the king, and most of the rest of the men were dead and gone. If she did, or had, Mat was sure she had forgotten, or had just pushed it out of her mind the way she did the death of her husband, no matter how many times she was reminded. The man’s absence certainly did nothing to remind her.

Mat watched her knit for a little while longer, deciding whether or not to tell her about Chara, or the monster in the pass that had slain everyone. He thought better of it. She’d likely not even acknowledge the things he said, and would go about asking after his father, again. Instead, he poured her a glass of sheep’s milk, squeezed her hand and lied down to get what little sleep would remain in the fading night. It hadn’t been much.

When Mat left the house the next morning after filling himself on oatcakes, and staring at his mother, who’s dark circles under her eyes seemed to be verging on miniature water casks, he barely remembered the note that Quev’et had given him — he had just wanted to leave. He said his goodbyes already, before reentering the house to grab his note, but his mother still greeted him as if he had been gone a full day, and still, just as confident as before, asked him about his father. This time, he ignored her, and left the house feeling a little pinch of guilt, stinging him in the chest. That guilt turned to the day before’s familiar sick feeling — that crippling gut ache of loss and longing — as he stared at the door to Quent’s chambers.

Instead of dwelling, or letting tears wrap his eyelids again, he put his shoulders back and pointed his chin in the air. There are more important matters, he told himself. You can’t go changing what’s passed. He really tried to believe his thoughts, but that gloom still burrowed through his insides. He fought it aside though, and pushed his little tankard that made him taller back up against the gate. When he got to the top of it, he hesitated for a moment, fearing what sight would behold him when he slid back the little viewer door. If there was a line, or crowd of people waiting entry, he thought he just might faint.

Slowly, he slid the viewer open, peeking through it with just one eye, before opening the other. He breathed a sigh of blissful relief. There was nothing but a trill of dust dancing like a ribbon through the wind. Browning grass swayed ever slightly, sun scorched and fading color. Mat remembered a time growing up when the summers hadn’t seemed so harsh — when spring seemed to run into fall, sometimes skipping the draught month’s completely. Some said it seemed like the desert was moving north. Mat new what they meant, whether anybody had wanted to say “Fallow” or not.

Smiling to himself, despite that last morbid thought that quickly faded, Mat hopped down from his makeshift step-stool, and began the long walk to the castle proper. He hoped there wasn’t a line. By the look of the sun in the sky, he had clearly overslept, and Quev’et was surely waiting his return. Well, maybe not his return, but surely word from Riefwhin that he had received his letter well.

Mat pulled the parchment from the pocket in his breeches and turned it over a few times, thumbing the edges, wanting more than anything to open it. If he hadn’t been so star-struck with the honor of the three Hornholders, he probably would have. But, Mat had made a promise, and nothing this side of the Swathed Hills was going to make him look like a lesser man in front of the men he’d sworn his vow to.

Even so, thoughts filled with honor and brevity, Mat avoided taking the road that went by Tullin’s father’s stables. What if Quev’et had been outside, maybe in the yard tending his horse? What would he have said when the man would ask him if he had delivered the letter, and what, when he told him that he hadn’t even gone to the castle yet? Would he be honest, and tell the man that he overslept, that he hadn’t cared enough about the severity of danger that Quev’et had tried so hard to convince him of, so little that he almost even forgot the letter he was supposed to give?

Mat hung his head a little and quickened his pace. If he reached Riefwhin by midday, hopefully nobody would be mad at him. It had been a long night for all involved in the circumstances which kept him out until the mid of night. Certainly, hopefully, the men from the north had decided to sleep in as well. It was doubtful, Mat new. Duty drove those men beyond mortal need.

Forcing himself to think of something other than his own failings, Mat found himself thinking of Chara and where she might be once again, and before he knew it, he was walking under the raised portcullises that ringed the castle mound of Thrym. He looked up, considering the rusty iron spikes that pointed down at him, and felt a shudder ripple his skin. He didn’t want to imagine the type of thing that would force the castle to lower those things, and he hoped that if they ever needed to, that he would be on the inside. The safe side. Before walking up the last terrace of steps that led to the ground floor of the castle, Mat patted his pocket again, feeling for the stiffness of the letter. It was still there.

As he walked through the first door, old iron and oak, splintered with age, Mat’s smile dropped, and he stood with his mouth gaping at the line of people he saw flowing into the castle‘s throne room. He hadn’t know where to go before, but now, there was certainly no question.

All of the people in front of him were clearly commoners; their drab, filthy clothes couldn’t have said otherwise even if they had lips. Their ugliness was in great contrast to the brightness of the hallway, with it’s thin blue curtains flowing in on the eastern wind. Even the boring ashlar looked bright in comparison to the market folks’ dingy clothes, just sitting cold and gray in its flatness. The tapestries, colored in perfect golds, reds, and blues, seemed to shy away from the common people when the wind hit them just right. It reminded Mat of what the Highborns did when they were forced to come to the Market Town for one of Prince Ludrin’s tourneys.

Just like their clothes, as common and unimportant as they came, Mat thought the Market districts questions for the new King Declarent were about the same. From the back of the line, he couldn’t hear everything that was asked, but as the line moved, he sagged harder with boredom at every voice that spoke, and embarrassment prickled his scalp and made his cheeks warm and red. As he approached, Mat was surprised to see Sir Hyrren sitting on the throne. He had thought that the highborns would have certainly placed someone stronger. He did kill a wind walker… Regardless, Hyrren seemed like he’d rather be back on the battlefield that sitting there listening to the wants of commoners.

One woman wanted payment for her apples that were smashed in a stampede of men trying to flee the kings-guard orders the other morning. New King Hyrren had told her there would be no such payment — that it was her own peers who smashed her goods, and to encourage community, she would have to seek hospitality from them. Mat snickered at the thought of community hospitality. When he saw Riefwhin’s beet-red face, Mat knew that he also knew a little of the kindness of commoners. The woman, Miss Ghaline, he thought, bowed deeply and sauntered away. As she passed, and Mat saw her face, he thought he could probably boil water on her head. Her eyes could have neutered a sow.

Mat’s line grew shorter still, and as he got closer and closer to the great throne, the more imposing it had seemed. The throne was ebony, and was raised upon a platform that sat the top of twelve ringed steps. The back of the chair arched high, ending with two great boars heads that adorned the corners, mouths open and tusks glistening in the midday sun. All around the room, shields, weapons, carvings, and tapestries of all kinds hung the walls. There were relics hanging, the likes of which Mat had never seen. Swords and hammers oddly shaped crossed here and there over strange small circular shields with spikes sticking from their rims. Painted pictures portrayed stories of old, heroes like Sir Harker Pendramon shoving a belt dagger through the chin of the great Burned King. Prince Lyrdran was also depicted, mounted on his mountain wolf, and holding back the horde of Fallow-spawn. Mat didn’t know what the creatures shown were, but the stories talked of the prince slaying depleters, water waifs, and defilers alike. Some said he killed thousands that day, but Mat only saw what looked like twenty on the tapestry. He was awestruck, nonetheless.

Mat snapped out of his reveling, as he heard another commoner begin to speak. It was a young man with dark, greasy hair, and broad shoulders who wore a thick leather vest. He asked that a smith be called from either the north or east, saying the master blacksmith had been killed in the Pass. Hyrren rolled his eyes, and Mat heard angry whispers from the people in the crowd. It was Riefwhin who ended up answering the boy. “How many years have you prenticed for Master Pert?” he asked.

“Six years, milord,” he said, bowing. He wiped a forming tear from his eye. “Name’s Gritlim, milord. Dartell Gritlim.”

Mat knew the young man. He had been a friend of Chara’s when they were children, but after he started smithing, neither of them had seen him around much, and when they had, Dartell would tell them that he had work to do. At the time, Mat found it disrespectful, but after working for Quent the last year, he had begun to understand. The way Mat felt after ’prenticing for Quent for only a year could no way compare to the loss that Dartell had felt — always looking up to someone, following their every word, and then losing them in just one day. Mat would have to speak some kind words to him. It was only right.

Riefwhin looked at Dartell for a moment, and then nodded as if responding to his own thoughts. “Master Pert, and no doubt yourself, made a lot of the steel for our own armories. I knew him well; I paid the man enough castle coin…” Riefwhin laughed to himself, a small rumbling chuckle that shook his belly. “We spoke of you, of course I had to ask, considering I was paying for your work, as well. He said you were near as good as he. By order of the King, King Tovas Hyrren, first of his name, Protector of the Neatherrealms, and Warden of the West, the castle grants the business and professional possessions of Master Errin Pert to you, Master Dartell Gritlim. I trust you are trained well enough.”

Dartell staggered backward, and seemed to swoon as he tried to stammer out a response. From where Mat was standing, it sounded as if he were giving thanks, or trying to anyway, but still mumbled something about being unworthy. Riefwhin just smiled at him encouragingly and told Dartell that he would make a fine Master smith. As the man turned, and stumbled past Mat in the line, he gave a small smile while wiping a tear from his cheek. Riefwhin was a good man.

Over what seemed like hours, Mat’s place in line drew closer to the foot of the royal throne, and he sighed impatiently at the ridiculous requests of the people representing his town. One person wanted their dog replaced because he was speared for biting a guard. More came forward reporting missing persons, animals, or even clothing. Everybody seemed to ask for some man to come and replace a worker who had died, to which Hyrren responded the same to all. “Lucansphear is aware of the dire circumstances thrust upon our city. Thrym has requested men, and men do come. We must all await these workers, soldiers, and noblemen with serenity, fortitude, and calm endurance.” He said this as if it were something he had memorized, something prepared for him by Riefwhin, no doubt. Each time he had to say it, he did so through a yawn, or picking at his nails.

Other than the usual, some women asked things that seemed improper to Mat, even thought he couldn’t exactly say why. They asked to sell their children to the kingdom, now that they had no husbands to support them. They asked to work for the throne, or to be considered for other work outside of Thrym. Hyrren told them to keep their whelps and consider banding together to form a pleasure house. He said that boys would be coming of age soon and would need a good looking after, whatever that meant. Hyrren actually pointed toward Mat when he said that, and when the women turned to look at him, he just stood there wide eyed, not knowing how to respond.

Finally, when it seemed as though the new king was about to walk down from his throne and storm out of the room, it was Mat’s turn to speak. Quent had taught him many things about dealing with people, dependant on what emotional state that person was in. Sometimes, people approached Quent’s gate angry, hurried, arrogantly, or sometimes dying. Even in the worst of the cases, Quent always seemed to calm them, and thus was able to guide them effectively. Quent told him it had just made things easier, although Mat noticed that sometimes Quent used this skill for his own good. He’d seen him skim a plum or two from fruit wagons from time to time.

Because of Quent, Mat knew exactly how to appeal to the good side of King Hyrren. He knelt deeply after approaching the throne, touching his left knee to the floor. He waited there until Hyrren told him to stand. Riefwhin nodded approval, bidding him to speak. “My apologies, your grace, for the requests of my neighbors. I make no excuses for them, but I ask forgiveness for their ignorance.”

At hearing Mat’s voice, Hyrren, who hadn’t even been looking at him before, snapped his head in Mat’s direction, and widened his eyes in what seemed like anger. Mat recoiled a bit, and for a moment, he could have swore that it wasn’t Hyrren looking at him at all, not him, but a shadow of who he was supposed to be. Mat closed his eyes and shook the image out of his head.

“Boy,” King Hyrren said. “You were the one at the gate, yes, the little gatekeeper who let me through after the battle.”

“Yes, your grace,” Mat said, now feeling defensive, as if his plan at manipulating the king into a good natured lull had back fired horribly. The room seemed to spin as he tried to yank that awful feeling he got from Hyrren’s angry look, that feeling that told him that maybe, just maybe, that this was exactly the evil Quev’et had spoken to him of. But, that couldn’t be, could it?

King Hyrren scratched at his neck, which Mat noticed looked red and flakey. Licking his lips, the king stood and walked down a few of the throne’s steps to bend at the waste and peer into Mat’s eyes. “What is it you would like, young gatekeep?” he asked. “What do you require?”

From the corner of Mat’s eye, he could see Master Riefwhin tilting his head, and wrinkling his forehead. Mat was just as confused as he was it seemed. Through all of the demands the commoners had put on Hyrren today, he had certainly not responded in this way to any of them. He most definitely did not get out of his chair to beg a question, himself, and most of the time, he hadn’t seemed to listen to anybody at all. Maybe he is grateful that I opened the gate for him, Mat thought. Yes, that must be it. “Your grace,” he began. “During times such as these, the duties laid upon the gatekeep cannot go unfilled. As you are no doubt aware, my Master, Quent was his name, was slain in Thryor Pass. I’ve only ‘prenticed for him a year, and there are many things I must learn — many duties I cannot fully perform. I’m asking for guidance. I heard mention, your grace, that men have been sent for from other lands. My question is of what I should do before a new gatekeep arrives.” Mat ringed his hands in front of him, sweat suddenly trickling down his back.

“Boy,” said Hyrren. “You did such a great, and noble job the other night. You recognized conflict, questioned it, and made a decision on your own, which I applaud you for. Had you not, I would have had to beat down the gate myself.” Hyrren laughed then, a thick, crackling laugh that seemed as though it would rupture his insides. Mat stepped back a pace.

“I only did as Quent had taught, your grace.”

“A fine job it was, boy. Sincerely.” King Hyrren walked back up to his throne, and laid indolently with his leg over the arm, and crown-less head hanging over the edge. “The gate must be kept, boy. You’ve done a fine enough job. I imagine you will continue that fine job for another few days before a practiced keeper arrives. Can I trust you to do that?”

