Updates:  Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted

William Myrl

Chapter Fourteen



       Gold illumes the cathedral of the trees, striking in great beams the mossy ground. This is an old forest of Black Fyrns, straight-backed and towering. Little can burst the matte of their roots, save the occasional sturdy Thorn tree or Repine.  There is no undergrowth to speak of. A mid-sized stag stands upon a tussocky rise. His muscles quiver, and his ears prick. Felt covers his antlers, a mark of burgeoning winter, and he senses it coming. Predators are rare within his domain, except the wolves, and he has handled them before. He is afraid, though there should be nothing to fear. He feels that he is watched, though there should be nothing to watch him. There are only the birds and lesser, crawling beasts. His heart thunders in his chest.

       A hand covers his skull. After a jerky struggle, his hooved feet kick out into the air, and then comes a snap.

       Their camp is in a cavity where the root ball of a mature fyrn formed a centipedal structure some forty paces long, home to badgers and foxes and innumerable chitinous things. Aric is in the shadow of the root ball, and Kerrigan stands beyond it, watching shadows meander through the deeper wood. 

       "So who is he, really?"

       "Bawn? I don't know." Kerrigan patted the pommels of the twin swords at her hips. Bawn insisted that she wear them at all times, to become used to their weight and so they would become used to her. "He's told me a few things about himself, a few stories. I don't know how to fit them into our world."

       Aric looked up from the fire. He wore what the Hero Guild had given him; he would have felt odd without it. He thought Kerrigan was well suited to a man's attire, the loose trousers and belted shirt. He never would have thought so before, not until he'd seen it. He still wasn't reconciled to her using Arthur's swords.

       "What do you mean?"

       "He's not like us. That's all. I don't think he's human."

       "Then why don't you go?"

       Kerrigan said nothing.

       "Kerry, I saw what that monster can do. We have to get away from him. He's quiet now, but what if he turns on us, or if he tries to...if he decides he wants something from you. It's like trying to raise a bear in the barn. One day he'll bite you."

       Kerrigan's lip curled. "A bear in the barn? I've never seen one."

       "What about your mother? What's going to happen to her if you're gone? Don't you even care?"

       "Shut up." Neither one of them would raise their voice. They argued in an undertone.

       "What's going to happen to your home, to your mother-"

       "Shut up," Kerrigan hissed. "Of course I care. There's nothing I can do. He wants me around for a year and a day. He saved our lives, my mother's and mine. He doesn't hurt me. He doesn't hurt anyone who doesn't threaten him first."

       "Then why won't you let me help you run, if you're not afraid?"

       "You go back. Go to my mother and tell her I'm all right. Or go to your's. He wouldn't go after you. Nothing's keeping you with us."

       Aric leaned back on his haunches as if he was absorbing a blow. "I'm not going to leave you," he said.

       She shrugged. "I don't need you," she said. And she nearly meant it.

       A soft padding, like the footsteps of a hunting cat, and Bawn reentered the camp carrying a stag over his shoulder. He had taken to wearing a loincloth, as if proximity to the young ones had awoken some long latent instinct towards humanity. It was not much, but it was something. He lowered the stag gently onto the green outside the loamy circle of the camp.

       "You are going to prepare this," he told Kerrigan, and she nodded. It seemed to please him to teach her the skills her cossetted upbringing had lacked. While they traveled he instructed her in tracking, discussing tracks and animal spore with endless detail, and the ways of the wood; edible plants and makeshift shelters, fibrous barks and vines. Dressing the kill was another favorite.

       She slit its belly, and removed the entrails, separating the various organs--liver, heart, and lungs--that Bawn would insist be saved. Aric went to fetch water, and when he returned, worked behind her. Bawn's eyes never left the girl, though in truth his mind wandered. His strongest sense was unrelated to sight.

       "Good," he said. "When you are finished, we will use the swords."


                                                                                                   *      *     *

       

       When Gravus Gowsson fell to the ground, the spell of the silence was broken. The men at arms, all knights themselves, shook free of the mesmer that had possessed them, and urged their horses forward.

       Four dismounted, and retrieved their lord's body. He breathed shallowly, if at all, and a shard of his own blade was embedded just below his eye. Mok's face bled as well, though not from the duel. The cut he had received in the palace of ice had reopened during his exertions. He allowed them to take Gravus aside and to tighten their circle about him. The crystal sword hung loosely in his right hand. He breathed easily.