“Yes, your grace,” Mat replied.

Riefwhin stepped foreward then and knelt in front of Mat. “If you are to continue to watch the gate, as our King commands, you are to be given the Master chamber of the gatehouse, for the time until you are replaced. I will contact Quent’s heir and have his belongings removed. Young man, I would ask that you could wait about the throne room hall for us to finish with the other inquiries before parting back to your duty. I must dig up the old gatehouse key. I’m afraid Quent did not part with his before he was lost to us.” He put his hand on Mat’s shoulder and nodded toward the door through which he had come. “I’m sorry for your losses,” he whispered.

Mat nodded thoughtfully, and told Riefwhin that he would wait as long as needed. Mat struggled with the words, though. He was almost at the end of his politeness, not that he was angry, or frustrated, but that it was like speaking a foreign language. Before learning how to speak properly, as a gatekeep should, Mat had only ever really heard commoner tongue, and was almost at the end of what little knowledge of the subject he had. Thankful to be through with prostrating before the new king, Mat turned, and began hurriedly walking toward the door that Riefwhin told him to wait.

Suddenly, just as Mat was about to exit the great, already overwhelming throne room, Mat heard Hyrren speak. With a booming voice, the King, standing again, spoke to Mat with a widening grin that peeled back over his teeth. “Chara,” he said. “Has she returned yet, boy. Yes, the girl you inquired after when I was trapped on the other side of the gate — is she returned safe?”

Mat didn’t know what to say. How did he remember her name? Was she going to be in trouble now? Did the new king know that Chara had snuck out, and hadn’t yet returned? Mat didn’t want her to be punished for disobeying a order set by a different king entirely. Was that even possible? Too many questions ran through his head, and Mat stood there staring back at the King afraid to move, and moving his mouth silently trying to form some sort of answer for the King who now glared down at him with determined resentment.

“When you see her, boy, this Chara, you tell her the King has a need to see her.” He laughed again, no doubt seeing, and for some reasoning, reveling in Mat’s uncomfortableness.

Mat walked backwards through the door behind him, and out of view of the new king, who no longer was laughing, but just staring.

“I fear for her safety!” Hyrren yelled.

A wave of relief fell over Mat. He wasn’t sure whether it was caused by being away from that strange man, king Hyrren, or the fact that Hyrren just implied that Chara was not in fact in trouble, and that he was just looking out for her. An odd day, Mat thought. Grown-up problems were so much scarier, and no matter how often mat thought he had a grasp on the language and the meaning of grown-up things, the more confused he got. Had King Hyrren actually been strange, or was that just how King’s were? He paced the outer hallway thinking on it for what seemed like hours, hoping that every time the door opened it would be Riefwhin there to see him off with the key to the gatehouse.

Mat had been overjoyed when the King’s Advisor had proposed a private audience for him to be given the gatehouse key. He hadn’t much wanted to hand the letter Quev’et had given him over to Riefwhin right in front of everybody in the Thrymian kingdom. If it was too secret for even Mat’s eyes, after being confided in by the Hornholders, it was most likely a thing best left to give in private. Mat touched his pocket again, making sure the letter was still there just as Master Riefwhin came through the door.

“Ah, young — Mattim Leyon, is it? — let’s get this gatehouse business taken care of.” From one of the countless pockets in the man’s great brown cloak, he produced a worn and weathered iron key. “That should be the one,” he said, handing it over to Mat. “If it does not fit, you must come back to see me. My chamber lie at the inside tower, in the easter hall that lines the royal bailey. It will be locked. Without men to guard the castle, we mustn’t be too careful, you understand? Knock, you will?”

Mat nodded, and hesitated a moment before he asked, “why haven’t the porticullises been lowered?” He shied instantly at how demanding he sounded, and quickly tried to restate his position. “I mean, I understand it is no business of mine, but with the guards and soldiers slain, it seems the port-gates would be best at keeping out dangers to the castle. Quent always said –” he trailed off.

Riefwhin smiled a sad smile, down turning his lips, but crinkling the skin around his eyes. Quent was a smart man, young Mat. I knew him well, too. He’s — he had — worked for Thrym for almost his entire life. Knew a good many things, he did. I expect you do, too, now.” He looked Mat up and down briefly before patting him on the back. “Don’t let yourself be concerned with troubles such as these,” he said. “Leave it to me. You, go on now and see to that gate. Hurry, now.”

Mat, oddly contented with his answer, began to meander down the hallway, befor shoving the key in his pocket. Something blocked it, and suddenly Mat remembered the main purpose of his visit to the castle that day. “Master adviser, sir,” he yelled, waving his hand in the air.

Riefwhin turned around to face him again, and gave him a concerned smile. “What is it, young Mattim?”

Mat reached him a few strides and quickly dug his fingers into his pocket. “Three men — from Hornhold,” he began.

Riefwhen stepped back a little, shocked at the abruptness of Mat’s rushed and out of breath explanation. “Go on, son. Three men from Hornhold–?”

“Mat took a deep breath and continued: “Three men…Hornholders — I let them through the gate late in the night. They gave me a note. A note, they said, I had_to give to only you, Master adviser, sir. They said it was important. Lord, I can’t believe I almost forgot it again!” Mat pulled the parchment from his pocket and handed stuffed it in Riefwhin’s hands. “The one that gave it to me, his name was Quev’et. I assume you know him?”

The old adviser’s jaw dropped. “Quev’et? In Thrym? Boy, you must take me to him. Take my heart, why didn’t he come to me, first?”

“He spoke of danger, Master Riefwhin. He hadn’t wanted to come near the castle. Between you and me,” Mat said, “after the way King Hyrren acted today, I don’t blame him.” Mat’s ears instantly became hot. He knew he shouldn’t be talking like that, especially within the castle, within earshot of probably anybody who would want to be listening. Mat began to stumble through an apology, but Master Riefwhin stopped him with a quick shake to his shoulders.

“Take me to him. At once, Mattim, this cannot wait.”

Mat did as the advisor asked, grabbing the old man by the cloak-sleeve and hurrying him along the hallways and down the stairs of the castle. He had to guide him, keeping him from bumping into people or things on the great stairs or street, as Riefwhin’s face was dug into the note that Quev’et had written for him. Now, Mat’s curiosity did get the better of him, and he slowed his pace.

“What’s it say?” he asked.

“It is complicated,” Riefwhin said. “If you have no previous knowledge, there is no way for me to possibly explain, lad. Hurry now. I assure you, the matter is urgent.”

“Quev’et told me a lot of stuff, too, you know. How are you so certain I won’t understand what’s on that letter?”

“Where do I begin,” Riefwhin said. “Do you have any knowledge of constellations, Mat? Does the system Darmongaroth mean anything to you? Does the alignment of the Twins and the Crown spark any bit of deep seeded knowledge you may have foregone? Have you studied at the institutions of Hornhold, specifically Celestrium? I apologize for rudeness, son, but as I said, these are things you simply would not understand.” Riefwhin folded the paper back up and put it up a pocket somewhere in his cloak. “Hurry, we mustn’t waste any more time.”

Mat lowered his head, but pushed on nonetheless. Sure, he hadn’t known those things yet, be he vowed that he would. Quent knew plenty of things, even Reifwhin had told him that. If a simple man like Quent, just a common gatekeep could learn so much, they was certainly no reason that Mat couldn’t learn a whole lot of stuff, too. Over his own internal groveling, Mat could hear the old man he was leading begin to pant, and wheeze, and suddenly, he felt bad again and forced an apology.

The two of them slowed, but kept a good pace, and after a period of ignoring odd looks of Mat’s neighbors and friends, and even some higherborns glaring at the two holding hands, they found themselves at the front of the Byrne’s lowly stables. From inside, they could hear yelling, and Reifwhin quickly opened the door.

The shining steel tip a Jaquat’s shortsword was there to greet them. It rested neck level on the King’s advisor, and Jaquat held it unflinchingly until Quev’et yelled for him to lower it and allow his “old friend” to enter. He did as he was bid, and Mat and the old man strode into the barn.

Tullin looked provoked, and had an infuriated set to his jaw. Mat gave him a cross look, but Tullin just crossed his arms and leaned against the wall with an audible humph. Quev’et rolled his eyes at him before standing to shake the hand of old master Rhiefwhin. They hugged, a strong brotherly hug, clapping each other and the back and then holding each other at arm length to admire each other’s faces before asking how they had been and whatnot.

Mat smiled at the meeting, but quickly reversed his features when he looked at Tullin again. Mat hadn’t noticed before, but the young man had a small swelling to his left eye, and it was a little purple. Mat could already picture what had happened. Tullin probably closed the stables for the night, most like to grieve alone, when the three northmen came knocking. Tullin had probably told them to go away and get lost somewhere, but, remembering how Xia’an had reacted to stubborness from Mat, Mat was sure that that black eye had probably come from him.

Tullin didn’t really want to talk much about the incident, but after Mat prodded for a little while, the stable man admitted it was mostly true. The two of them sat in silence together for a few moments after Tullin told his side of the story. Mat again felt sorry for the guy. He lost his father just a day before, and Mat and the men from Hornhold hadn’t given him a proper chance to grieve. Mat apologized, but Tullin pretended he wasn’t bothered by it. Mat knew better. He told him that he could go, and Mat could tend to the men, but Tullin said his father would have never allowed three strangers in the stable without a Bayre in there to watch them. Mat understood, but still felt bad nonetheless.

He tried to eavesdrop on Quev’et and Rhiefwhin after Tullin hadn’t been much for conversation. He wasn’t getting anywhere with that either. The two men sat quietly, one on a stoll, the other on a barrel in the corner near where the big white horses were closed in. Mat strained his ears, but just bits and pieces came through.

From Quev’et came, “–intersecting…twins behind the crown…eclipse.”

Riefwhin cut in with: “–but Darmongaroth…not since…Risen.”

Mat thought he knew that part. Riefwhin was saying something about an age Mat had heard of. He had been spoken to of The Age of the Risen before, and the old man had been saying something, something hasn’t been, or happened, not since then. Mat got the chills, and thought of the tapestries in the throne room he had just been in. Prince Lyrdran was from the Age of the Risen. The greatest warrior who had ever lived was what people had called him. Mat stuck his ear toward the two whispering men a little further.

“–prophecy. Lucansphear…their Prophet Set…more knowledge. Why…sent somebody?” Mat heard more from Quev’et that time. Still, not enough. He leaned closer.

“Maybe they have,” Riefwhin said. “If the Fallow is sending forth sentries, or worse, maybe Lanier’s messengers didn’t make it out of the hills. Sending a raven would be too dangerous. We must wait a day or two more. Darmongaroth won’t be fully formed for weeks yet, we still have time. The twins only just crossed the crown, you say?”

“Yes, there is yet time,” Quev’et answered. “If Lanier’s prophets verify the Firmament’s findings, it could very well be the beginning. Our visions mirror what our ancestors had written of at the dawn of –”

Mat quickly turned his head away and began to whistle, hoping that Quev’et hadn’t stopped because he knew Mat could hear. When he looked back, the two men were staring right at him. Idiot, he thought. It was just getting good.

The men stood up and walked out the back of the barn into the stable yard. Mat frowned to himself, half upset with himself for snooping, and haf upset that he wouldn’t hear the rest of their conversation. What had they been talking about, anyway? The Age of the Risen, most certainly, but what was that other stuff about sentries and messangers? What visions, and whose did they match? It all tied together somehow, and somehow, it all seemed like something very bad was on the brink of boiling over. Men usually didn’t whisper about good things to come, no, and definitely not if they were also mentioning an age when the Shadow itself had almost controlled the whole world. What did the Quev’et’s people see in the stars, and what did that have to do with people in Lucansphear? And what the hell did Old Master Riefwhin know about any of it?

Mat thought on it for a while, and even considered bringing it all up to Tullin, but after looking at him, he could tell the stable boy probably didn’t want to talk. Instead, Mat slumped his head and shoved his hands into his pocket. That rusty iron key to the gatehouse scratched at his knuckles, and suddenly Mat remembered where he was supposed to be.

“The gate!” he yelled. He ran to the front door of the barn before turning back to Tullin. “Tell them…tell Quev’et I’ll be at the gate! Don’t forget!”

Tullin looked at him like he was a blundering idiot, but he nodded anyway and waved Mat away. Mat ran, kicking up clumps of drying mud and dust into the air of the market town as he ran, and the memory of Quev’et and Riefwhin’s whispered words still played in his head, confusingly and only half understood if any meaning could be found at all.

As Mat cleared the corner of the Long Iron Inn, sprinting harder as the gate came into sight, he could faintly hear a rumble in the distance like thunder heading a summer storm. He slowed his run, trying to quiet his panting breaths, and realized it hadn‘t been thunder at all. It was banging — ferocious, persistent banging, and it was coming from the other side of the gate. Banging, from spots all over, spread over the entire gate and even along the stone walls as if men, tens if not hundreds had been pounding with everything they had. He heard yelling, laughing, cursing, seething.

He hurried as fast as he could, pulling back his metal tankard. He climbed up it, and nearly fully out of breath, he slammed open the sliding viewer, and instantly wished he hadn’t.

On the other side of the gate, hundreds of men, plated and armored stood with swords and spears at ready. They encircled an even larger group of men, most carrying bundles and odd belongings. They didn’t look like soldiers as all. Directly below the porthole, a man with soot and grease on his shaggy face, and a deep three pronged scar across his cheek looked up to catch Mat eye to eye.