       "You carry a witch blade," one of the mounted men said. He had a heavy face and a thick mustache. "You have sold your spark to the Shadow."

       Mok examined the crystal, evincing no other sign of having heard.

       "The penalty is death, peasant." The knight raised his blade as he raised his voice, but before he could charge he jerked back. An arrow dinged off his chest place. He looked up.

       Kevon Quick was standing with his silver-gloved hands upon his hips, flanked on either side by brown clothed guardsmen holding shortbows at the ready.

       "Stand down, Sirs," Kevon spoke plainly. "This is not your Keep."

       "It belongs to Gravus Gowsson!" he shouted in reply, "by order of the Wardens of Lanolier. Any who resist will be hung, starting with this one." He pointed to Mok. 

       "Do you wish to join him?"

       The second arrow took him in the throat."

       One of the other knights made to strike at Mok, but he moved deftly away. The sword sparkled as it dove under the bottom edge of the mounted man's cuirass, piercing padding and parting flesh, grazing a rib as it traveled through the lungs, almost to the heart. The horse stopped dead as the rider slumped.

       They were laying Gravus over one of their own saddles. A few more arrows skittered on the stones, one of the mounts was struck in the rear, and his rider could barely keep him in control. The knights called out curses, and waved their longswords threateningly.

       Mok called out, "Close the gates! Gowsson cannot leave!"

       Instantly, the cranking of the pulleys and chains could be heard from the gatehouse, and it began to close. Four knights, all mounted, one of them unconscious, moved toward the narrowing exit. Mok moved to stop them, but was intercepted by the remaining men at arms, their blood up and bristling to protect their lord.

      Swords rang and fell, pushing Mok back. He was hard pressed to fend them, and was forced to keep retreating to avoid being boxed in. More bows were on the walls, but they couldn't prevent the knights' escape.

       "Open them! Stop! Open them!"

       He opened a horse's throat. It screamed and reared, and he moved around the press, tearing a dead rider out of his stirrups and freeing himself a mount. The knights had lost two more to bowshot, and when Mok faced them from equal height he was better able to maneuver.

       He kicked the horse's sides, and it leapt forward. One of the knights bashed his shoulder with a shield. Mok ducked the follow up blow, and took the mans hand off at the wrist, shearing cleanly through the mail of his glove. A few wild swings cleared the path as he urged his horse into a gallop, passing through the now widening gap in the gates. The remaining knights rallied themselves and went after him.

       Mok's awareness narrowed to a wind lashed tunnel. Gowsson and his protectors were ahead of him, but not too far. Their speed was limited by their unconscious fourth. They were calling for aid from their fellows who'd been left behind in Loesser. The knights were already crossing the palisade onto the cobbles of the town's main road.

       He charged after them. The merchants and the workmen had all vacated the streets. The women and their children were huddling indoors. Gowsson's train, discovering his cousin in the stocks, had not been kind. They were spread out in the town square with a few wagons and mules and a single well-appointed carriage.

       A half dozen knights were riding to meet Mok's quarry, and behind them, a brace of footmen hefting pikes.

       Mok growled under his breath, and spurred his horse to its limits. He caught Gowsson's party in the same instant that they reached their support. He slammed into the press, his blade flashing left and right. His focus was such that he did not notice the eerie soundlessness had returned. The blows did not ring, and the faces on all sides seemed drawn in chalk. The whites of the men's eyes shone surely as the horses. Mok felt his own blade guiding him as he caught his opponent's sword in his crossguard--he could swear it had become more elaborate than before--and pulled the sword over the head of his horse, overextending the man's shoulder and using the captured weapon to parry the next knights downward swing. His opponent lost his grip, and his weapon spun away. He raised a shield emblazoned with three lions, protecting his torso. Mok released his reins and took his grip in both hands, thrusting with the torsion of his whole body. The crystal blade penetrated the shield as if it wasn't there, and the man screamed. Mok withdrew his weapon, and with wonder saw that the over-wide blade had thinned and elongated, the better to stab, and now flowed liquidly back to its original shape. 

       Strength suffused his limbs, and he fended the next knight's blows easily. He was walled in by the wounded, possibly dying warrior on his left, and the still unconscious Gowsson on his right. There were nine other men-at-arms in the wings, but they had no lances, and the crowding made it difficult to close. The pikemen would have been most effective, but they were blocked by their milling superiors on horseback.