“You better let us in, you little shitter, or we’ll be tearing this whole fuckin’ wall down. I don’t imagine your new king would be liking that much, would he? Now, if you don’t want this spear down your little throat, you better open this fuckin’ gate.” He smiled at Mat, then, brown teeth glistening in the evening sun.

The Tomes of the Seer: Chapter 5

Here’s the newest chapter. I like this one. It finally reveals some plot lines and gives a little insight into some of the characters. I’m really looking for feedback on this one. I added some horror elements, and was wondering how they transferred. Also, I would like to hear input on things like pacing, and tone. Any input at all would be hugely appreciated. Thanks, again.

Chara

The night had wore on, and Chara had felt her eyelids grow heavy. She no longer stopped herself from resting her head against the shoulder of the man she rode on horse with, stranger or not. Her thighs ached, and her back hurt from straddling the thicker, back portion of the single saddle, and she avoided letting her nose touch the back of Gherric as they rode — it felt as if it had been broken. After a few hours, she gave up hope that they would, by chance, come across her own horse that ran off without her into the dark, wild night. Now, she just wished sleep would come. That, and the blissful forgetfulness her dreams would hold, masking the horrors of the day.

It never did. Each step the horse took jostled her to one side or another, and she’d had to flex one leg or the other to keep from toppling off the gelding. Gherric didn’t seem to notice. He was surely more experienced on horseback than her, which she was at least a little thankful for. Not any man could have held himself stable with her clinging to his back each time she almost tipped off.

“The farther we trek, the more apt you seem at wanting to fall, child,” said Gherric. “Must we break for rest?”

“I am no chi–.” Child, she had meant to say, but instead a yawn broke from her mouth. Gherric heard it, she was sure, as she felt him tug a little at the reigns, and slow the horse to a slow totter. “Sir,” she began. “I’d like to reach–” she yawned again. “–excuse me, please. I’d like to reach King Lanier, much sooner than later. I’m fearful–” Yawn “–for my family.”

“It will do us no good, this running on exhaustion, girl. You’d be more likely to harm yourself, or something worse, without your wits about you.” Gherric put the back of his gauntleted hand to his mouth, too covering a yawn. “In truth, I’ve been waiting for you to ask. It’s been a long night, indeed. Long for the both of us.”

Gherric listened for Chara’s response, but got nothing in reply but soft snores emanating from where her head rested against the back of his shoulder. She opened her eyes with a start, and gasped at the shock when the horse finally stopped walking. Seeing only that pale yellow glow flickering in the glass lamp soon reminded her where she was, and why, which wasn’t a comfort at all. She groaned, again feeling the throb of her aching legs and face. Something off-putting clung to the recesses of her mind, barely there, but tugging violently at her thoughts, nonetheless. Surely, something she had been about to dream. Sleep no longer seemed so important — definitely not with that dark feeling lurking about her head.

After having been helped down from the horse, she felt around for a soft spot to lie in the leaves and twigs of the wood, and watched through flickering eyelids as Gherric held a match to some kindling. Soon, small twigs and sticks smoldered underneath larger branches, the flames licking black the long dead bark. Chara could finally see in full the man she so impetuously put her trust in just hours before.

He was taller than she had originally thought, and much broader, too. His cloak wasn’t actually grey, but more of an ashy brown, that in certain shadow seemed to blend and form with whatever was behind him. It made Chara’s eyes hurt. If he had sat on the ground, enshrouded in the thing, she surely could have mistaken him for a large rock. A rock, indeed, if first he had removed the huge-handled sword she now saw sticking out of a slit behind his right shoulder blade. She had thought the man had just been bony when she had been rested against his back on the horse, but now she saw that what she had mistaken for ill health and an arched spine, had actually been a sword in sheath, jabbing her against the cheek. She frowned at her own stupidity.

Gherric walked toward where she was lying, removing the great sword and stabbing it in to stick in the ground before removing that great cloak of his and flapping it over her like a heavy, itchy blanket. She had no complaints, though. Certainly, no complaints about Gherric, either. Without his cloak, broad, hardened shoulder made mounds beneath his sweat-soaked shirt, and his broad chest seemed harder than the mail that covered it. Thick black stubble lined the man’s cheeks, and his pale green eyes seemed endless in knowledge and care. Thick, full lips flashed a brief, but unmistakable smile at Chara as she lied still on the ground, and she felt herself smiling in return.

The man was mysterious, and Chara had never met one so devilishly dressed in such a way. Sure, she had seen knights before, but certainly, none like this. Instead of black riding boots, he wore sadistic looking steel covers that linked up over the ankle like scales to join curved, black, steel plates that spanned his whole shins to just above the knees. There, they ended in sharpened spikes that made Chara make a note to herself to never accidentally sit on the man’s lap. She felt herself blush involuntarily. The gauntlets that covered the mans wrist ended much the same as the plates on his legs, with spikes protruding at the elbows, and the gloves that covered his large — and strong, no doubt — hands, had small points sticking out of where each knuckle was. His garb was meant for killing, and killing alone. She wished that she could have seen him at the battle in the Pass, earlier. Maybe he could have saved the King. She caught herself smiling again as he took his water flagon from his waist and put it under her head for a pillow. He put his hand on her cheek, staring deeply into her tired eyes.

“Sleep, child,” he said. “Tomorrow will be long.”

Chara felt her eyes close, embracing that heavy feeling that prevented them from opening again. There, she fell asleep, still feeling herself smile, unthinkingly.

-

Screams filled the air as Thrym burned, great wails of terror spinning up into the night sky intertwining with billowing spires of red and orange flame. The great gate was crushed inward and Mat was nowhere to be found. Stands that once held fruit or cuts of meat were now toppling, black crisps of tinder, fueling the blazes that ripped through the town. Crumpling, shrinking wisps of old clothing fluttered through the air — great insects with fire for wings — setting down softly on the small houses and inns, soon transferring their deadly inferno to the soft cloth blinds and thatched roofs of the commoner-homes.

Chara stood outside the crushed in gate, looking in at the burning hell that was her home. She was screaming, but she couldn’t tell what she was saying, if she was in fact saying anything at all. With her hands cupped over her mouth, she screamed and screamed until her throat burned, but whatever it was that she yelled was washed away with the sounds of the blazing night. She walked slowly through the gate and into her town, ducking out of the way as friends, neighbors she had known her whole life had ran by without even looking her way. Behind them chased monsters. Human figures, soaked in what looked like pitch — black sludge dripping, oozing, melting off of their clothes and weapons. Flames rippled and smoldered where their eyes and mouths should have been, and in the orange and red slicks reflected off of their black, moistened grime by the flames, Chara could see spatters of blood, mixing, oil-like with the gruesome slime they were doused in.

Behind them lay slews of bodies, hacked to bits but still twitching in the fire-light. A hand here, a leg there, all tried to claw and crawl on their own. Torsos shuddered and lurched, pivoting on their stumps to move staggeredly across the bloodied mud of the ground. All of the heads, thrown into one pile stuttered and turned to revere in awe the sight of Chara approaching them, eyes wide, some still wrapped in tears, glasslike in the burning night. Despite her fear, Chara approached the bodies, and as she got within reach, they all began to smile. Chara staggered back, breath caught in her chest like a bird encaged, unable to scream, unable to do anything but stare as great white sparks ignited in the backs of each of their throats, giving rise to blackened smoke that poured from their mouths and nostrils, until their eyes and lips erupted under flame. As they laughed, fire burst from behind their teeth. From the wounds of the body parts, blackness seeped, encompassing whole whatever it touched, spreading, sticking to, clinging to the flesh as tentacle like fibers born of the ooze began rhythmically dragging each body part to another, building, twisting into place scattered body parts to form one whole being anew. As they formed, they stood together, lurching, snapping and cracking bones together until they moved as smoothly as the wetland snakes that slithered in the summer mud.

They all looked at her, seething, smiling, spitting hisses and snaps of flame, smoke, and sludge, and then they began to walk. Chara looked around, desperately searching for someplace to run, or someone that could help. She was alone in the street, standing by herself, dead center in a circle of flame that contained her and the re-animated, black, dripping corpses of men, women, and children she had known and cared for. They approached as waste-covered, demon-wolves, teeth bared and snarling. Some had weapons drawn — kitchen knives, fishing hooks, and hay forks glinted in the light of the encroaching fire.

“No,” she cried, holding her hands in front of her face. “It’s me! It’s me, Chara. You all know me. I’m here to help you! I’m here to save you! Mat!” she cried. “Maaattt! Mother?! Where are you?”

One of the creatures, much smaller than the others stepped out from behind the mob with a small dagger in its hand. She recognized the slow, steady walk of the monster, but could not believe what she was seeing.
Mat’s skull was split nearly in two, where his bones would have shown white, just black, oily soot glimmered back. Ashen, ebony fluid boiled from the top of his head, and as he got closer, close enough to skewer Chara with his little black belt knife, he spoke like water filling a lung. “We know who you are, Chara. We know — and He knows, too. We‘re coming, Chara. We are coming for you.” He laughed again. They all laughed. “Yes, we’re coming, sweet sister — coming for you…” Mat’s laughter filled the night, cancelling out every other terrible noise, and as the flames burning from his mouth and eyes bit, scorching, and blistering her face, Mat brought his little knife down deep into Chara’s chest, a smile still twisting his bubbling lips.

-

Gasping for air, Chara flung herself awake, struggling to focus her eyes in the still darkness of the woods. The flames of the small fire Gherric had built had died down, and just a bowl of glowing embers remained. She threw the brown cloak off of herself, and shuddered as the night’s wind cooled her sweating flesh.

Gherric knelt next to her, sword drawn, peering around quickly in the darkness. “What is it?” he whispered. “You screamed. Point to where the villain hides.”

Despite the horrible nightmare still flickering in her mind, Chara allowed herself a slight giggle, and convinced Gherric to sit back down, which reluctantly, he did. She explained the dream, leaving out the part about her own disfigured brother sticking a knife through her heart. That part was just a little too personal, and almost brought tears to her eyes even then, thinking back on it. “What do you think it means?” she asked.

“It could mean nothing,” Gherric said. “Or it could be a foretelling, though I’d doubt much of it to be true. Seepers, is what it sounded like that plagued your dreams. A product of the Shadow during the Age of the Risen. It’s only been written of on one account, but the tome says they brought anguish to the world. The shadow’s influence has leaked itself upon the world many times over the ages of the world. Shadow armies have come and gone, Depleters have roamed the woods, longing to serve their master. Malformed creatures of all sorts have crawled their way out of the Fallow from time to time. They’ve all been slain, and all forgotten. But only once, mind you, have Seepers been loosed. A plague, they are said to be, bringing with them death himself riding their winds. Aside from the shadow itself, they are the worse this world has ever seen. Once, they came. Let us plead they never come again.”

Gherric stood, then, ripping in half small twigs he had been lying upon. He scattered them over the fired and knelt to blow on the embers, before crinkling his forehead and turning back to look disconcertingly at Chara. “An odd dream, child — one of the Seepers, that is.” He frowned, staring off into the darkness, just barely fading at the coming dawn. “Have dreams such as this ever entered your sleep before? Have you heard the stories even? — The stories I began of the Seepers, dear?”

She shook her head, and held back the urge to call the man an idiot. Had she had the dreams before, she certainly would not have been so frightened with them, let alone had even mentioned them to Gherric. What did he take her for? Instead, she simply said, “no, sir. I have not.”

Gherric thought on that for a moment, before looking up through the tree canopy at the now soft purple sky. He looked even more handsome, now, with just the right bit of concern for her wrought upon his face. “Dawn approaches, Miss. It is best we make haste before the afternoon suns slow us down. I’d like to be through these woods by nightfall. Even during the day, the portion of the hills is one you’d not want to be alone in.”

They made a quick meal to break their fast on what remained of the fire. Honeyed bread, stale as it was, was a nice compliment to the warm oats and mutton Gherric had stored in his roll. They ate in silence with unasked questions stifling the cool morning air. Chara had too much on her mind. Why had she dreamed a dream of creatures that had actually been real before? Why had Gherric thought that that had been even more odd than she did? Foretelling, she knew, had only existed in stories and tales the word performers spread, but still — it was an awfully odd dream.

After they doused the fire and Gherric donned that hard-to-look-at cloak, they both climbed on the horse — Gherric called him Widower — and set off east again through the thick undergrowth. Dawn came, and the sun had come out, but the Swathed Hills had their name for a reason. With the morning heat, a great mist rose in the forest, and soon blotted out the morning light. Under the canopy, it was like trekking through thick bouts of smoke, and Chara found herself thinking of her dream once again.

They rode on in silence for most of the next few hours, and Chara contented herself with squeezing her arms around the chest of Gherric, feigning as if she were about to fall. She knew it was child’s play, but it excited her nonetheless, and there was no one around to call her out on it and tell her she was being a fool girl with her breeches in a tizzy. No one except Gherric, who either didn’t notice, or didn’t mind at all. She eventually stopped her play, when she acted to fall again, almost did, and hit her nose against the sword hilt on Gherric’s back. They had to stop the horse so she could tend to the bleeding. Despite the setback clearly being her own fault, Gherric didn’t scowl or scold her. Surprisingly, he unsheathed his sword and laid it across his lap after mounting the horse again.

Chara had almost forgotten her nightmare, when Gherric turned his head a little and leaned back so she could hear him. “Was there anything else in your dream, child?” he said. “A — what’s the word? — leader or sorts?” He shook his head. “I’m not explaining well…Someone who seemed to be controlling these creatures?”

She thought for a moment, but honestly had no memory of anything of the sort. “No, sir, not that I can think of. And please, for the hundredth time, I am no child. Call me Chara, my proper name.”

“Only if you stop calling me Sir. I am no fool knight.” Gherric seemed to scoff at the word, some hatred held behind his teeth that only threatened to break through.

“I hadn’t meant to offend…” Chara said, frowning a little. She hadn’t realized that her title for him had been as annoying as him calling her a child — that, he was probably only calling her that because she had insisted on believing he was a knight. He had asked that she call him by his name. She felt sorry that she had forgotten.

Unspoken apologies kept the silence between them for a few more moments, before Gherric began to ask about her dream again. “You’re sure, there was no…conductor?”

Conductor? She found that word choice very odd, but thought back harder, regardless, until she was certain of the details of her dream. “No. Nothing of the sort. Just the black-soaked beasts, them and their awful faces.”

“In the tome I told you of,” Gherric said, “the only one that talks of these creatures…there is a man that’s written of, maybe not a man, but a figure that is there.” Gherric stroked his chin, searching for the memory of what he read, or maybe just the right words. “Anyway,” he began. “The man, or figure…it is written that these beings do his bidding, as if they were under some sort of spell. That pitch-like film that you spoke of, that covers the beast — that is their corruption, it is said.”

“Corruption?”

“Yes,” said Gherric. “The stain of the Shadow. This man, or conductor, or whatever he may be called — he curses, or infects, I’m not sure how to put it…he taints the blood that once flowed through these beings. The blood becomes the corruption of the Shadow’s filth; its hate; its rage — all of the ugliness that the Shadow represents. It is a thing beyond life and death, and it spreads its taint wherever it goes — on whatever it touches. That is to say, if the conductor bids it so.”

Chara’s head swam. It was all too much. Yes, she had heard terrible stories of the Shadow before, and some of the creatures and filth that were tied there, but sometimes were let loose of the Fallow, but they had always been just stories. Somehow, Gherric spoke with a truth that she knew was unquestionable, that these horrible things he was saying were true, real, and even more awful than the stories she had mostly doubted only a few days before. She sat in silence, afraid to ask anything more — afraid to learn anything more dreadful than what she had already been told.

“Let’s consider it a good thing, that that was not in your dream.” It was a good thing Gherric spoke. He interrupted her thoughts just as they were getting too dark to handle. “I doubt it was a foretelling, then. I assume that if Seepers were a true fate of Thrym, and you had seen that fate, that the others would have been in your dream as well.”

Chara breathed a sigh of relief, not just for the hope that Thrym would not suffer that fate, but that Mat, specifically, would not. Either way, this talk of foretelling did annoy her, and she told Gherric as much. “It isn’t real,” she said. “And someone like me would be the last to have the gift, if anybody could have it at all.”

Gherric simply laughed, and Chara felt her cheeks go red. “Girl,” he said. “How much have you learned today, or seen in the past few days, that you knew before had only been stories?”

She hadn’t thought about that, and felt more stupid than ever. “Still, even if it may be real, you can’t possibly believe that gift would exist within me. I’m just a common girl, a Shepherd’s daughter. There’s nothing special the Gods would gift someone like me.”

Gherric stopped the horse. “Is that all you know of your father, Chara?” He turned to face her. No smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. He was as serious as a snake-handler, kissing the cobra.

“He died years ago, now. I remember him well. His name was Samuel, Sam Leyon. He died gambling, the fool.”

“’Sam,’ is that what he was calling himself?” Gherric chuckled a bit.

Chara looked at him, confused. “You? You knew my father?” she asked.

“I did,” he replied. “But not by that name. When I knew him, he went by…” Gherric trailed off.

Chara waited for the answer, her head spinning with the details of the day. “He went by what, Gherric? Go on, finish what you –”

Gherric cut her off with a finger pressed to his lips. “Quiet, girl,” he said. “Listen…”

She stopped, and so did the horse, its ears perked up and pointing to the south of them. Suddenly, she heard what had stopped the man. Footsteps, slow, but clumsy, echoed off of the trees around them. There were two, maybe three of them, snapping twigs and grumbling through the brush together, but keeping their voices silent. Who were these men? Her mind instantly thought of Mat and her mother, and she wanted to yell to them, but with everything that had been shocked into her mind the last few days, she had the sudden, terrifying realization that it could be anyone, anything lurking the woods.

Gherric lifted the sword that had been resting on his knees, and slid himself down silently from the horse. He rubbed the gelding between the eyes, and set off stalking silently toward the clomping noise in the brush that seemed to be getting ever-closer. Chara wanted to call out, to ask for instruction, be she didn’t want to move, to make any sound at all.

Widower blew air through his nose, and Gherric stopped dead in his tracks. The footsteps coming from just on the other side of the thicket stopped too. Chara’s blood seemed to freeze in her veins. Gherric looked back to the horse, shooting it a glare that seemed it could kill a man at twenty paces. The horse stared back, unaware that he may have just gotten the lot of them killed.

Suddenly, Gherric held his sword firmly in front of him with both hands, and yelled, “show yourselves, or die miserably in your hiding spots!” His hands didn’t shake at all. “I see you behind those trees!”

Chara didn’t know if he could actually see them or if he was bluffing, and certainly the men he was shouting to couldn’t know either. If Chara hadn’t known what to look for, that dark, dingy cloak would have seemed all but invisible in the dense foggy underbrush. But soon, the footsteps began again. They drew closer to the clearing her and Gherric were standing in, snaps and cracks now seeming to explode in her ears. She could hear herself panting, and even the horse shifted it’s weight, anxious for whatever was about to come crawling out of the bushes. Neither of them had to wait long.

From behind a thatch of brambles not five paces in front of Gherric, two men emerged with their hands linked behind their heads. Their plain-clothes were streaked with mud, and ash, their faces bloodied, and not half a weapon between them.

Still, Gherric eyed them warily, and held his sword point chest-high at the approaching men. “Hands in front,” he said. “And on your knees.”

The men did as they were told, one of the them, the younger of the two, hanging his head and sobbing quietly to himself. The older one nudged him with an elbow, and said, “hold your head high, son. You fought well at the farm.” He talked oddly, accentuating the inflection of every other word, as if her speaking from horseback, bobbing up and down. “You deserve a death in honor,” he went on, “from this man here or any other. Don’t go to your grave crying for something you can’t control.” The man who had been crying wiped his face on his shirtsleeve, and lifted his head, puffing his chest out just a bit.

“Go on, sir,” he said. “Make it clean.”

Gherric sheathed his sword on his back, and knelt to look the men in the eyes. “I’m not going to kill you,” he said. He grabbed the younger one under the shoulders and hoisted him to his feet, and then he reached a hand down to help the one who must have been the boy’s father, or something like it. He crossed his arms, and looked the men up and down.

The younger man looked as if he were about to faint, tottering on his heels before the other man reached out to steady him. He, despite holding another man up, still eyed Gherric with caution.

“If I’m not mistaken, your accent makes you men of Dursie. Farmers of Dursie, is it?” Gherric looked them up and down, a curious look furrowing his eyebrows.

“Yes, sir knight. Well, we were anyway.” The older man hung his head this time as well.

“Call me Gherric. Not ‘knight’ if it please.” Gherric held out his hand at the introduction. “You mentioned fighting…” He pulled his water skin from his belt then and offered it to the two men, who still stood, rather shocked at the whole situation, and the realization that they would be keeping their lives. They ripped the cork from the flagon and drank heartily, letting the excess spill down their chins. Gherric looked to Chara who was still sitting upon Widower with her jaw dropped, seething at the lack of information Gherric was giving her. Who did he think he was? She wasn’t some fool girl who he didn’t need to explain things to.

Gherric shrugged at her before saying softly, “Dursien farmers. They are friends. The village isn’t far, just a day’s ride southeast.

“What’s left of it,” one of the farmer’s broke in. “The name’s Ronnil, and this is my nephew Ghinri. Farmers from Dursie, yes, you have that right.” The farmer shook his head, and filled his mouth again with water, before handing it back to the farmer he called Ghinri. “They came in the night, not this one passed, but the night before.” He patted his nephew on the shoulder, and grabbed the water flagon again, and drank heartily. Gasping, he went on. “Burned up everything — killed all the goats. Damnable beasts, they skewered the workhorses, too.” Ronnil emptied the last of the flagon over his head. Gherric shot him an angry glare, before Ghinri told him that there was a cool stream a hundred paces or so south of where they were.

Chara jumped down from the big horse, and walked over to where the men were talking. She tried not to be too angry with being left out of the conversation. After all, this happened enough at home when men were talking. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” she said. “But, who came in the night? Was it fallow-spawned — a depleter?! What is it you speak of?”

The older farmer looked on the point of laughter, before he looked to Gherric, asking, “what nonsense have you been filling your girl’s head with, man?” He laughed, clutching his belly. “Depleters. Ha. The Fallow hasn’t wept it’s ilk in eons.”

Chara’s cheeks burned, and she buried in her the urge to slap the man, the old fool. Deep down, she knew she couldn’t blame him. Just days ago, she wouldn’t have believed much of what she knew now to be true. And farmers from within the hills, they surely haven’t been told, nor believed, half the stories people knew back in Thrym, or the bigger cities that lay around Lucansphear. She unrolled her fist, not that she much had planned on swinging it anyway.

After the farmer had stopped laughing, he caught the glare from Gherric, and went on with the telling of his tale guardedly. He said it had been soldiers. Men, certainly not Fallow-spawn. Ronnil covered more laughter at the mention of the name, but Chara didn’t let it bother her. He would see soon enough. During the whole story, Ghinri stood silent, staring at the ground with his eyebrows set with worry. In between every break in Ronnil’s story, he would mutter something about everyone being dead, or something of that sort.

“Sigils,” Gherric asked, giving Ghinri a sideways look. “Did you see any? If they were men, armed men in formation, they must have had banners drawn with a sigil.”

“Aye, we saw banners all right. You’ll never believe what they shone either.” The older man laughed again, this time bellowing to the point of a coughing fit. “The banner had a blue background, near as blue as the oceans.” He laughed again, and Chara felt herself go cold. “Afore that blue, there was itself a circle of gold.” No, Chara thought. But she had already knew the next words that would come out of the man’s mouth. “Inside the circle, Mister Gherric, lay one sleeping lion, with a crown of red upon its brow.”

“Lanier,” Gherric said. “Lucansphear’s royal army. I Just came from there not two weeks past. Why…?” At that, the younger farmer from Dursie began to cry again. “Lanier is a good king,” Gherric went on. “He’s never been a looter. Truthfully, those soldiers must have been in route to Thrym. He must have received word about the…the trouble there, and sent the army.”

“Whatever the situation,” Rhonnil began, “we’re refugees, now. There’s nothing left of Dursie. Aye, I want my vengeance, but there’s none to be had. Ghinri here, and myself, we took out a few of ‘em, hiding in a loft, sticking our hay forks down through the slats. Funny thing, they never caught us. When the barn caught fire, it went quick. We had to jump from the loft through the smoke, used it as cover, we did. We watched from the trees, watched them finish the rest.” His eyes seemed to go distant then, cold and blank. No more laughing came from his mouth.

“It must be some mistake,” Chara said. “Lanier wouldn’t do this. Could it be brigands?” she asked, tugging at Gherric. “Brigands, they could have robbed a small envoy — used the royal banner as a trick?”

“Could be,” Gherric said. Neither of the farmers seemed to believe it. She caught both of them roll their eyes at Gherric’s response. “Either way,” he went on, “I mean to find out. Lucansphear is where we were headed as it was. Rhonnil, Ghinri, you two are welcome to accompany. I can’t tell you what we will find in the Kingdom, but if things have soured, maybe you can have your vengeance, yet.” He walked quickly over to his horse, his cloak billowing behind him, seeming to seethe as well.

Chara followed closely behind, and motioned for the two Dursien farmers to follow. She had learned already that Gherric always set a fairly hard pace, and she was sure that wouldn’t change for these two men on foot. But, Gherric needed her too, her story, to corroborate his own. She opted to stay on foot as well, and follow with the farmers behind Gherric and widower. He didn’t seem to mind, and clearly seemed to enjoy the extra room in his saddle once again.

Lanier, she thought. Brigands? Everything was so wrong. Everything. Mat was still alone, and it would be days before she could save him. Days, maybe even weeks, Mat being locked inside Thrym, a town enslaved by a Depleter. A garnering would come. She prayed that they would make it in time, prayed that Lanier would be of help. What of her mother? Chara was wishing beyond hope that Mother had her arms around Mat at that instant, and that they were safe within their home, hopefully oblivious of the creature that was now most likely sitting king Boraan’s throne. Too much wracked her brain, but something tugged at her memory. What had Gherric been saying? She tried to think, wrinkling her forehead despite the weird looks it got her from Rhonnil and Ghinri. Think, Chara! And suddenly, it was there.

“Gherric,” she said. “What was it you were saying about my father?”

The Tomes of the Seer: Chapter 4

Here’s the fourth chapter. I think it’s the best one thus far. Let me know what you all think.

 

 

Illurin

The bells that had announced the death of her husband had died hours ago, but it did nothing to ease the pain and anger she felt every time she looked at the face of the one knight to survive the Battle in the Pass. This knight. This Sir Hyrren, who, everyone knew, even the children, was a damnable coward. Queen Illurin Boraan, widow of the King, felt a pang of jealousy for the first time in her life that she could honestly remember.

The returned knight had entered the keep, hunched over, helmet in his hands. There had been sparse cheers then, cheers for the returning soldiers, even though the bells tolled for the King’s death. Ingrates, the queen thought. Filthy peasant-loving dogs. It had hurt her to hear the cheering, and through her tears, she had hoped that everyone who gave a whistle or cheer at Sir Hyrren’s entrance soon had to follow her and sit delicately wiping tears off of their own faces, dying inside just to scream, to run, to die themselves, shriveling up at the loss of their own loved ones. She hadn’t realized the severity of the matter. “Enough!” she screamed. “Your King is dead, can’t you hear those bells?!” She stood then, taking presence over them all. “Mourn your King. Mourn for me…”

It was then that Hyrren approached the High Queen’s polished Ivory chair, and laid his helmet at her feet. The old Lords, and young High Ladies left in the keep stared patiently at the door, waiting for their loved ones to follow in as Hyrren did. “They cheer, my Queen,” the bowing knight said, “but they are not yet aware.”

Illurin looked down at him from her stepped-throne through squinted, questioning eyes.

Sir Hyrren continued: “Each and every one of you has mourning to do,” he said, spinning around to gesture at the people of the room. “Yes, for your…our king, but I fear it is worse than that.”

“Stop being cryptic, knight,” Illurin shamed. “Out with what you have to say.”

He regarded her for a moment, before looking around the room once more, bowing his head. All of the high Ladies that were present were dressed in their finest silks, and latest fashions brought over from Lucansphear or Kunairee. Even in times of great peril, the dogs still tried to impress themselves upon the Queen, as if it might improve their statuses, which they had done nothing to deserve anyway. Either way, their fine silks and satins; dresses and sashes were soon stained with wetted powders, and make-up run off from tears as the women used their own clothes as rags. Hyrren told it all as they cried, and the wails screamed dissonant melancholies as they echoed off the channeled walls, rising, filling the hollow spires within.

After he was done, even the young children looked pallid, drained of all of the life that had kept them bright just hours before. Everyone had faces stained red from wiping, and crying, and yelling, some laughing, gone mad with despair. All, except the wife of Sir Hyrren.

My Love. Not my son, too…

Queen Illurin glared after she had no more tears to give. She watched earlier, as Lady Hyrren stood up and ran to her coward husband, the only man to survive. She spun him around by the shoulders, and he seemed surprised enough to throttle her, as if he hadn’t know her at all. Shock, instinct left over from battle, he had said. They went to sit alone at one of the wooden tables in the back, and left everyone else to their grieving misery.

Soon, the High Ladies, children, soothsayers and foreign noblemen slowly parted from the room, until just a sorted group remained. There was Lady — no, Mistress now — Alanna Grathner, whose husband everyone was sure to come home unscathed. She sat alone with her son of eight or nine, staring blankly at the war-tapestries that covered the walls. Her tears had dried long ago, and her son was tugging at her sleeve, but she would not move, frozen, for what seemed an eternity, a stone of desolation. Illurin glanced at her a few times, and felt for her. She was a good woman; her husband, her family, had not deserved this. But, how could she say that anybody had? Surely not Lady — Mistress — Bayswon, too, her, who was one of the few who never seemed in direct competition of beauty with the Queen herself, never flaunting new paint fashions, or strange garb. No, she had only ever acted a friend, and sat now alone, her face buried in her hands half a table down from Alanna. With her barrenness, the death of her Husband, Lord Gringham of the Kingsguard, would be doubly hard. Even more difficult was the fact that almost all the men of the castle were gone with him, and she would most likely remain Mistress now, forever. Queen Illurin winced at the thought, thinking for a moment, that her fate would be similar. A slight smile cinched her lips, though, after she realized she was now the Queen Regent, and would have a horde of suitors, all vying for her hand. Her smile turned to a grimace though, and her eyes again welled up with tears that she thought long passed. She thought of her husband, and vowed to take the hand of no one, certainly no one that her husband would not have approved.

Sir Hyrren stood up, dropping his wife’s hand, and headed toward Queen Illurin, alone. She watched him through glowering eyes as she held back a snarl. Why you…? He walked passed some of the remaining women, and tussled the hair of some of the kids, most not yet old enough to understand that their fathers were dead. As Hyrren passed the tables, the chairs, the women, old men and Nobles, much of the crying stopped, and the eyes around the room dug into his back.

He stopped at the bottom step of the Queen’s Keep Throne, and knelt, more deeply than necessary, bowing his head to the floor. Illurin motioned him to stand with a wave of her hand, and he obeyed as she commanded. She hadn’t wanted to even look at this nitwit, let alone listen to him as he what, asks for commendation?–some form of recognition, payment?!–for saving the realm? It was his duty. She vowed his glory would be minimal. Nevertheless, she made eye-contact and asked what it was that she could do.

“Do, my Queen?” he said.

She blinked, her face as stern as stone. Each breath, each heartbeat used to fight back tears, anger. Thoughts of violence flickered through her mind.

“It is nothing, I ask. I feel it is my duty to inform.”

Queen Illurin dug her fingernails into the arm of her great chair, and used every ounce of her strength not to leap down and finish what the creature in Thryor Pass had not. “Inform?” she echoed. “Please sir, inform as you must.” As she spoke, she saw Master Riefwhin rise from his place not far away, and come to stand at the foot of her throne, no doubt concerned about the manner in which she was handling this fool knight.

Sir Hyrren glanced at the man clad in the offset brown robe briefly, and certainly, barely stifled a look of contempt. Illurin noticed, if nobody else did, and decided to speak with him later about it. Master Riefwhin was almost as respected as the king had been, and no knight, especially some pitiful coward had any right to look at him smugly.

“Yes,” Sir Hyrren went on. “As I was saying… I know we must grieve, all of us, but the time is dire and decisions must be made.”

“Decisions?” she asked. “You’re lucky I don’t have you thrown in the dungeons as a deserter. I have little doubt that that is the reason you still live.” The Ladies of the room gasped, and Master Riefwhin turned his head to raise an eyebrow. His eyes were red and swollen, too. He loved the king, and, Illurin hoped, he understood her trespasses.

Sir Hyrren didn’t flinch. “You do me wrong Illurin Boraan. Maybe I’ll let you–”

“–You’ll let me what, coward? It is by chance you stand here before me, talking to me as if I’m some whore you’d find at a Market Inn, a commoner! The only reason you live, I’m sure, is because of the bravery of other men — men like my husband and son.” The Queen could feel her face, flaming red, as hot as the fires that burned the Fallow surely must have been. Sir Hyrren’s wife came running up the aisle between the tables to grab the sleeve of her insubordinate, outlandish husband. Queen Illurin watched as he shook her off, sending her flinging to the ground.

“Off!” he snarled, and quickly pointed a violent finger at the Queen. “You…” he seethed.

For a split second, Illurin saw a blackness in his eyes, a hate so deep and dark it could only have shadowed the darkness itself. When she blinked, it had gone, and she was left staring at the angry, slitted eyes of Sir Hyrren again. The Queen spoke slowly: “If you lay a hand on another women again, especially your wife, I’ll have you–
“Enough,” he said. “I won combat against a Depleter, and this is the way you treat me?” He seemed to give in for a moment, seemed to shrink down in size, appearing meek, humble almost. Almost as he was supposed to do in the first place. He feverishly licked his lips. “I only wanted to sort out some problems the kingdom will surely have. Please, I beg of you. Hear me out, you’ll be glad you did.” He bowed again, feigning humbleness.

The Queen thought momentarily, and then nodded as she made up her mind. I will hear you, insolent Knight. But when we are through, there will be penance for your curt words.” The knight licked his lips again, and Illurin involuntarily shivered. That blackness washed across his face one more time, and he smiled.

“Certainly. Penance.” He tried to hold in a laugh, but a short, tiny bit of a bark escaped, and he quickly covered his mouth. “Excuse me,” he said. The Queen glared, but he continued. “Men. All. Dead. What of that? There is work that needs tended; beds that need filled. Another army, bought, broken, and trained. Men,” he said. “A king…”

Illurin exploded out of her chair, rushing down the steps to meet the knight face to face. “A king! Is that what you have to say?” She slapped him hard across the face. He barely budged. “All any of this means is that I am Queen Regent. I make the decisions. Not you, peasant knight. Not you, coward Knight. The Queen Regent is in power. The Queen Regent! Did you think that you, sultry knight, that you, YOU would become the king?” She howled laughter, forced of course, but howled for show, nonetheless.

“Silly Queen,” coward Sir Hyrren said. “You forget yourself.”

She stopped laughing, suddenly remembering something, something important. She had had this conversation she was about to have with her husband long ago. Way back when she had first been wed to him, one of her first nights in Thrym. She had never been that far from Lucansphear, hadn’t known their customs nearly at all.

“Yes,” Hyrren said. “You are remembering now, aren’t you.” The blackness was back in his eyes, not yet covering the soft brown of them, but lingering, waiting. Evil, Illurin thought.

“I–I remember…” Remember what? she thought. “No,” she suddenly blurted.

Hyrren simply nodded, grinning that awful grin.

She remembered. King Boraan had told her, years ago now, that if he were to ever die, ever perish in battle, or any other way, that the laws that held all other kingdoms, could not hold their family in power here. The Queen Regent Law did not apply.

“The law,” she whispered, collapsing to the stone steps beneath her. “It states that I–that I’m–”

“–Not going to be on that throne much longer,” Hyrren cut in. “Lucansphear handpicks it’s Kings of Thrym. And,” he said, quoting, “‘a queen cannot rule the borderlands, for they are harsh, and they are cruel. A queen, too tender to–”

“–be trusted to do what must be done…” Illurin whispered, finishing the words she had heard only once before. “…too sweet to be tainted by the ever-present shadow.” She hung her head. This day, could kill her yet. No matter how wrong, no matter how fucking useless the law, there was nothing she could do, nothing with Coward Hyrren standing, looking down, judging, smiting, cursing her groveling. It was the law, and he had been right. Shit law. Worthless Kings and their worthless, women-crushing laws.

Riefwhin turned to face her, arms stretched toward her with his palms up, as if to plead, himself. “I’m afraid he’s right, my Queen. We must wait for Lanier’s word, on who his proposed ruler will be, or his acceptance of one we choose, but as for that being the Queen Regent, I’m afraid the law is the law. With the King slain, and your son with him — as upholders of justice, and the law, it is your given duty to step down in place of a new leader.” He heaved a large sigh, and lowered his head, tucking his hands into his coat-sleeves.

Illurin’s mouth hung agape, and the memory of the conversation with her dead husband, a memory she believed was a false memory, was only proven more true by the Advisor’s reaffirmation of the wretched law. Even sitting now, still collapsed on the great stone steps underneath her throne, she felt her legs begin to tremble; her lip begin to quiver. She had heard of what a change in power can sometimes mean for a kingdom, and the people left over from the former royalty. With no husband, no son, who had she to protect her? With nearly no men at all left in the kingdom, hopefully she wouldn’t need protecting, and hopefully whoever King Lanier chose would be as just as her husband had been. Thrym, with all it had lost that day could not withhold a sacking.

The tapping of Sir Hyrren’s foot shook her from her thoughts. She looked up to see him standing above her, arms crossed, and shining arrogance. His wife was back on her feet, hanging at his arm, and she was smiling, proud as a jouster’s horse. “Leave me,” Illurin said, seething mad. “I don’t want to see your face.”

Thovas Hyrren bent and grabbed her just below the elbow, hoisting her up, and flinging her onto the tiled floor before the Throne of the Keep. Her body made a squeaking sounds, as she slid across the polished floor on a bruising hip, before she crashed into a row of stools at the head of one of the tables. The women and children sitting there sprang to their feet, rushing over to help the former Queen to rise again. She shoved them off, sniffling and crushing a tear away at the corner of her eye. Some of the old Lords, and foreigners rose, but caught the look in Hyrren’s eyes and sat back down.

She glared at Hyrren, imagining knives, swords, spears of all sizes penetrating every inch of his skin. His eyes bore into her, too, and behind that dull brown, there was a flicker of that blackness that had shocked her moments before, that blackness that seemed made of pitch and ash, a black so dark, it could only be spawn of the Shadow itself.

“You,” she croaked, shoving her trembling finger toward the knight. “Fallow Spawn–”

Gasps filled the room. The women who had been trying to pick her up, were now grabbing her and trying to sit her back down, whispering about mercy, pleading mercy, but it wasn’t mercy for the knight they spoke of.

“I see you,” spoke Sir Hyrren, “standing there, all accusations and self mitigation.” He licked his lips, and scratched at his neckline. “For the moment, I will forgive the way you treated me here tonight. You called names, you threatened, you acted in violence. These things, I believe I can forgive, for I will be a just king.” He smirked, and put a finger to his temple. “Funny how you spoke of — what was it? — penance? Penance, Lady Boraan, what shall your penance be.” He looked up to the corner of the great room, and twisted his mouth as if deep in thought, before turning to the former queen, again, “All I ask for–,” he began, sitting slowly to the throne, throwing one leg of his over the arm, “–is that you bow.” His smile widened. “Deeply.” His wife stood at his side, and even she now looked at him as if she had never seen him before. Surely, she hadn’t. Not like this anyway.

“Who the fuck do you think you are, you little snake? Lanier has not chosen, and when he hears of this, he will have your head on a stake, adorning the gates of Lucansphear. You and your little wife.” The girl’s face flushed, and she stepped fearfully behind her husband and the throne. “What claim do you have? NONE!” Illurin slapped her hand on the great oak table, making the remaining, frightened women and children jump in their chairs. Even Riefwhin flinched, and seemed to shrivel a bit, there at the bottom steps of the great throne. The Queen looked to him for help. “Advisor,” she pleaded. “Tell this usurper his fowl — his false claim. Tell him, the throne belongs to me until Lanier — until Lanier — until he comes and chooses — forces me out of my home, himself. Tell him, Riefwhin. Tell me…” A tear welled in the corner of her eye, and slid slowly down her raw, pink cheek.

Riefwhin looked into her eyes intently, tears forming within his own, and then he lowered them to the floor, before dropping his head, almost to a bow. “I’m afraid — Lady Boraan — I fear that his claim is legitimate, under the law. With no king, and no Regent, by law, any man, of noble birth and status of course, has rights to make claim, until a royal choosing may take charge. With no man present to challenge Hyrren’s claim, Lanier’s law holds that a man who sits on the throne, unchallenged during a Kingless time, acts as King until Lanier upholds, or strikes down that power.”

She knew, before she had asked. She knew, also, that if she asked Riefwhin to stand, to pick up the sword and challenge the knight that sat her throne, that he, too, would be slain. All the men still in the castle were too old, too young, or too girlish and feeble to fight. There was no one of noble blood that could match Hyrren blow for blow, a coward, though he was. She felt angry then, furious at her dead husband, wishing, boiling inside, that he wouldn’t have been so stupid. Cock-flaunting for the peasants — showing them, what was it he said? — that Fallow Spawn are nothing compared the power of the greatest darkslayers in the realm. Look where that talk had gotten him. Both him, the king!, and their beautiful son, killed. My son…

Now King Hyrren, slouched over in his dirt and blood filled tunic, seeming to stain the beautiful ivory throne he laid upon. He looked lazily at Illurin, puffing out his lower lip in a mock sadness. Now that most people had left the keep to grieve, or most recently, fled the chaotic change in power, Hyrren had no reason to feign civility, or even humanity. Or so it seemed. At once, with one quick shake of his head, new light returned to his eyes, and he donned a respectful, sorrowful tone. “My lady,” he began. “I regret my actions deeply. It pains me to have acted in such a way, but as a women of such stature, I’m sure you are somewhat aware of what can befall a man when powers are changed.” He sat up straight, and clasped his hands in front of him, awaiting her answer.

Illurin glared, eyes like knives stabbing the air between them, reaching for his flesh. “These — powers — didn’t have to change,” she stuttered. You — you didn’t have to –” King Hyrren held up his hand, signaling her to stop speaking. To her own surprise, she obeyed.

“As I was saying,” Hyrren continued, “I do apologize. A beheading crossed my mind, and I wished to make that crossing a simple fear, instead of steel itself.” He grinned, again, licking his now cracking, flaking lips. “Though I wish I could have gone about this — this ascent — a different way, I must reinforce the fact that there was no other way. Tensions rose, I’m sure you’ll agree. When I laid hands on you, I assure you I had no intention of hurting you. But, I had to make you see, don’t you see?”

Illurin forced herself to nod. She no longer knew what the had-been coward could be further capable of.

He went on: “My claim, that you so vehemently refute, is one that, I do believe, King Lanier will also accept. It’s been thousands of years, my lady, since a depleter has left the Stained Fallow, or have you forgotten your histories. I, me, and me alone, was the one to kill it. I reigned superior, where your Lord husband, the protector of the realm, guardian of the borderlands, keeper of the pass, himself, had failed. I kept the realm safe. Not King Boraan. Me, and me alone. For that reason, Lanier will crown me, as I crown myself today.”

Lady Illurin looked to Riefwhin, who only shrugged in return. Lord Hyrren’s ugly wife passed looks to Illurin, suggesting her eagerness at having the former queen for once bow at her feet. Illurin swallowed vomit. The new king, this coward Hyrren, spent the next, what seemed like hours, telling Lady Illurin how he doesn’t wish to see her harmed, subliminally instilling the fact that he had the power to do so, but not just the power, the will as well. He told her that, for her troubles, as if losing a King for a husband, a queenship, and a beautiful son in one day could only be described as trouble, that he would allow her the luxury of remaining in the royal bed chambers one night further. He said he was allowing this, so that she could honor, cherish, the memory, and have the ability to gather personal affects, trinkets, and whatever else she was want to have before he allowed his new servants to go through the chamber to his liking. The bastard king also told her that he did not want to see her as a peasant, and when Lanier did in fact legitimize his claim, Hyrren did not want her to be left without a home, or sent back to Lucansphear the widow of a man who failed the realm. She would surely be killed, or worse, he told her. Instead, he proposed that she work as his wife’s serving girl, if King Lanier would allow it. That way, he said, this castle would always be her home.

She slammed the great iron door to the keep a little harder than she meant to, after Hyrren had dismissed her. That bastard. He cannot get away with it. No matter how mad she got, though, a tickling at the back of her mind told her that he was right. She was done in this kingdom, and it would be luck if she were to survive the change, and the bringing forth of new men. She would not be a servant. Ever.

Her best hope, she knew, was for Lanier to make her a bridal offering for some lord he wanted to please. At this thought, though, she felt guilt build a knot within her throat as she choked back tears for the hundred thousandth time that night. Shame burrowed its icy claws within every fiber of her soul as she thought of being married again, hoping the offered lord was fair to look upon, crying still, as she saw the face of her husband. Now that she was no longer important — just a lady, widowed — would she even be allowed to look upon her husbands face before he was placed in the ground? Would the white-cloaks, or Hyrren even allow her that simple courtesy?

The opened windows of the hallway that wrapped the keep let in cool air that flitted the soft, velvet, white curtains that blew in with the breeze. Illurin’s long, dark blue dress had been rather high in the neck, appropriate for the keep, but ultimately short in the sleeves, and the cool air that blue in from the swathed hills pricked up goose bumps on her skin as she rushed along the tiled floor to the royal bedchamber. Her bedchamber.

In between the rushes of wind that made the curtains flap like great insect wings, where they would pause, setting still for hairs of a moment, Illurin was sure she heard the pitter-patter of slippered feet encroaching nearer, every step she took. She walked faster, fearing to turn and see Hyrren, lunging after her with knife drawn, or his wife, standing still drab in the moonlight, clenching taught a length of silk to twist around her neck. Even worse, this talk of Depleters, or Wind Walkers, made her imagine the most foul of things slinking through the shadows, decrepit in whatever waste made up its living form. Living form? she thought. What is it I’m not remembering about the creatures? There was something there, hidden just underneath the veil of her unbidden memory, but what was it. Something about the Depleters, surely, but what? Their nature. It was in their nature to…?

She couldn’t think of the answer, couldn’t remember what it was that the creatures did. Moreover, she couldn’t remember where she had heard it — a Kunaireen Noble as a child? A Whik Basin merchant? Who could she ask, suddenly it seemed so important.

The great gold inlayed black and white doors or the royal chamber appeared before her as they always did, but this time they came with a hint of sorrow. She pressed her hands against the doors, afraid to pushed her way inward, afraid to see the bed that slept her and her husband both. There were things inside that would remind her so much of him, and for those, just the thought, she already wept, sorrowful, yet grateful that she had other thoughts, other questions that seemed more important than the ones that surrounded her family and their untimely deaths. But why? Why could the nature of a fallow spawn be so important now, so important that it shadowed being usurped, shadowed being widowed, and shadowed being a mother to a dead child. She wanted to scream.

“Lady Illurin?” came a small voice, whispered behind her. She didn’t jump. The voice was familiar, and tender enough to ensure that it could not be confused with a voice of anyone holding ill will toward her.

A hint at a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, and before she turned around, she responded, “Yes, Master Riefwhin?” She spun to meet his gaze, happy to have someone she could spill her feelings to as she had done so many times in the past. Master Riefwhin had always been a great friend of the King, and an even better counselor to the queen. Surely, he had come to console her, but as she turned around and saw the look of dread that wrought havoc on his elderly face, those hopes vanished like a candle, expunged.

She reached back and pushed open one of the doors to her chamber, and grabbed Riefwhin by the sleeve, pulling him inside despite his soft, overly courteous mutterings about what was appropriate, and what would people think, her being a lady, and him just a royal advisor.

“Nobody saw anything, you dullard.” She frowned as instantly as the words left her mouth. Meanness was the furthest thing away from anything she ever tried to be for sweet Master Riefwhin. “I’m sorry, I forget myself. It’s been a — trying day.”

“No need for apologies, my Que — my Lady.” Embarrassment washed over his face, but he began to talk through it. “I apologize for the inappropriateness of our meeting place and time…and circumstance and urgency, but this, well, it is urgent, the inappropriateness is urgent.”

Illurin eyed him warily preparing herself for whatever he were about to say. Riefwhin never talked in such away, not even in important matters. Had Hyrren said something after she stormed out? Had he ordered her death now, or worse? “Speak now, sir, or forever calm my racing heart!”

“Sorry, my lady, I do not mean to frighten. Well, in a way, no, not my intention, but what I say will frighten undoubtedly.”

“Riefwhin, if you don’t speak what you intend right now, I’m going to rap you upside that fool head.” She regretted the nastiness, but the man was so shaken, it seemed necessary to urge him to speak earnestly, and as quickly as possibly. For he was right. If anyone had seen him enter there, the rumors would surely cause even more trouble for both of them.

“Yes. Yes of course. Umm — an odd thing, Sir Hyrren. Odd, I mean, did you notice anything, let us say, suspect about the man’s behavior? Appearance, too.”

She rolled her eyes. “This whole fucking day is odd, Rhiefwhin! What do you mean asking me these questions? Yes, odd, let’s see — he spoke to me like I was some commoners daughter; he ripped me off my throne, and threw me onto the filthy floor. He told me he would forgive me! Hyrren! Sir Hyrren, the bloody coward!” She was yelling now, although she knew she shouldn’t be. She did her best to calm down, especially after watching her friend, and longtime advisor cower in the corner, dipping his head as if she were about to hit him. She muttered a breathless apology, and set to lighting some candles so they could face each other in some other manner than moonlight.

The small flames rose, basking the room in deceivingly warm, golden light. Long, gray shadows from the bedposts danced like ghosts along the walls, waving over the tapestries, shields, and field weapons that hung there. Illurin shuddered.

Master Riefwhin composed himself, straightening where he stood, and smoothed out the front of his drab, brown cloak. He cleared his throat before dipping his head, and approaching the former queen once again. “My lady, I would rather not be walked in on by someone curious of the noise. Yes, yes those things you spoke of, more yelled of were all odd, indeed, but I am asking if you saw something more, something within the man we knew as Hyrren, per say.

The image of the Knight, face twisted in a snarl, licking his dried, cracking lips flashed into her mind. His normal, soft brown his irises once held were gone, and she remembered that sick, endless eternity of blackness writhing there, begging to be set free. She gasped, and staggered back a few steps, covering her mouth. Another thought penetrated her mind. The nature of the depleters…

Riefwhin stared at her, eyes wide and nodding. He knew. Regardless, she told him everything she could remember about what she had seen within the coward knight. The advisor listened to every word, nodding agreement, affirming that what she had seen, he also had.

“So you see why I couldn’t help, my lady.” He bowed again, taking a knee and putting her hands into his own. “I wanted to, may the stars forgive me! But, a depleter?! If I had exposed him, he would have killed us all, blown us to ash and garnered our souls. I fear that is what he’s come for anyway. The Garnering.”

Illuring felt the man shudder at the mention of the word. Garnering? This, she had never heard of. “Master Riefwhin?” she asked. “Please, further with what you speak of.”

“The Garnering–” he began,”–is a harvest of souls. It is the main purpose, some believe, of these Wind Walkers. What they are, in their pure form, you know, is blackness. They float through the air, just a dark cloud of matter, pure hatred, and longing to fulfill the Shadow’s wishes. They are consumers of souls. Each soul they rip from flesh becomes a part of their pure form, expanding it, making it more powerful. It is their duty, to their master.” He shivered, and went on. “After they have filled themselves, engorged on all of the souls they possibly can, they venture back to the Fallow on the wind. The souls, are to feed the Shadow, the Dark One himself. It empowers him, they say. Makes him strong enough again to break the bonds that tie him there. It has happened before. It must not happen again.”

Illuring collapsed to her knees gripping both of her friend’s trembling hands. She had peered into the eyes of evil itself, and had escaped with her soul, this time. It may not happen again. “Riefwhen,” she said. “We must leave this place. We have a duty to raise an army against him! We must leave tonight, travel by moonlight and hopefully make Lucansphear within the week. We must! This creature destroyed my life, I cannot let it usher forth the destruction of the entire world. Come with me. Now, before the morning sun rises.”

“I’m afraid I cannot, my lady.” Riefwhin frowned, making his eyes soft, warm, and setting deep wrinkles across his forehead. “Be brave, but only you can go. If I leave, the King’s Advisor, the monster will surely know he is found. Who can say what his wickedness would perpetrate at that.” He stood then, breathing in a great breath, and standing straighter than she had seen him stand in years. “It is my duty, my Queen, to prevent that creature from more harm. Go. Bring an army, men who remember. I fear we haven’t much time at all.”

With that, he spun on his heels and marched through the gold inlayed door, and out into the darkness. Illurin stood, her head spinning, and tears, ever-forming, and now, continuously on the verge of bursting from her eyes. “Alone,” she muttered. Deep inside, she knew now that she had no time to mourn. She walked to the open widow, that looked out over the Swathed Hills. A cool wind rose from the east, quiet, but strong, and it seemed to speak to her, no, to moan to her, then, making every hair upon her body stand erect. If she listened hard enough, fought through the fear, she thought she could hear the voice of her husband, dead, whose body still rotted on the blood stained battlefield. In a whisper formed of ice, blackness, and dirt, eternal and forever as the Hills themselves, it whispered only a word.

It whispered, run.

From somewhere far off in the castle, Illurin heard the wife of Sir Hyrren, the coward, begin to scream.

The Tomes of the Seer: Chapter 3

Here’s the third chapter. Now that the story line  and the characters are beginning to develop, I could really use some feedback. Thanks, again.

Mat

The streets had calmed slightly after the commotion that Sir Hyrren’s return had caused. Old men hobbled back to their homes, wiping dust from their already filthy underclothes. Women still sobbed, crying out for poor dead King Boraan — as if things had been good before he died. Everybody had heard the talk in the streets all of the time — talk about how the king isn’t providing for his people, how there should be food and protection, not just scraps and beatings. Maybe things would be better now.

Mat felt ashamed in thinking that. Things couldn’t be better now. King Boraan had been a good king when it came to keeping the realm safe. He knew that that was the only reason True King Lanier allowed him to hold a kingdom of his own. So what if some of the folk had to be poor; there were poor people wherever anybody went, weren’t there? No, things wouldn’t be better now. Things would be worse than ever.

The great prince was also dead. He, who was said to be even better than his father, in more ways than one. They say he could fight better — not just with sword, but with fist and spear, too. They say he was also more generous, that it was him who threw the tournaments and allowed them in the peasant town and markets squares in hopes of bringing some of the poorer folk some highborn coin. If it ever did, Mat didn’t notice. Maybe for a little while after tourneys and festivals, some spirits seemed higher; the women in the low-cut shirts and short dresses smiled a little more at the men that walked by. The men stumbled a bit more than usual; spent a bit more time in the inns than usual, and left the market with those smiling women a little more often. But that would only last a little while. Then always came back the fighting over old bread or moldy cheese, babies crying and mothers and fathers yelling. People stealing yarn to mend worn clothing, and people stealing worn clothing off of some body lying in the mud. More than once, someone had tussled Matty’s hair, telling him how fast you need to grow up “around here.” He saw what they meant, but never more than now.

Immediately after leaving his hiding place behind the crate that he had run to, Mat noticed that the gate he had unlocked for Sir Hyrren was still hanging open, like some birdcage ready for a mangy cat. He had to go lock it again. What would Mister Quent say? Nothing, Mat thought, kicking a clump of mud sending it rolling down the road. Quent is dead. Just like everyone else. Regardless, he knew it was his duty. Just because Quent, his master, had died out there in battle, it didn’t mean that he, himself could just skirt his obligations. The kingdom, so close to the Fallow, depended on these locked gates.

Before slamming the huge gate door shut, Mat looked around at the people still lingering around the market town, looking for his sister, Chara. There was deaf Mister Bali, wandering around talking to himself, and Miss Barshmin wandered too, pacing the street with a finger up against the side of her nose. She had dropped that pitch fork she had approached Mat with earlier when her and the others decided they were tough enough to put Coward — no, not coward any longer — Sir Hyrren to the question. Little good that did.

He had certainly acted strange though. All of the people from the district heard the stories of the coward. He didn’t prove himself much better at the royal jousting tourneys, where at the last minute, he would dive off of his horse just in time to evade the lance. One story told made light of the fact that Sir Hyrren once wet his small clothes when his own child with a cloth mask on jumped out from behind the curtains. “If he pisses himself at that,” they said, “he’d probably shit himself dead at the sight of the fallow-spawn.” Everyone always laughed at that. Nobody laughed now, though. Hyrren came back hard, angry, even assertive, now the killer of a creature from the wastelands — a depleter, at that. He most certainly had not seemed the same man.

The battle had now been over for hours, Coward Hyrren would most likely soon be called King Hyrren, and still, there was no sign of Chara. “I shouldn’t have done it,” Mat whispered as he jarred the door closed and kicked down the locking bars. “You should be back by now.”

Crying still echoed faintly throughout the streets. Many widows had been made that day. There wasn’t any looting, or vandals terrorizing, though. That was mostly a man’s folly, and most of the men were gone. Mat found himself wondering about that. He wondered who would be fathers, if would-be mothers could wait long enough to marry some of the boys that were just children, until they grew to be men. Or would they wish too much to bare children, and settle, awkwardly for one of the older, more unseemly fellows. Mat crinkled up his face, as he pictured Mister Bali, or Old Man Graerm trying to kiss his sister. Surprisingly, Mat felt a slight tingle of anger tense up the muscles in his arms. Chara, you fool girl…

Thunder clapped overhead, trailing the thin flashes of lightning that lit the market town, causing malformed shadows to wriggle in the corners of the mud caked crates and barrels lying turned in the street. The rains hadn’t started yet, that was good. Mat didn’t want to bother with the mud that would splash all the way up to his collar when it did. It sure felt like rain, though. Riding in along the wind that brought the thunderheads trailed a cool breeze from the east that felt misty and almost electric. Mat hugged himself, squeezing his arms in on his chest. How long was he supposed to sit out there?

It hadn’t dawned on him until the threat of rain came, but there was nobody to replace him as the gate watch. With Quent dead, he was the only one left to guard. That would have to be addressed with whatever new guard they got to deal with order in the market, but when was the new king going to even have that addressed? Was he supposed to wait days, his mother looking for him, Chara missing out near the battle field, his mother looking for Chara!, Lord! What had he gotten himself into?

Mat crashed down to sit upon the steel tankard that still sat against the inner wall by the gate, and sunk his shoulders, sighing. “May the Shadow take me…,” he whispered.

“Why in the King’s fucking dungeon would you be saying a thing like that, Mat?”

Startled, Mat jumped up from the steel tankard. “Oh, it’s you,” he said. “Go away, Jyrim.”

Jyrim stepped up to where Mat was, and grabbed him by the shoulders, forcing him to sit back down. “You look morose, Mat. What’s the matter? I heard all the commotion — the yelling, all the women crying — I figured people weren’t going to be coming home. Sad, really. I heard the bells, too, who were those for, someone important, no doubt? Ay, Matty…did you happen to see my Da’ when the soldiers returned? I had to tend the stables — keep the stealing little thieves away…” Jyrim tussled Mat’s hair. “Well, c’mon now… My father? Also, I’m going to need to be seeing your sister later, can you tell her when…” Jyrim trailed off as a tear broke the wetting surface of Mat’s swelling eyes.

Mat buried his face in his forearms, and finally let it all come out. He thought about Chara, missing out there somewhere, with who-knows-what lurking about. He thought of his poor ma’, sick in the head, and having no idea where either of her children were; just that they weren’t taking care of her at the moment, if she even realized they were gone at all. Quent was dead, Quent who had been more of a father than he had ever had, ever since his own father died in a pool of blood, mud, and vomit — all over a stupid bet. The king was dead now, too, and the once-was coward was the only highborn to replace him, and now this, this too. He had to tell a clueless young man, young but much older than himself, that his own father was lying dead out there in a field, just waiting for rain to come and swell up his corpse even faster.

“Mat…?”

“Dead,” was all he could croak out.

Jyrim leaned down and tried to lift Mat’s chin so he could look into his eyes. Mat just swiped his hands away and continued crying into his sleeves.

“Dead…who, Mat?” He let out a detached laugh, and then covered his mouth, before giving Mat a slight shake of his shoulder.

Mat didn’t want to be the one to say it; he was too young to have to tell these people these types of things. But, sometimes, that was the gate keep’s job. He had watched Quent have to do it ten times or more. Quent… Quent would be proud of him. Mat stood, brushing Jyrim’s hand off his shoulder, and he looked into his eyes. For Quent.

“Your father is dead. All the men that went are dead. All but one. Sir Hyrren returned alone just hours ago.” Mat held back a sniffle and squeezed his eyes closed, biting back tears. “He brought word that every man who had fought the Wind Walker had been defeated. Every man, dead, except himself. Those bells you heard were for the king — to announce his death. Those women crying, those were the cries of every women of the market. They were crying for their husbands…for the king. As for Chara, I’ll wait here until she returns safely. If she returns at all.” He lowered his head then, and felt as if he were about to vomit. Regardless, Quent would have been proud. Objectively, he always said. Non-adjudging.

Jyrim stared blankly at him, moving his mouth as if he were trying to reform the words, trying to make sense of what Mat had just said. He stumbled backward, almost tripping in the mud, using his left hand to keep himself from falling on his butt. And then the rains began to pour. Mat pulled his shirt collar up over his head and sat back on the tankard, squeezing tight against the wall. Under the sound of the rain, he began to sob, and he didn’t care if anybody heard. He watched Jyrim stumble, shambling across the mud, almost bouncing drunkenly off of the walls. After he walked out of vision, around the corner from the alley Mat looked upon, he heard him begin to scream.

Mat still cried, feeling more sorry for Jyrim than he did himself. His sister may be, hopefully, still living.
Jyrim’s father, was for sure, dead, lying bloated mangled together with the rest of the corpses of every single man sent out. How could it be them all?

Either way, Chara was still out there, Quent was dead, and this was his post. As much as he could do — as little as he could say — Jyrim was on his own, as well as all the mothers, wives, sons and daughters of all the slain. The tears flowed harder, and so did the rain.

Mat stood, and gripped the edge of the tankard once more. He pulled, grunted and struggling — without Quent, it was his only way to access the viewing slide. He slammed it against the gate, and climbed upon it’s reflective, slippery mass. Lightning struck again, followed by thunder that reverberated in the empty tankard. It shook Mat, making him flinch, and wishing he knew that Chara was somewhere safe. It was within him, through all they went through as children, even now, with their mother in the shape she was in, that he had to look out for the safety of his own. And she was gone.

Chara, he thought. Where are you? I can’t do this on my own

He squeezed his fists together, waiting, watching out of the slid-open viewer of the postern gate. She would come, he knew, strolling in as if nothing were amiss. Or, which he tried not to think — she would not come. She would not be found, until the gray-veils did their search of the carnage, and brought back a list of names. But, he pessimistically thought, everyone would be listed as dead, except Coward Hyrren. He should have asked him, should have asked if there had been a girl. Maybe Hyrren had seen her, maybe had known what had become of her. Stupid, he thought. It didn’t matter now, though. Hyrren was beyond reach, closed in behind the murder-gates that surrounded the castle steps. Bastard, he thought, and then felt ashamed. What would his mother say if she could hear his thoughts? Oh, but what did it matter. She had been mad since the day his father died, fighting the indecent inn dwellers in the midst of the market.

Chara said it had been a gamble, but Mat didn’t believe it. No, his father was a decent man, shearing his few sheep to give wool to his wife to knit highborn garn. Not that she was great, but, father, Samuel, was a tender, loving man — trying always to allow his loved ones to follow their dreams.

But then, he was dead. His throat was cut by some cracked-tooth, dice-weighter, for beating him at a game. Everyone always said Mat’s father had luck. It was only three years ago that his luck had run out.

Mat teared up again, skewing his vision of the rain splattered waste in front of the gate door, when suddenly there came a loud, thunderous knock from the other side. He nearly jumped out of his skin, and cursed audibly at the lack of soldiers and guards that usually manned the walls and watchtowers. He had been snuck up on one too many times that day, already. He peered through the peephole, and caught the sight of no-one. Chara, he thought instantly, but it was not Chara who spoke.

“Gatekeep! I have need for shelter. Mine own and two friends seek refuge within your walls. There are dark things that come tonight.”

Mat pushed his face harder into the steel that covered the sliding window, and peered down. There, he could make out black hoods, covered in what seemed like hundreds of tiny dots of white or yellow. The cloaks they were attached to had the same pattern, and they were odd cloaks — cut at the sleeves, revealing boiled leather, covered by dyed black mail. On the men’s legs, they wore black, boiled leather riding breeches, cut at the groin, to which their midnight blue breeches showed through.

Mat, covered a laugh, but straightened himself out once he knew he had heard of these men before. These strangely dressed star-worshipers, his father always told him, were beyond the crown of Thrym, thrust up against the inlet land where two peninsulas curved around to form what looked liked horns of the world. They were men of Hornhold. His father said, when they came, they were needed.

Matty whished he had a real gatekeep now, or a scholar, or anyone who could tell him the correct way of dealing with this hindrance. Lord only knew if just by answering, he had done the new king wrong. “I’m just a ‘prentice,” he blurted. “The true gatekeep is dead, slain–”

“–in the battle in Thryor Pass,” the strange man finished for him. “Yes, boy. We know.” The man paused for a moment, as if waiting for Mat to open the gate, or to respond in some way. “Listen, child. We know many things — things that your people of Thrym may have forgotten. It stands imperative that we enter the kingdom as soon as allowable. You are all in danger.”

Mat stared through the slide, studying the man as Quent had always reminded him to do. Watch their eyes, Quent had always said. A man’s eyes can never lie. Mat skeptically scanned the man from the north as he talked, looked for any sign or twitch to betray his warnings. Mat didn’t find anything. As far as he could tell, he was as honest as men come.

“Young master?”

Mat squished his face up, struggling internally from the possibilities of what could be right, and what could be very wrong. After a moment of internal judgment, he lowered his head and breathed out a long, hard sigh. “I’m going to open the gate,” he said. “You give me your word that all you say is true? That you’ll be causing no trouble for the people, here?” He made himself look hard at the man. Squinting his eyes, glaring, he said, “because, if you do go causing trouble…I cannot guarantee your safety.” Mat slammed the viewer shut with his last word, and smiled to himself. That was good, he thought. Master Quent would have been proud.

Mat moved the tankard, begrudgingly again, and lifted the bolts that struck into the ground. No one had been around to help him put the crossbeam in place last time he had shut the door, which was good, considering there was certainly not anybody there to help now. After everything was unlocked, and he was preparing to open the door, Mat grabbed the fire poker that hung out of the now doused brazier that had usually been used to give heat to the gatekeep on cold nights. He didn’t think that he would need it, but it would be better to be prepared.

Mat opened the gate and the three men peered awkwardly inside, shuffling their feet, and only leaning forward with their heads to peer through the door. “It’s safe?” the man Mat had already talked to asked. Rain pattered down on the hood of the man’s cloak, where it pooled near a fold, and trickled down in front of his face.

Mat looked around the streets that lead away from the gate doors. Few people wandered, running, holding things above their heads to halt the rain, and none could be less interested in who he was letting into the city. Nobody even looked their way. “Of course it’s safe,” he said. “Why shouldn’t it be? Remember, that was why you wanted to enter. Not safe out there you said, coming danger in the city, you said. Well now, which is it? And quickly unless you want me to lock this door again.”

One of the men unsheathed a short, fat sword from underneath his cloak, winging it up in one motion to rest with the point hovering unmoving just short of poking Mat in the eyeball. “For your sake, and all your people, you’d do best to drop the attitude and let us walk through your gate. Step aside, boy. The world is much bigger than your post, and much harder than your resolve. And I am much quicker than you, with that poker of yours.”

The first man Mat had spoke to, the man that had originally knocked, slowly pushed his companion’s sword to the ground. “You must forgive Xia’an, young master,” he said. “Although he spoke in haste, and, well rather aggressively, the truth of the matter is that he is right. We need inside before it is too late. Excuse me for speaking of violence, but I want to press the matter that, although we are here for a good deed, circumstance may force us to commit unsavory acts. Please, I beg of you, do not let our first be that of murdering a young boy over stubbornness.” He held out his hand, offering it to Mat. “My name is Quev’et Ta’chlem.”

Mat wrinkled his forehead when the man told him his name. Despite the shake he got when the man had threatened him, he still believed him, about being good and all, and offered his hand in return. “I knew you people were strange,” he said, “but what kind of name is that?”

Quev’et shook Mat’s hand with fervor, and squeezed himself inside the door, pulling Mat with him. He motioned for his two companions to follow, dragging behind them three great, white horses, with black long hair around their hooves. “Quev’et,” Quev’et said, “is not such a strange name where I come from.” He waited to finish until Mat was done locking the gate again. “You already met Xia’an Ko’Relz.” Quev’et motioned to the man who was sheathing his short sword. “My other friend here is Jaquat Al’Tev, and yes, he has a sword under his cloak, too.”

Mat shook his head, trying not to focus on the strange names these men held, their strange garb, strange horses, or the strange things Quev’et had said — his reasons for needing entrance to Thrym. Formality, Mat thought. Quent seemed to still be teaching him from death. Mat shivered at the thought, but remembered the lesson. “My name is Mat, sirs. Mat Leyorn.

“It truly is grand to have met you, young Mat,” Quev’et said. “For opening your gate to us, and allowing us to travel your streets, we are forever in your debt. Upon arriving, we thought there would be no one left to allow us entrance. Luckily, it is not so.” He smiled at Mat, and held his hand out, regarding the horses. “Stables, my boy?”

Mat’s cheeks flushed. Formality. He had remembered the courtesy Quent had taught him, but he had forgotten the second part of the common meeting of strangers. Most men, Quent had said, would be weary from travel, and oft times eager to put up their saddles and get out of their stirrups. “I–I’m sorry…sirs,” he stumbled, gathering the reigns of their horses. “I–”

The man called Xia’an, slapped his hand down over Mat’s wrist, and pried the reigns out of his hand. “Sorry, boy,” he said. “I’ve no intention of frightening you, but these northern horses won’t likely follow you. Chances are, they’d be more contented running you down. These are warrior horses, bred at the very tip of the horn called Nihl. It is not a forgiving land, and we train them hard. My hands, and the hands of my companions are likely the only hands these stallions will serve.” He let go of Mat’s wrist, gently, but Mat stilled looked hurt.

Mat thought then that he did not like that man, Xia’an. Regardless, he nodded as though he understood, even though in truth, he had not. “I can lead you to a stable…uh…sirs. It’s only a few hundred paces or so.”

They nodded approval, and set off following Mat down the street. He still did not quite know how to address them, and wracked his brain mulling over whether he should be calling them sirs, or lords, or whether or not Hornhold had a completely different system. “Sirs,… I mean Lords?” he started. Damn. “Sorry,” he muttered. “I’m not quite sure of your titles or how to address you. It’s been biting at my mind…”

Quev’et smiled, and put his hand on Mat’s shoulder as they walked. “I am certainly no lord,” he began. “And surely, neither are my men. You can just address us by our birth names.”

Great, Mat thought. As if I wasn’t already having enough trouble. Just then, his thoughts were interrupted by a loud clamor of little bells, tolling in an odd cantor up ahead of them in the street. Both men that flanked Mat and Quev’et put their hands on their sword hilts, and walked on, slinking down some, and striding on the balls of their feet. The horses that trailed behind them didn’t seem to notice.

“You won’t be needed your swords,” Mat said, pointing to their drawing hands. “It’s just the Gray Veils. They’re women of the kingdom who pledge their service, sort of volunteers. Generally, they are women who never married, and never had children. They go to the dead and prepare the bodies, as well as identify them. After they come back, the Brown Hoods go out and dig the holes…or one hole. And then the Whitecloaks come and sing to the bodies as they are buried. My father told me once that it was beautiful.” Mat stopped, and swallowed hard, remembering that he didn’t even get to see his own father buried. “Anyway,” he went on. “Those…those bells — they wear those, sewn into their clothes to make enough noise that the crows, and ravens will not settle enough to land while they are doing their work. Birds, and other animals can make a great mess of dead-”

“Yes, we know,” the man called Jaquat broke in. His eyes were dark, and seemed to Mat, after seeing his face really for the first time, that the man had seen much and more in the years he had spent on this world. “Quite a mess they make, for sure.”

Mat stopped his story, and slid to the side of the road with the other three men, to allow the Gray Veils to pass. There had to have been fifty or more of them, each one with countless bells swinging off of their grey shawls, each one, with their face covered by an itchy-looking veil, with the sigil of King Boraan painted in white on the face. The rains soaked them, but they walked on, slowly, as if it didn’t matter one bit. They all smelled of lavender and spice, too. Matt wondered why that was.

After they had finally passed, Mat and the three outsiders walked on, and soon Mat found that he had allowed himself to get lost in the business of the day; that it was nearing what had to have been well past the mid of the night, and he was wandering about with three strangers, two of which definitely had swords, and he didn’t know a thing about them. “Sirs,” he began. “I mean…Hornholders?” he paused, shying, and waited to see if that would be an acceptable title. Nobody made any indication otherwise, so he continued. “ I know where you are from, I know your names, but I do not know your purpose. Truthfully, sir…Quev’et, your talk of danger and darkness had scared me. My sister is outside these walls at this very moment, and I fear for her.” Xia’an laughed, and Mat shot him a violent glare.

“I meant no offense,” the swordsman said. “I’m just reassuring you; there is more danger within these walls than without.” He smiled at Mat, but dropped back a few paces, hands held up in defense of Mat‘s stabbing looks.

Quev’et spoke up before Mat could inquire. “Do you know my kind, child? Have you ever heard of The Order of Firmament’s Fire?”

Mat’s mind flashed back to conversations with his father by the firelight, sitting on the skin rug of their small home. He remembered his father speaking of stars, and foretelling. A gift, Mat thought he called it, bestowed upon the people of the rugged lands of the north. “You, see things, right? In the stars?”

“Very good, young man,” Quev’et said. “That is very close to what people like me do. The details, I’m sure you will learn in time. These two that travel with me, cannot, however, read the stars. Their purpose is far more noble.”

The two men he was referring strode then with more purpose in their step, however unnoticeable it may have been. Their backs no longer arched, and they clicked their heels down when they walked. “These men,” Quev’et continued, “are Guardians of the Fire. Their whole purpose in life, is to protect the information we collect from our findings. Each one would willingly lay down his life for mine.”

Quev’et looked adoringly at his two soldiers, and Mat thought he caught a glimpse of something moist in the Star Reader’s eye. The soldiers’ hard faces, refilled with honor at the telling of their purpose, and together, in unison, they spoke: “The flame of the night, we hold for life! By light and honor, in peace or strife!” At the last word, the stamped their right heel on the ground, and slapped their right fist over their hearts. Their fingers looked as if they quivered to unsheathe their swords. The horses they held the reigns to never budge, or shied at the shouting.

Mat stared at them, mouth agape, as if no other knight or soldier he had seen before had held even a dim candle to these two “guardians.” Every bit of animosity he had previously held against Xia’an, the man who had seemed so cold toward him, was momentarily shrouded with reverence. Regardless, Mat knew that they had to be going, and he could no longer just sit in the middle of the streets gaping at the men who had just stunned him with their remarkable retelling of their selfless oath. His duty as gatekeep would have to wait, there just wasn’t a way to not ever sleep. Plus, he needed to get back to mother. No doubt she was worrying herself into a panic, and probably hadn’t even thought to feed herself since he had left that morning. Not to mention, eventually he would have to be going in search of an answer about his duties as gatekeep. He needed sleep before that much could happen. Lord, he thought. What am I going to tell mother about Chara? His problems seemed so insignificant compared to whatever the men from Hornhold had come there for that day. Mat regarded the Guardians one last time. One day, he decided, he would be as unmovable as them. No little village problems would be too big for him. One day…

“Uh–Sirs–I mean–Guardsman, and Quev’et?” Mat, came in. “The stable is just ahead, not thirty paces off.” He looked down toward his feet, suddenly realizing a folly he had made, and started shuffling them in the dirt.. “ I must apologize,” he began. “I did not take you to the Royal Stables. Those are just outside of the Gate Wall, if you’d like for us to head in that direction. It was my mistake. I’m not used to stabling visitor horses, not much anyway, and that must be why I brought you to Mister Bayre’s little barn. He was slain in the battle, but his son should be willing to tend. They might not be royals, but this stable is as good as another.”

“Boy,” Quev’et said, leaning down and putting his hand on Mat’s shoulder. “If you had led me anywhere near the Royal Stables, I would have made you turn us back around.” He gave a deep smile, and squeezed Mat’s shoulder just slightly. “Our presence must be kept in secret, you understand?” Mat nodded. “Good,” Quev’et began again. “The danger we spoke of, it is urgent, it is present, and it lies not just within these walls, more specifically, within your castle’s walls. That danger is a conscious danger, with wants, wishes; knowledge and an infinite thirst, one which cannot, must not be allowed to be quenched. If what our stars have told us is true, we have much and more work before us, and we will need help before this deed is done.”

Mat’s eyes glimmered in the cool light of the moon. “What must I do?” he said. “Anything.”

Quev’et smiled again, this time letting the skin around his eyes crinkle. It was an honest, loving smile. “I mean to keep you out of danger as much as possible, my boy; you have already helped us more than I could have ever foreseen. However, I ask one thing more of you.”

Mat nodded, ready to do anything that the strange man from the north was about to ask, what with all the fancy talk of foresight, star-reading, guardians, and danger, and duty and all. He swallowed hard, as the weight of what the Hornhold Star-Reader had said started to sink in. Danger…within the castle walls…thirst–? He watched as Quev’et produced from his cloak-sleeve a small parchment, folded as small as he could make it. He reached out and stuff it into Mat’s hand, closing his fingers around it to protect it from the pouring rain.

“You will be going to the castle soon, yes? Asking about your duties since your master — Quent? — has been slain?” Mat only nodded, turning the folded parchment over in his hand, tempted to open it right there in front of the Northmen. “It is not for your eyes, child, but for one known as Riefwhin. He is –”

“– The King’s Advisor,” Mat broke in.

Quev’et nodded. “Yes, he is. Although a new King may not be chosen yet, there are men matters that need sorted out — matters such as the question you are to put forth to the castle. Riefwhin will be involved, whether acting as Advisor, or making the decisions himself. That letter, must go to him, you understand? It Must!”

Mat looked at the letter in his hand, and stuffed it unto his shirt pocket, clasping the button after it. He patted it once before saying, “You can count on me, sir. I won’t let you down.” A grin sliced his face from ear to ear.

Quev’et frowned at him. “Mat,” he said. “There should be no joy in your actions…no honor. We, of the Order, do what must be done. I’m sorry for dragging you into quarrels of the world, well before a proper age, but I fear I had no other choice.” He furrowed his eyebrows, and placed his hand over Mat’s heart; over the pocket that held his letter. “I don’t intend to frighten you any more than I already have, lad, but I must warn you…no, remind you gravely of the dangers we face. Heed my words: If that letter does not reach the man it is intended for, our whole world may lie in Shadow again. I trust you know of the Shadow, boy?”

A sudden chill gripped Mat, sending shivers through every fiber of his soul, reverberating, singing skeleton songs of fear. Shadow, thought Mat. “I know what I must do.” Mat covered his breast pocket with his hand as he bowed to the three men, and turned on his heels and charged down the street until he was out of sight. Quev’et and his guardians watched him go, unmoving, unblinking, and hoping on the stars that they had come in time.