       Mok took the grip in his left hand and struck three sound overhand blows. The knight was forced to twist his body awkwardly in order to bring his shield into play. It took the first blow well enough; the second cut a tooth in its upper lip, and the third all but split it in half.

       The knight wheeled backward in shock, and Mok used his free hand to seize Gowsson by the fine chain of the hauberk fallen from his head to around his neck, and pulled him upright.  He whipped the crystal blade about to rest under the man's chin.

       "Stop," he said in a controlled voice that nevertheless carried across the scene. "Gravus is my hostage." As he said the words he experienced something akin to glee. He felt all-powerful, and words exploded in his mind that he had never fully thought before. The sword's silence was no more; it buzzed in his hand, sparking as if it was cage to a host of fireflies.

       "My name is Mok of the House of Loss. I am the Lord of Carrolan." Again he spoke in an even tone, and all who saw him heard him and thought him mad. His madness was such that it pressed them backward like a heat.

       "Do not hurt him," one of the knights said. This was the third of the original escort, who had fallen back when Mok had descended on them; out of cowardice or common sense, he was fearful of the witch blade. "There is no honor in that."

       "I am not concerned with what you call honor." Mok's glare was dead. "I will not hurt him only as long as it keeps you in my power. All of you. This is my Keep. Take that message back to Lanolier. I will return this idiot once they accept me as Lord."

       "Lord of Loesser?" Another knight said, ruddy and heaving. "That is impossible!"

       "You are not listening. I am already Lord of Loesser. They must accept me as Lord of Carrolan."

       Men gaped.

       "You are a serf," the big man said stupidly, and Mok laughed. He heard the approach of boots behind him, and he knew that Kevon had brought friends. Two dozen of the new guardsmen carried short arming swords and wooden bucklers reinforced by tallow spokes.

      "Tell the Wardens what I've said." No one moved. "Go!"

      The big knight seemed ready to attack, but another raised a hand to stay him.

      "Lord Mok," this one said, his voice mild, "allow me to remain here, armless, and watch over Lord Gowsson. Let me ensure that he remains hale, so that you will not be doubted if you choose to seek ransom in the future."

       The knights were silent, and Mok finally shrugged. "As you will, but the rest must leave immediately." The one who had spoken dismounted. He stood out among the others for being shorter, and narrower of shoulder. He also wore the most complete suit of armor;  pauldron, hauntlet, and cuirass, as well as a closed helmet with a bellows visor and fluted greaves. Oddly, there was no surcoat to display a house's heraldry, and the shield, too, was bare.

       "I should stay," the big man declared. "My blood is more worthy than yours, Malla of the Empty Keep." Other voices joined him in agreement. Mok snapped. 

       "Enough! I've made the decision. Leave, all of you, before I kill him out of spite!" He could feel Gravus' body twitch, he would likely come to his senses in a few more beats. The knights at last took Mok at his word. They wheeled their horses, and cried out orders to the footmen, as well as the servants who attended the wagons. Before long the train had reversed its course. Mok motioned for Kevon, and had Gravus given into his custody. Then he turned on the man in the helmet, who appeared to be watching him.

      "They called you Malla. Is that your given name?"

      "Yes, Lord."

       "And what is this about an empty Keep?"

      The figure shrugged. "There are many such in Carrolan, Keeps and Donjons both. I have no House, but I've won the honor of serving the elder Gowsson as a vassal, and he charged me with keeping watch over his son. This I have given my word that I will do."

      "And should he die, what then?"

      "Then I will have failed, my Lord, and be brought down lower than from where I began."

      "That is not so bad." Mok allowed himself a smile, and patted his leg with the flat of his blade. He truly was going to have to have a sheath made. "A few moons ago, I was a slave."



                                                                                                  *      *     *


       The ranger's blades were light and well balanced, but in Kerrigan's untrained hands they felt unwieldy. Her forearms burned, and her shoulders knotted in painful twitches and pops. Bawn was a calm, implacable teacher, and she found that she wanted, desperately wanted, to learn. She was disappointed with her progress.

      Bawn wouldn't even let her spar with Aric, not that he wanted to spar with her. Bawn had her practice forms; this stance, that swing, this turn, pivot, swing, until she fell over.

      "Is this how your people learned to fight?" she asked him, sitting on her heels in the dirt. The forest was mostly behind them, though here and there she spied patches of trees. They were a third walk from the nearest well-trafficked road, and far from any inhabited keep. In those circumstances, he liked camping in the open. They had a destination, she was sure of it, but he hadn't shared it with them, and they weren't traveling with any particular hurry.

      Aric was practicing the drills he had learned from the guild. He was going through a series of lunges about ten paces away from Bawn and Kerrigan. The giant barbarian had crossed his arms to watch her. The afternoon light made his skin the color of bronze tallo.

       "No," he answered her. "My people have no swords. They do not use forges. Their weapons are staves and spears and hunting bows. What I teach you I learned long ago, from a people very different from my own."

      "Who were they?"

      "It doesn't matter. They are gone now."

      Aric came to rest with her, just out of reach. He'd been withdrawn since their argument, but as it was only the three of them here, there wasn't anywhere that he could withdraw to. He made her exasperated and unsure of what to say. So it was Aric who spoke. 

       "Do you ever want to go into a city?" He was addressing Bawn. 

       The big man eyed him. Kerrigan couldn't recollect an instance when he had spoken directly to the younger man at all.

      Sensing the dead end, he directed his next question to her. "Aren't there a few things you might want?" 

      She stretched her legs. "Some things, yeah. Not anything important, though." She thought longingly of scented soap, and soft clothes, and beds. Kerrigan had never been in the wilderness; she had spent little enough time off the main estate. She had been a flower, a gem; something to be protected and hidden, and only brought out to be shown on special occasions. She had escaped a few times, but had never gone far, and Aric had always been there. Her mouth watered at the thought of food that wasn't gamy meat charred over an open fire. 

      Bawn watched her reactions, as always, more perceptive than he appeared.

      "There is a border town, perhaps a city now, that sits in the cradle of three lands. I would take you there, if you wished it so."

      Kerrigan hesitated. "What is it called?"

       "Po-lin, to the Tang. You would call it Limina, if the name has not changed in the last hundred cycles or so."

       "I've heard of it," Aric said, sitting straighter. "It's supposed to be dangerous."

       Bawn did not acknowledge his comment. Kerrigan was caught between the two of them, and she had no idea what Bawn actually wanted. He was inscrutable. Still, some time out of the woods and the fields, some time in an inn, even, would not be unwelcome.

       "We'll have to find you clothes, Bawn."

       The giant turned away. "We'll see."



                                                                                                        *      *     *



       "Wine, my Lord?"

       Fires burned in Loesser, and their light flowed lambently over the golden banners hanging from the ramparts. The foodstores and larders of the Keep had been opened, and great tables assembled in the square. This was a celebration as was not seen in many a cycle; the feasting and dancing would last until morning. Mok had gone among them awhile, but now, in the nadir of the night, he had come to his usual perch between the wide merlons.

       "My Lord?"

       Mok looked at the girl proffering him a silver goblet. She was the only figure on the battlement aside from himself. She had a pretty face, soft and oval, with a strikingly large but not unattractive mouth. Chestnut hair, tied in a tail that reached the back of her legs, showed that one of Mok's first edicts, that the Keep serfs would be allowed to cut their hair, had yet to sink in. People did as they had always done, because they had always done it. It made Mok sad.

       What was her name? She had been following him around all evening.

       "Chalice." He took the goblet from her, a cupbearer for the Lord and his retainers. Mok had seen her in the great hall often enough. Those retainers were dead now, taken by the same poison that had taken Midlim. The girl gazed up at him expectantly. She was only a few cycles his junior, but in some ways far more experienced.

       "What do you think I should do with it all?"

       "With all of what, my Lord?"

       "Loesser. Carrolan. Mythopoeia."

       "Whatever you want."

       The starflowers were bright in the inky welkin, and the moon shone radiant silver in kind. Philologists said the moon was the only sidereal body that effused no light of its own. It merely reflected the light of the flowers. Thus it could be seen day as well as night, though as the lesser power of each.

       Chalice's dark eyes reflected too that argent luminance as she stepped close to Mok, took the goblet again, and helped him drink. Soon, she was so close to him and her look so open, so inviting, that Mok would have felt foolish not to kiss her.



© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl