There are times when life hits you so hard, you forget the things that are really important.
Don't forget love. Respect, always. Stand up for what you believe in. If you need help, ask. If you think the world is ugly, make something beautiful. If you're tired, sleep. Silence is a form of conversation. Abuse is NOT a form of love. Talk to your neighbour on the bus, he wants to talk to you too. It is impossible to shit gold no matter how hard you try. If everyone was naive, the world would be a better place. I have an opinion, so do you, we can STILL get along. Ignoring a problem doesn't solve it. The only problem with doing nothing is you never know when you're done. Bunnies are cute, they also make good stew. If you hate others, you hate yourself more. Contrary to popular belief, 'old' and 'bitter' are NOT synonyms. Heating leftovers in certain tupperware containers with a microwave WILL contaminate your food with estrogen. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. And for goodness' sake:
Live a little, love a lot, and shit bricks.
By reading this story you are agreeing that you are of legal age to read erotic material in your country/city/state and that you will NOT reproduce/copy/change/post this story anywhere else UNLESS you e-mail me AND I give you permission! You are also agreeing that you read this story of your own volition, willingly, and will not hold me legally responsible for any material you may find offensive or emotionally damaging within. All characters in this story and their creative rights are owned by me, so don't be stealing! Thanks for your support!
Along with a stunning sunset of red and gold, dusk had also brought silence to the Worchester Manor as the day's activities wound to a close. Peasants and merchants drifted off while servants bustled with last minute chores and the kitchens were all a flurry with an army of cooks tending sizzling skillets and steaming pots as dinner was prepared for the many inhabitants of the sprawling estate.
A long burlap wrapped package stuck under one arm, Jaden strode down the corridor purposefully, his boots made slapping echoes that ricocheted down cross-passages and through arches indiscriminately. The steps he took were brisk and fluid, the tension and worry that had been building up in his body from the lengthy ride home had vanished with the dusk...a combination of a warm steaming tub and a dark, cold beer. For the first time in what seemed like years, Jaden felt clean. The grime from his hunt through the waste and subsequent battle with Sivig had turned the hot water in the ornate brass tub a sickly orange-brown before he had finished.
Jaden made his way down the corridor relishing the simplest of feelings...the subtle warm one that was the little signpost letting him know he was home again—that he was safe again. So when a frown started tugging on his lips and invading his silent reminiscences he banished it as quickly as it had come. The meeting with his father had not gone well—they never did as of late. Sir Worchester was a stubborn old bastard who saw only one point of view: his own.
As he neared his quarters, a smile played onto his lips. Standing watch to one side of the massive oaken double doors was a familiar face; her green and gold kilt marked her as one of the Worchester's house guards, her eyes brightened with recognition as she caught sight of Jaden's white tunic. For a mocking pretence, her salute was almost credible.
"Nice to see you back Lieutenant...or is it Captain now? I swear, it's so hard to keep track of your elusive rank these days."
Jaden waved off the salute with a brush of his hand. "I'm off duty Janna. Besides," he shot her a flat glare, "since when do you ever salute me when we're in private? I thought you saved those mocking farces for the real shows...like when our Fathers are around?"
Janna cocked one of her thin eyebrows and let her arm fall restlessly to her side. She was grinning as she looked him up and down, her eyes caught on the strange package under his arm for an instant before meeting his gaze with a rebellious one of her own. "You still look like a kid...I can't salute a kid seriously. I have a reputation to protect here."
Jaden took a step forward and looked down into Janna's green eyes and shrugged when they flashed dangerously. "Janna...sometimes..."
"Don't even think about finishing that thought." Janna snapped. Her lips sealed and her face seemed to droop with a harried expression. She sighed and leaned back on the doorframe behind her, avoiding his eyes. "Sorry...I just...it's been a rough couple of days. I suppose by now your Father's told you everything?"
He had, but Jaden wasn't about to talk about it in the middle of the hallway. He glanced around and his eyes stopped briefly on several maids with grey aprons scrubbing the floor a bit too passionately to be completely believable. Jaden was well aware of how much gossip got sucked up into the servant's quarters. He motioned Janna to precede him towards the big Oak doors behind her.
Janna opened the rightmost door, the large iron ring she tugged on clanked loudly as the door swung smoothly inwards on its brass hinges. Once inside she firmly shut the door and secured it with the heavy iron bolt.
Jaden stood in the middle of his greeting area, drinking in everything that was his. A small spot of warmth started near his heart and was off quickly spreading to his finger-tips and even his toes. How long had it been since he had last set foot in here? Too long, Jaden decided. The room was almost a piece of art in itself; thick luxurious rugs covered most of the floor of the outer foyer, and beneath, only visible near the rim of the room, lay intricate dark multi-hued marble. The room was walled with large ornate bookcases filled with leather-bound tomes and various odds and ends from his travels, the most notable being a vast collection of weapons—some cracked and broken swords, hilts of shattered axes and the odd mace—it was really just a summary of the battles in which he'd fought.
In the centre of the room were several chairs arranged haphazardly around a wide octagonal table—dark mahogany with a black marbled top. Light still streamed into the room from skylights set high in the circular domed ceiling, but candles had been already thoughtfully lit around the room. Small, decorated white arches branched into two different sets of rooms at the far end, an exaggerated `y'. Jaden resisted the urge to take off his boots so he could enjoy the feel of the carpet on his bare feet and between his toes...there would be time enough for that later.
He motioned towards the western arch with his free hand, where a small corner of the giant four-poster bed could be seen as well as the delicate stained glass and thin silken drapes that covered some of the gallery-like windows and billowed inward with the invisible breeze. "So he's...in there is he?" Jaden asked and then pursed his lips. He made no move to go investigate, a sour taste filled his mouth and he made his way over to one of the lesser cluttered bookcases instead.
Janna followed, she nodded curtly and he could feel her eyes searching his face for a reaction carefully. "Yea...Red's been asleep for days since...well...since Rev..." She stopped and Jaden watched her bite her lower lip as she fell silent.
Jaden suddenly felt very tired. After all the riding and fighting he hadn't felt the least bit exhausted, but fighting an enemy you know was much easier than the task his father had handed him upon his return. A Northman and a traitor; who could ask for more!? He tried to hold it in, but a great sigh escaped his lips nonetheless. It was so typical of his father to foist something like this on him.
His Father's patient voice was still ringing through his head. "Every decision must be weighed whether it be a tactical one that involves the life of thousands or be it as simple as deciding what to eat in the morning. Every decision has its consequences. Every man must pay for those consequences." Edmund had told him, much to his disgust. This was just another lesson, another way for Jaden to prove what a failure he was—at least in the eyes of his father. So it was to be death or a stomach-ache was it?
Jaden untied the twine and unwrapped the sword he had taken from Sivig with wary hands, carefully avoiding the razor sharp edges of the bastard sword as best as he could. He turned it in the rapidly dimming light and held it up for Janna to see. "A fair sword to add to my collection don't you think? Bloodlust is its name." Janna's eyes had fastened to the sword and her face had whitened somewhat, as if she knew what he would say next. Jaden whirled the sword once, flexing his wrists he tested its weight and balance before he laid it down on the last empty shelf of the slightly dusty bookcase. "The traitor who wielded her no longer walks with the living."
"Jaden...you...you wouldn't dare..." Janna breathed quietly as he turned and made his way through the other archway and into his office, her footsteps never far behind his own. Janna's voice was hard when she spoke again, full of fervour. "My brother's no traitor!"
Jaden blinked and moved behind his desk that was piled with papers awaiting his mark. "Do you have proof? This isn't like you at all Janna. Did something happen between you two that I should know about?"
From the tightening Jaden observed on the corners of Janna's mouth and eyes, he knew he had hit the mark. She looked much like the time she had socked him in the face for calling her `the biggest tomboy he had ever met'.
"Yea...well, it doesn't really matter now. I screwed up, bad. Real bad." She spoke harshly and stalked over to the pair of upholstered armchairs that faced his gleaming rosewood desk and sank into the nearest one. Jaden absentmindedly leafed through the stacks of paper as she tried to explain. "This is all my fault. I mean, I always figured that if I could make him angry enough at me, he'd stop being so obtuse when it came to talking about himself. I...I never thought he would crack and take it out on another person...a stranger no less...on Red" she tried to finish but her voice broke then and Jaden looked up from the papers collected in neat piles. Janna was... But Janna never... "I was so stupid!" she finished, her voice trembling unnaturally.
Jaden turned his focus back to the desk and started sorting out the documents he'd need to deal with immediately from the ones he could put off for another couple of days. The former pile was starting to look depressingly thick. Reports had to be filed, inventory taken, and letters to the deceased's relatives had to be written. Maybe he would let Bernweld do that...Jaden knew he wasn't very good with words...come to think of it, neither was Bernweld. When Jaden eventually looked up Janna was back in control. He shrugged and couldn't help thinking again about how much he hated his old man. What a mess! "And? Where is he now?"
Janna took a deep breath and tugged her armour straight, "Lellil has him in chains in the holding stockade to the North." She leaned forwards in the chair, gripping her knees so hard the skin she squeezed beneath her fingers turned white. "He doesn't have a scratch or a bruise on him, it's unnatural! It's not right!" she said, her eyes pleading with his own. "That's how Winthrop found them. I didn't arrive until after Lellil, he was furious, yammering on about irresponsible swordsmen attacking defenceless slaves. No-one would listen."
"And? What happened to Red...er...I mean..." Jaden realized that up to this point in time, everyone had been calling the Northman by `Red'. Even his Father had neglected to use the boy's real name. Janna came to his rescue.
"His real name's Rory. I was stupid with him as well...I shouldn't have..." she shook her head angrily his voice filled with frustration. "He was in a right awful condition when I got there. Not much blood other than a few cuts and scrapes but..." Janna was paling again and that caught Jaden's attention. Janna had killed her fair share of men...it was a mark of how upset she was that she let her memory of the sight affect her so. Her voice trembled almost unnoticeably when she continued, "...but well, his arms were covered with purple and black bruises, long ones you get from being slashed with a practice blade. It was as if he just kept them over his head while he let himself get hit without even a token struggle. Healer Gotfried told me later his left shoulder was dislocated and his right arm was broken...he's a mess."
A grimace twisted his lips and he leaned back into his rigid, high-backed chair. He hadn't realized how stiff his legs had become from all that blasted riding. Or maybe they were stiff because he had done so much riding and now he wasn't. He really didn't have time for this nonsense with crazed swordsmen beating up a Lord's property. He would have dismissed the entire matter out of hand if it hadn't been for the parties involved. "And Rev remembers nothing?" Jaden let the note of disbelief be heard in his voice; Janna could only wince.
"He won't say anything about it. Just keeps asking where Rory is, and if he's OK."
Jaden let his head fall back and rest on the chair back. His eyes traced the lines of the domed ceiling while he thought things over. "That doesn't quite sound to me like the words of a would be killer." He paused as a thought occurred to him, "And Rory hasn't woken at all yet? Not once?"
Janna paused, and when she replied she sounded uncertain, "I...I don't think so...no." Her eyes brightened suddenly, "No wait, that's not quite true. Gotfried said he kept murmuring something. Thought it sounded like `Alalin Dosthis'"
"He was saying what?"
Janna slumped in her chair, "I thought it might mean something to you."
Jaden's sigh filled the room. "It does mean something." He said, it means I now own a slave who's got his brain scrambled. "You're excused from watch Janna, leave me for a bit, I'll do something about this tomorrow. I need to do some thinking. And if you see Bernweld tell him I want to see him."
Janna stood and was halfway to the door when she turned, her mouth set firmly, she bowed awkwardly from the waist, a motion Jaden doubted she had ever done before for anyone less than a king—at least not willingly. "Please Jaden, I beg you, please be merciful. If you pass sentence of death I'll ask for the right of trial by combat. I'll fight you. My brother couldn't have done this, I refuse to believe it."
Jaden frowned in what he hoped was a threatening manner. "And I will kill you if you try. Don't be foolish. If your brother is a traitor he deserves death. It's the law."
Janna straightened and shrugged one last time, her eyes set stubbornly against him. "He can be stubborn and pigheaded at the worst of times, just like you Jaden, but he's no traitor. Rev would kill himself before he dishonoured his family like that...why do you think he tries so hard? Hell, he'd give everything for a few kind words from his father. The least I can do is die before he does, then I won't forsake him like you seem set on doing. I'll die with my brother and everyone will lose."
Jaden's eyes flashed back at her as they filled with anger. He had to mentally restrain himself from clenching his fists. She was pushing their longstanding friendship a little too close to the crevices. "Justice," he said as calmly as he could manage as he folded his hands on his desk in front of him, "never loses."
When the door finally shut behind Janna's swaying kilt, Jaden stalked over to the door and rammed the bolt closed. What a mess! Damn Sir Edmund and his flippant ideals—how he had ever become the Emperor's Hand was unfathomable! How was he supposed to decide anything when he had just gotten back? Out of his two star witnesses, one had lost his memory—or at least refused to talk—and the other was still floating in the nether regions of unconsciousness. To top off this wonderful day, the damn old man wouldn't even see the stranger—Kaleb was his name—the one Jaden had picked up in the Inn on the road to Portios. Sir Edmund Worchester had his priorities sadly misplaced...nothing Jaden did seemed to change that.
And then there was...Rory. Jaden stalked through the entrance to his bedroom and let his feet stop at the end of the long and wide four-poster bed. The body that lay in the centre of the bed covered up his chest with thick goose-downed blankets was dwarfed in comparison. Jaden made his way over to his side and looked down at Rory; he lay on his back, his outrageous red hair splayed on the silken pillow. His chest rose and fell dutifully with quick shallow breaths. He looked small in the bed, it was ironic that he was Jaden's biggest problem.
From the descriptions he had managed to obtain from Bernweld, Rory was supposed to be an untamed beast that was half-man, half-tiger who wielded terrifying green eyes that could make a man shiver in his boots and soil himself with but a glance. Even his hair was supposed to be a raging inferno that could burn a man's hand to the bone with the lightest of touches. Rory supposedly moved like the wind and spoke with thunder and could kill with a thought. Jaden let a wry grin break the monotony of his face, the first hint of amusement he had felt in a good long while.
All Jaden saw was a young man not quite his own age, bruised and alone.
The thought surprised him. Jaden sat gently and ran a hand delicately down the Northman's arm which lay still atop the white covers, pulling it gently up to examine. Janna had been right, the arm was swollen and covered with bruises of all colours: purple, green, blue, and black. His hands and fingers however, were unmarked, and aside from a small bruise above his left eye, so was his lightly freckled face. Very odd injuries for an attempted murder. It certainly didn't look broken...the healer hadn't even put it in a splint.
This was a Northman? This was a monster? He certainly didn't look the part of a red-haired giant who wielded a battle-axe as he raped and pillaged the outlying villages like in the stories. If Rory dyed his hair brown, and lost his deep tan and freckles, he wouldn't have looked out of place most places in the Empire.
Jaden wasn't sure what made him do it, but his hand strayed up to the Northman's head, to brush the wild silken locks off his face. After a moment, Jaden realized with a jerk that he had just been staring at the Northman. He couldn't help it really, the red hair made him look...exotic. His narrow face and delicate cheekbones gave him a noble look that mingled strangely with innocence. It would be his eyes that would either make him look scrawny or more like a wild animal. The gossip seemed to indicate the latter. He wasn't built broadly in his chest, which still looked boyish. But he looked to have a wiry sort of strength that might someday grow into something to fear.
Collecting his thought, Jaden laid the arm back down on the soft coverlets and moved to the edge of the bed. He tried to ignore the strange tingling that suddenly invaded his chest and get his mind on more important matters. He had to remind himself angrily that he had no time to waste. He would have to talk to Winthrop first and foremost, find out what the old veteran knew, then he'd have to eventually face Lellil, since he was the senior official involved in the matter and the one who had officially imprisoned the little lordling. Rev? A Murderer? The thought sang off-pitch inside his head. Janna might be right, but unless other evidence presented itself, he would be forced to punish Rev. It was his right and duty to mete justice to those who would damage a Lord's property. The law and justice rode hand in hand, if the law saw Rev guilty he would see it through to the end, even if Janna lost her wits and got in his way. He searched his memory for a tenant in swordsman law that said otherwise, but couldn't come up with one.
So be it.
Having resolved the matter in his mind, Jaden stood. He took two steps towards the exit, on the verge of going to speak with Winthrop when a sudden thought made his vision tilt unnaturally. He turned back and looked at Rory, bitterness wiping everything from his thoughts. He stared down at the boy, sleeping peacefully in the bed...in his bed. Who had been the idiot who ordered Rory into his bed?
Where the hell am I supposed to sleep?
Jaden had had plenty of time on the lengthy trek home to imagine how his first dinner back with his family would go. He had imagined a lot of things happening, but somehow everything was ruined. And he knew exactly who to shovel all the blame on.
Jaden sat with his family around a grand table. It was a private dinner tonight, which meant more than three quarters of the tall, padded chairs were empty around the lengthy and ornately carved table that showed the family's history had anyone cared to actually look. The columned dining hall rang with every clink and clatter of cutlery on plates and the occasional chime as one of Jaden's family members placed their goblet back on the embroidered table cloth which hung down and over their legs protectively, doubling as a leg warmer as the weather cooled.
Jaden's food lay forgotten and cold on his plate as he speared his Father with a look of contempt. "...and you felt the need to break our treasury by paying one million golden eagles? Are you at your wits end? No slave is worth that much gold. If you were going to be such a spendthrift, why couldn't you have invested it in something more honourable, like the military, or better wages for..."
"Jaden, I am not having this conversation with you." Sir Edmund replied as he chewed his way through a greasy leg of chicken. He paused to wipe his chin with a napkin before meeting his son's grey glare with one of his own. "I can't rationalize my choice like that...I felt it was important. He's a nice young man. He'll be reliable for nearly anything you throw at him—and he'll never break his word, that's what it means to be from the North. I thought he would be a good investment for the future...for your future. Weren't you the one complaining about not being able to find anyone suitable as an aide and confidante?"
Jaden opened his mouth to protest, but Lady Edmund beat him to it. She was nodding haughtily in agreement with her husband. Their combined glare momentarily left him speechless. "That's right, Jaden you're being pigheaded about this whole affair. Your father just wanted to do something for you, it wasn't a malicious attempt to destroy our family like you're making this out to be."
Jaden slammed his fist down on the table, which shivered from the impact. "Regardless, I never asked for help! Why couldn't you mind your own business?"
"Jaden..." his mother trailed off as his grey eyes flashed, she shook her head slowly and sighed.
"You always do this!" Jaden was shouting now, his temper had finally found its fuse. "Every single time I try and do something on my own, you have to try and one-up me...try and help me out. I didn't want help. I didn't need help. Why can't you just mind your own business?"
"Our fault? You're trying to pin this on us? I'm sorry you feel that way Jaden, I really am. If you would just listen to us more often...this wouldn't have happened. If you hadn't rashly gone off to join the Imperial Guard you would have been here when all this was happening," Edmund had to hold up a hand to forestall his son's rapidly reddening face. "Instead you were off gallivanting through lord knows where..."
"You nag like a mare!" Jaden interrupted rudely. "I can't believe I'm hearing this out of the mouth of the Hand of the Emperor! This is madness! I joined a worthy cause to protect an Emperor you claim to serve!"
Edmund's mouth tightened into a line before he spoke. "An Emperor I serve as the head of the Worchester family. There is a big difference."
"Well I like him!" Disel suddenly and unexpectedly cut in, her timorous soprano squeak cutting through the thick air that hung over the dining table. Jaden nearly jerked backwards in surprise when he discovered her cheeks were wet with tears. "He's nice...and...and...he took me horseback riding...and" Disel had to pause and sniffle, her mother passed her a clean serviette over the table, Disel took it and just clenched it in her small hand, she turned her accusing stare at Jaden. "...and you're not being nice at ALL! He almost...he...almost..." Jaden reached out for her, his heart suddenly aching as he watched her cry, but Disel slipped from her chair and curtsied awkwardly and ran from the table, her eyes hidden behind her bangs. What had gotten into her?
Even Sir Edmund had stopped eating now, a grimace on his face. Jaden looked from his mother to his father, no small amount of confusion written all over his face. "...since when did she get over her fear of horses?" he asked with a lowered voice when neither of them spoke.
"If you had listened to us in the first place you would already know. Rory's been taking her riding almost every day he's been here. Disel took a liking to him the first time she set eyes on him, and you know how sensitive and shy she is around strangers. So pull that beeswax from your ears and wool from your eyes and take a good look around." Sir Edmund said gruffly, cutting off whatever else he was going to say and returned to his meal when he received a meaningful glance from his wife.
"What he means to say Jaden," his mother took up the thread, trying to soften the blow, "is that Rory is one special boy. He's yours now though, so it's up to you what you do with him...but please don't dismiss him out of hand. Please?" Her eyes were pleading with his...could she have fallen for Rory as well? Hellfire. What had gone on exactly while he was gone? Who was Rory really?
Jaden picked up his fork and then let it clatter back onto his plate when he became aware that he had lost his appetite. He shoved the plate away angrily. Edmund didn't notice, or decided not to notice the outburst and kept shovelling food mechanically into his mouth.
"How is he anyways, Rory I mean?" His mother asked quietly, her hands busily cutting through a piece of the steaming chicken on her plate.
Jaden shrugged, Rory Rory Rory, if he heard that name one more time... "Gotfried said as long as he wakes up within the next couple of days he'll be fine. There were no head injuries so he couldn't figure out why Rory went unconscious in the first place."
"And what are you going to do with Rev?" Edmund asked offhand, his focus still on his food, but that didn't fool Jaden.
Jaden kept his voice neutral, watching his father's face carefully for any sort of reaction. "You know the law as well as I do."
"Jaden...sometimes you need to stop being so rigid...at least put off your decision until Rory wakes...he is somewhat of a special case." Lady Edmund tried to enforce her words with a glare, but Jaden avoided it. He had seen it far too often to be affected by it anymore. So they hand the burden off to him and now decide to stick their long noses in his business? How tiresome. He slid his chair back and stood. The air suddenly felt stuffy in the grand hall, he needed to get out for a bit.
"You know, there's not much difference between being hard-headed and stupid." Edmund's parting blow was as petty as Jaden had expected. Leave it up to his Father to argue against the law he supposedly represented. And a Northman as an aide? You must be joking. This had to be the most deranged plot by his parents to date—not to mention the most expensive.
Jaden turned back to the table and grimaced. He tried to get Edmund to look into his eyes, but the older statesman was ignoring him again, his efforts focused on his meal instead. "Who's the one being hard-headed here? At least I listened to you, you won't even listen to the man I brought in—Kaleb. At least I try. At least I don't run from my responsibilities to the Empire."
Sir Edmund jerked sharply with his thumb for the door, his thick eyebrows lowered dangerously. "If you're leaving then leave. I have no time for squabbles about me meeting with every back alley hoodlums you happen to pick up along your travels. It was you after all who told me he wouldn't tell you anything. So he can keep saying nothing in the stockade all he wants...for as long as he wants."
At Sir Edmund's words, Jaden's stomach twisted unpleasantly. His father was worse than a braying mule at times like these. Sir Edmund was about as likely to yield a point as a stone of granite might burst into flames. Jaden very nearly turned and stalked out, but his mind, a little sluggish from wine, finally caught up with the conversation.
"Then what if I can get him to just tell me something...anything that no-one else should know, something credible, you'll see him then?"
Edmund's mouth opened, about to say his little wrote `no', when he caught sight of his wife's arched eyebrow and wooden glare. He caught himself and heaved a vexed sigh. "Yes fine, if you can get him to talk to you and the information is credible, I'll..." another sigh, "I'll see him then."
Jaden's lips split into a grin of triumph that was quickly soured. His father was also grinning, his eyes sparkling in triumph. "As long as you promise to take care of Rory."
Jaden's mouth opened and shut, coils of hate sprung up around his heart, scalding it with its heat. He forced himself to ignore the feeling and gritted his teeth, turned and walked away. For the Empire...its all for the Empire, Jaden kept repeating that same phrase over and over in his head as he stalked out through the tall ornate doors.
He paced the deserted hallways for a while, intending originally to go back to his room, but halfway there he realized he would have no place to sleep there anyways. Rory had seen to that...or whoever had put Rory there in the first place. Angry with himself and restless, Jaden decided he would go see Kaleb after all, he was bloody going to talk to Jaden or else he was going to rot forever.
The wind was chill out in the courtyard. It managed to sneak up under the thick cloak he had snagged from the barracks dormitory on his way down. Thankfully it didn't take long for Winthrop to saddle a couple of horses for himself and house guards. When Winthrop had motioned them over to escort Jaden, he had nearly turned them down on principle. This was home, he didn't want to feel like he was in a crack where danger's tentacles could still reach him, but common sense and the threat of a lecture from Winthrop won out. It would have been the same one he had heard a hundred times, how he had lost his eye in an ambush because of complacency. If he didn't know better, Jaden would've sworn losing that eye made him into some sort of war hero, the way he talked about it. Were all house hostlers like Winthrop? Jaden couldn't help wondering. At least Bernweld was still occupied with writing those condolence letters...he would probably be still struggling with the letters well into the small hours of the morning...that was a brilliant stroke of manoeuvring on Jaden's part, as it got him away from mothering Jaden for a night.
The path they took twisted northwards once out past the grounds and out of the city proper. The walls of the city itself were still miles away, having been dubbed an `eye-sore' and unworthy of the glittering town's majesty the engineers had put the walls behind the hill ranges out of sight and out of mind.
The narrow dirt road was empty save for shadows and the shrill calls of night owls, but Jaden wasn't expecting to see anyone. The only people who travelled the road were either stockade guards, or gaolers with their horse drawn carts filled with fresh convicts for the damp underground cells, even those were seldom seen before dark.
The building that rose out of the shadows was only modest in size when compared to the sprawling conglomeration of buildings that made up most of the Worchester Estate. There were no arches or scrollwork on the stolid stone building that had its back to several hills, as if hiding from the judging eyes of men and women. And unlike the manor, the stockade felt empty. Torches twinkled in the gloom dotting the short stone walls that protected the stockade at even measured intervals, but they did nothing to shake Jaden's feeling of unwelcome and his unease.
He was forced to reign up short of the open gates as a guard bearing a torch ambled up to the party of swordsmen. Jaden remained silent as the guard grumbled something unflattering about late visitors with no time sense. "Day was made for visitors not darkness. Darkness is for shadows and fiends" Then the light of his torch fell on Jaden's scowl and the guard jumped back as if scalded, dropping his torch to the ground where it sputtered and died. While his face was now lost to the night, from the guard's sudden stuttering and grovelling, Jaden didn't need to—he had that sort of effect on people sometimes. Then they were past the small hut and through the wood gate where they dismounted.
Jaden hit the ground and threw his reigns to the nearest green-kilt, "Stay with the horses, grab some food from the kitchen if they have any. This might take a while. Make sure Faraday gets some oats while you're at it." Faraday definitely deserved them. He had been the only horse not upset at being roused this late. If anything he was eager to be out again.
As he walked up the stone steps to the covered entrance, Jaden couldn't shake the dark feelings that gripped him. Ever since he had picked up Kaleb from that country road-house he had been feeling like he was being watched. At first he thought it was just Kaleb himself that was giving him the feelings. He was sure that the cloaked man with the white eyes had something to do with Sivig, but once home and Kaleb was safely squirreled away in the Stockade, the feeling had not left him. In fact, if anything Jaden felt like it had grown. Spies? Maybe. Before he opened the business-like iron door that led into the stockade, Jaden rubbed his arms, trying to soothe the bumps that sent shivers up and down his arms. Whatever was causing the feeling, Jaden didn't like it one bit.
The door led into another room with yet another iron slatted door, this one could have archers stationed behind it if there were ever any danger of assault. Two men could hold this door against an army. A Guard, his black kilt fringed with red and the white stars of the Emperor started when Jaden bust through the door. He jumped from his seat and saluted smartly. "Sah! We weren't expecting you until tomorrow."
"At ease Deanel." Jaden soothed, "I wasn't expecting to come here until tomorrow either. I couldn't sleep. How's he doing?"
"Healthy as can be sah! Like you ordered, nobody's touched him. We put him on down in the third deep. There's only one other prisoner down there. It's the safest place we could think of."
When Jaden nodded his head for the door, Deanel saluted again and preceded him through. The large iron skeleton keys he produced clanked loudly in the lock. The door was slitted with narrow windows where an archer could potentially shoot through. It was well designed, and from Jaden's keen perspective he imagined that two tireless men could very well hold off an army for several days. Unless the invaders managed to knock down a wall of stone eight span thick...but the only beasts that came to mind were all extinct, or too unpredictable to train.
"Has he said anything?"
Deanel shot him a strained look over his shoulder as he grabbed a torch from the wall and led Jaden down a short hallway past empty offices, "You mean aside from all his cackling...yea...he thanks me for the food and tells me he'd rather eat rats. He's killed a bunch of them down there...I watched him eat one raw, it was the crunching that got me. I'll never complain about cooked food again for as long as I live."
Jaden shook his head and rolled his eyes. That did sound like the Kaleb who had caught a rabbit on the trek home and the same Kaleb who decided to eat it while still in the saddle. The memory of the sight and smell still haunted Jaden's meals.
They came at last to a narrow archway of stone. Jaden reluctantly followed Deanel through and into the dank depths. His skin started crawling in the narrow passages, and he had to consciously calm his breathing so his guide wouldn't think anything was amiss. Jaden focused on the small flame that billowed out in thin streamers from Deanel's torch in an effort to take his mind elsewhere. The stairway was just a little too narrow, Jaden decided, wiping his forehead of moisture with the sleeve of his tunic.
As they descended the air grew thick and damp which didn't exactly help the feeling of the walls pressing in on him. His nose also tried to protest, but a hand silenced the sneeze before it could build. Step after cold step, past two shadowed doorways before Deanel finally turned into the third. The Third Deep. Before Jaden followed, he took a glance at the stairway that continued to spiral downwards before it was lost in the gloom. The floor he stood on was only the third of a deep chasm that spiralled downwards some ten levels. Jaden wondered if there was anyone in those cells below—anyone alive, anyways.
Jaden brought his mind back to the present and followed the colonel through the doorway. The cell they were looking for was right in the main hallway, although in the dim torchlight Jaden could make out several more branching corridors. He didn't need to wonder for long which was Kaleb's cell. In fact, Deanel didn't even need to point it out. A cackling had started from the darkness inside—it was really just Kaleb's way of chuckling, but the hint of madness it contained certainly qualified it as cackling.
"Ahhhhh," he croaked, his voice hoarse and unnaturally loud in the murkiness of the fetid air, "has the lit'le prince decided ta look in on th' princess? Please, please dun be kissin' ya hear, I think I might die if you be doin' any such sort." The sound of shuffling feet announced Kaleb much before he emerged from the rear of the drippy cell, he had a slick smile on his lips and his too-white eyes had to blink rapidly in the sudden light. "You be a wee short to be ideal as a prince charmin' mayhap...mayhap come back ye should in a couple `o years."
"Shut up." Deanel snarled back, he rapped the torch against the bars smartly, sending sparks fluttering towards Kaleb's fettered ankles. Kaleb just grinned, letting the flickering light catch reflections of his yellow and uneven teeth. He had been hiding something behind his back Jaden noticed earlier. Kaleb now proudly pulled his arm from behind his hunched back to display his prize, the headless corpse of what had once been a rat dangled listlessly from his long, bloodied fingers.
"Snacks!" he said and watched Deanel pale, he found that amusing and his grin widened with a trace of madness. "A good host always be offrin' snacks for his guest. Shall I tear you a piece mayhap? The rear is always being the tastiest! Some like the tail, but I be findin' more oft than not it be getting' stuck between me teeth. Or ye should be wanting to bite it fresh?" He looked back over his shoulder into the depths of his cell, "I could catch ye one if ye have some time..."
Jaden ignored his churning stomach and glared at the slightly hunched figure. His body was unnaturally thin, and his skin looked as if it was just stretched over too much body. Was this just another result of a curse? How was he related to Sivig? Questions Jaden knew Kaleb would refuse to answer whirled through his head. When Deanel turned away, Kaleb just shrugged and tore a piece off and stuck it into his mouth to chew on it noisily.
"Kaleb...? If you could be serious for a moment..." Jaden tried to keep the revulsion out of his voice and off his face, but from the look of glee on Kaleb's pale, drawn face, Jaden figured he hadn't done a very good job.
"Seriousth?" He said with his mouth full of raw rat, he chewed noisily and swallowed hard. "Be always bein' serious I am. Never been happier I havn', never been safer than I am here...nobody be findin' me now...nobody." While to Jaden that was to a certain extent a depressing thought, Kaleb thought it amusing and a source of his continuing damn cackling.
Jaden took a deep breath and regretted it immediately. The damp air made his lungs ache. He could feel the moisture from the air bead on his forehead, but was determined not to show weakness and wipe it off. "That's what I came to talk to you about Kaleb, you told me you had urgent information. So where is it? What do you know about Sivig's betrayal? I saw that look in your eyes when I said his name. I know you know something, tell me and I'll see that it gets to the right ears."
Kaleb's long spindly legs folded abruptly, and he sat and gnawed on his prize for a moment before his reddened lips opened again. "Nope! Nothing doin' I be sayin'. Tell Lord `n father mayhaps, but you?" He turned back to his rat. "Not be tellin' you. You smell like them. Thems can rot and rot an' rot until the sun be fallin' out `o the sky, but still I won' be tellin' nothing to nobody."
Jaden felt his eyebrows raise slightly. The way Kaleb had said `them' had been so fierce that bits of partially chewed rat had spewed across the ground and lower part of the cell bars. Deanel jumped back cursing, threats never far from his lips. Jaden had to motion for silence to be heard.
"Kaleb? What do you mean, them? Who do I smell like to you? If I am to help you, and I do want to help you, you must begin to trust me." The lie came easily to his lips. One did not mess around in the Emperor's guard and expect to keep his head. Jaden knew Deanel would send a report with every single word that was said here after Jaden had left—Jaden's wouldn't be far behind. "You told me once that if I protected you, you would be my man for the rest of your life. I am calling you on it now."
Those words made Kaleb pause. He tossed the half-eaten carcass into the depths of the cell. A bestial sneer now contorted his bloodied lips. "It be no matter of note I be supposin'. You be smellin' like gheara. They be the ones who hold life `n death as ye might be wieldin' that there scrap o Iron at yer side." His voice grew bitter and he turned to glare accusingly at Deanel. "Jus' as I be tellin' this here feller all week. Puttin' me down here with another one of yer sweet, disgusting, gheara pets. Almost enough to be drivin' a man out `o his mind, I be tellin' you. Doesn't anyone listen' to Kaleb though? `Course not! I be thin and ugly, ain't got none o that charm you gots."
Could Kaleb be talking about elementalists? Gheara? The word itself Jaden had never heard of before. There were several elementalists currently staying at the manor, and Jaden had talked to several of them in passing. A smell? How odd. Did it rub off with contact? Jaden turned to Deanel, "You said there was someone else down here? It wouldn't be an elementalist would it? Or someone who has been in close proximity to them as of late?"
"What?" Deanel looked quite taken aback at the question. His eyes slid away from meeting Jaden's fierce grey glare. "N...no. There's only that kid they sent down here. Something about killing Lord Edmund's slave or equally distasteful."
Killing..."Rev is down here?" Jaden said, surprised, then regretted speaking at all. Deanel wasn't aware that Rev was the son of a Lord. No-one except for the Worchester family and Janna should be aware.
"I thought you knew Sir..."
Jaden took one last disgusted look at Kaleb's narrowed eyes before he shrugged. "Where is he? I want to speak with him."
Deanel looked like he might say something, but he obviously thought better of it, just turned and walked down the corridor. He took the right-most passage. The stone was roughly hewn here compared to the well-built main corridor. Deneal stopped and his light fell on a small figure kneeling on the wet and uneven rock floor, his eyes were closed and his hands were folded calmly in his lap. He did not stir as Jaden's footsteps halted in front of him.
Jaden called his name softly several times, hoping he was just asleep, but the boy did not budge an inch. Jaden turned helplessly to Deanel. "Is he dead?"
Deanel shook his head slowly. "He's like that most of the time. I put food in front of him, and he eats it well enough. Never seen anything like it, it's like his mind isn't there anymore—he's just a husk." Deneal walked over to the bars and bent over. He raised his voice sharply, "Hey! Boy! Wake up, you have a visitor."
Jaden almost missed it, a small muscle in one of his cheeks had twitched at the word `Boy'. Jaden grabbed the bars and crouched in front of Rev, they were rough and unpleasantly wet, but the alternative was losing his balance and falling on the even wetter floor. A smile played on his lips as he watched Rev's chest move slowly in and out. He turned around and motioned with his head for the entrance. "Wait for me with Kaleb, Deanel. I can find my own way back. I want to talk alone."
The colonel hesitated for a moment, he shrugged, knowing it was pointless to argue with his superior. Jaden waited for a while as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. It wasn't pitch black as he had expected, rather when he opened his eyes the rocks gave off an unearthly glow that gave Rev's freckled face a ghastly appearance.
Before Jaden could speak, Rev's eyes flickered open. Two glinting orbs of black shone back at him, looking into his own unashamedly. "What do you want? Come to gloat? Tell me you'd always knew I'd end up here? Save your breath, I've had enough of that for ten lifetimes. Leave me alone."
Jaden felt his hackles rise at the boy's tone. He let his reflexes claim him. His right arm shot through the narrow gap in the bars, pulling Rev towards him before the boy could jerk away. "You've got some nerve to talk to a superior like that apprentice." Jaden couldn't believe that Rev had had the gall to speak to him like that. No apprentice ever mouthed off to a seventh tier and a Captain no less.
"I'll talk to you any way I see fit thank you very much." Rev's voice was light and he seemed for all the world as if he didn't care that Jaden was just a twist of his wrist away from breaking his neck. This wasn't like the boy at all. Was this the same kid Jaden and thrashed until he cried for mouthing off during a lesson? "Besides, since I'm going to be either killed or at the least kicked out of Edmund's swordsmen, why should I? I know you Jaden, the Captain of dusk they call you behind your back. You've already decided I'm guilty and you never even bothered to come down here and talk to me." Rev's voice filled with heavy bitterness, "You're just like Rory you know. You always think you're right." He paused and his face screwed up in a painful looking manner, "Although at least with Rory he really was...right I mean. You? You just think you're right all the time."
Jaden growled and shoved Rev backwards before he withdrew the arm. Rev slumped back onto the floor with a wet slapping sound. "The law is unyielding as diamond on this Rev. You attacked My Lord Father's pro-" Jaden paused, cursed silently and corrected himself, "my property with the intent to damage or destroy. What I really want to know is why! Why did you do it Rev? A million golden eagle prize. What were you thinking?"
Rev's face came up at those words, and he met Jaden's eyes resolutely, "I never attacked him with any intent like that...at least..." Rev's voice suddenly turned sheepish "I don't remember doing anything like that."
"Tell me what you do remember then."
Rev lowered his eyes. He lounged backwards propping himself up with his elbows on the rough hewn floor, his feet stretched out in front of him. For a long moment, Jaden thought he wasn't going to speak, when he did it was quiet and unsure. "You won't...fine but it's so stupid you won't believe me."
"Rev!" Frustration leaked into his voice, and it made Rev flinch.
"He was...helping me...you know"
Jaden grimaced, "That's your secret? I don't believe it. Winthrop told me about your fear of horses and I'm glad Rory could help you with that...but-"
"Stop it!" Rev snapped and sat up. "You always do this. You assume you know everything. My problem had nothing to do with horses, it was the...`other' problem he was helping me with."
"What other..." Jaden froze, the thought remained unsaid as horror washed through his body. He swore loudly, and the words echoed down the lifeless corridors and back loudly at him.
"Shhhh, not so loud." Rev hissed angrily, his face held contempt and anger, "see why I didn't bloody confess? You were the one who made me swear not to tell anyone! Stars! You said you'd kill me if I did. And then you and your father conspire to ignore me for the better part of two weeks without a word while I slowly rot in here. Thanks for nothing."
Upset that he hadn't thought about that possibility earlier, Jaden desperately tried to regain control of the conversation. He let his voice harden. "This is not my fault. If you want to blame anyone for being in here, lay some on my father's shoulders. He was the one who dumped both Rory and you on me." Jaden's brow furrowed, "And anyways, how do I even know you're telling the truth? You could just be making this up for all I know to get yourself out of trouble. I only have your word to go on in this matter, the only other witness being bruised and unconscious in...my bed."
Rev sprang to his feet. "I can't believe you can stand outside looking in on me like that, and spew shit like that at me. I haven't changed since the last time you were here. I'm the same person I always was. Give me a sword and I'll bloody prove it."
Jaden's jaw muscles clenched, and for a moment he couldn't speak. So I spew shit out of my mouth do I? He couldn't help thinking. What was going on here? Rev never spoke back. Something was very, very wrong. Jaden felt his eyes harden. He straightened slowly so he didn't have to look up. "You know what? Maybe you haven't stayed in here long enough. You need to do some serious thinking about your life Rev."
Rev was on his feet, pressing his face into the bars, "Wait! Jaden. I can prove it." He yelled as Jaden walked back up the corridor. "I can prove it." He said again, his voice quieting, "please, don't leave me here again...Jaden! JADEN!"
Too angry to speak, Jaden just kept on walking. Rev should have thought about that before he had started letting his lip get the better of him.
There was just enough light from the glowing mold...or lichen...or whatever it was that he didn't have too much trouble finding Deneal again, who had edged as far from Kaleb's cell as he could without disobeying orders. As soon as the torch became visible, the glow faded nearly completely. Although the giant knife that Rev had stabbed in his gut seemed to twist and writhe all on its own. Damn the boy to hell! From the look on Deneal's face, he wanted to ask what had been said, but the veteran knew better than to question his superior.
Deneal turned as if to leave, but Jaden put a hand up on his shoulder and grabbed the torch from his hands. He walked over to Kaleb's cell again and took a careful look inside, but the man's spindly limbs were hidden in the far corner, away from where the feeble light of the torch reached. There was a suspect sort of crunching noise that Jaden tried not to think about.
"Kaleb? Get over here, now."
The noise cut off. For a while Jaden wondered if something had happened, because no sound at all came from the depths. Then there was a shuffling, and Kaleb's pale, stretchy features appeared hesitantly. "What did ye be wantin' now? I told ye I be having nothing to be tellin' ya" he said gruffly.
Jaden shrugged, ignoring the frustration that was telling him that if he were to just kill the man, it would all be over. "Just one last question. If you were to see a gheara, would you know it?"
He eyed Jaden as if he were trying to determine a purpose to the question. "I could smell it, yea. Why?"
"Do these...gheara, have anything to do with your dire message?" Jaden asked quietly. Hoping the answer would be no, and then there was a voice quietly wishing they did have something to do with this plot of Sivig's. Something had to have changed Rev.
If Jaden was hoping for some hesitation, Kaleb had none. He just cackled silently, "You could be sayin' that. They're the...crux of the mattah, if you be understandin'."
Jaden turned and started to follow the colonel, but a sudden thought burst from his whirling thoughts. Something cryptic Janna had said. Jaden's steps faltered.
"One more question: Does the phrase `Alalin dosthis' mean anything to you?"
Jaden turned back, fearing Kaleb had returned to the back of his cell to continue his little feast. But it was not so. When Jaden turned, Kaleb had straightened; his hands had wrapped themselves around the uneven, abrasive iron bars. His eyes weren't looking anywhere in particular, just staring up at the ceiling, with his reddened lips slightly parted. They moved slowly, his voice had an eerie quality to it.
"Alalin dosthis quatra puisis, oregar nefgre dais." He said, then traslated "Luck dances with me, death just stalks me from the shadows." His eyes fell, and they refocused on Jaden. "Who be tellin' you somethin' like tha'? Who?"
Jaden opened his mouth, then closed it. He wagged his finger as he turned "Hey, I'm the one asking the questions. Why do you know what it means?"
"It be Faelish"
"And what's that?"
"Northern tongue" Kaleb said quickly, then narrowed his eyes. "Who be sayin' that to ye?"
Rory? The thought rocked Jaden back onto his heels. Was it something he had maybe picked up from his homeland? Jaden quickly shrugged, "Why should I tell you anything? You made me drag you all the way here, crying about how vital this information was to the empire, then you clam up and claim you'll only talk to my father? You sought me out! Now tell me how you knew what that means."
Kaleb's hands tightened on the bars. It was tough for Jaden to tell, but Kaleb's eyes suddenly held desperation, or furor for a split of an instant. His voice held the bitter tinge of resentment when he spoke. "If I be tellin' yeh sumtin' of worth...will ye let me talk to the man who told ye tha'?"
Jaden turned back then, a sneer on his lips. "You'd do that for a stranger, but not for my father?" Jaden asked incredulously. "Depends what you give me."
Kaleb held his gaze for a long moment, the silence heavy with decisions being weighed. "I be bringin' a warnin'." He said finally. "The night be coming and ye Thiian's think tha' daylight be aroun' fer ever. But it won't. And soon, you be know just how close tha' dusk is. And then the world be crying, and ye precious empire be fallin'. "
The Empire will fall? Deanel was trying to catch his eye, but Jaden ignored him. Was this all some made up farce? But to what point? What did Kaleb have to gain from all this? He wasn't looking for money, that was certain. The way he ate spoke volumes about his priorities.
"Why should I believe you? This means nothing to me. The Emperor has had sixty soothsayers whispering those same words everyday into his ears since the minute he took the crown. Every day is the `last day', every hour the last hour, and around every turn in the month lies some disaster; a plague, a tornado, a new blight to torment his majesty's peaceful reign. Why should the Empire believe you?"
Kaleb was silent for a minute. He began muttering something under his breath angrily. He stopped and looked up, "I be wantin' your word on this boy. If I be givin' ye proof, me life be in greater danger than ever. Protect me, take care `o me..." His eyes glazed with some emotion so intense Jaden almost dropped his eyes. "...and let me be talkin' to tha' man o yours, and I'll be tellin' yeh how tuh save yer precious Empire."
Jaden's revulsion at the thought of having Kaleb as one of his banner men soured his stomach, but for Jaden, the choice was a simple one. He had already given up his rights as heir to the Worchester family, what was one man compared to that? "Tell me what you know Kaleb, and you'll have my word that I will do everything in my power to protect you. But I won't betray my vows to the Empire, if serving her means killing you, then make no mistake, I will kill you and be happy do be done with you."
Kaleb's sudden grin could have meant anything, "I be hiding a scroll under the third board from tha' rightmost stall in yer stable. It be somethin' of import I'd gather...go get it, show it to yer father, then I'll tell ye what yeh want ta know as long as this man o yours I can see."
It had gone full circle. Everything had come back to Rory.
Jaden was beginning to loathe that name.
The sound of rain spattering against rock assaulted Rory's ears. He panicked. Hard, cold stone walls pressed against him on either side. He was stuck. Trapped. It was dark, so dark Rory couldn't even see the hand he tried to frantically wave in front of his eyes. He stumbled forwards, about the only way he could go. Forwards. He might have gone backwards, but that would mean jamming himself permanently between the indomitable walls. This was one place Rory did not want to get stuck in. There was no backwards in this cave. There was only forwards.
The water grew louder as his steps took him deeper into the passage. As he trekked stubbornly forwards the feeling of familiarity grew steadily within. The rain...it sounded like... Then Rory remembered. It wasn't rain he was hearing. It was the roar of rushing water tumbling past the entrance of a cave he knew well...a cave he had wandered and explored until he knew every nook and cranny, rock and puddle. That gave him hope. He kept going forwards. His eyes greedily sucked up the light and his lungs inhaled his first breath of the fresh, humid air as he burst into a large open chamber. He blinked rapidly and his eyes started to water from the bright sunlight that filtered through the mighty falls. Stone upon stone of water poured past the cavern's entrance with a roar of elemental fury unmatched by any human lungs.
He knew this cave. This cave was near home. Home. He was home!
Rory fell to his knees and just drank in every boulder and stalactite. He revelled as the mist coated his face and ran down his face to soak his tattered clothing. He was home. He thought he was never going to see this place again. The giant iron weight that Rory had been carrying around in his stomach left him then. It was a moment of pure bliss.
It was short lived. Rory was not alone.
Gragggghhhrrrrrr, something bellowed behind him, and a great gust of warm and moist air nearly knocked him on his face. SCREAM! A voice inside him urged him. Danger! It told him incessantly.
Whuff...whuff! The creature snorted behind him.
Whatever it was behind him, it was big. Its presence was a gigantic shadow that loomed over him in the ambience. The strange winged form eyed him warily as Rory watched with second sight. It reached out slowly, brushing Rory with curious prying, invasive fingers.
Pain. No! Rory slammed his mental barriers down, shutting his senses within his fortress before he blacked out from the shooting pain behind his eyes. Rory wanted to turn, desperately so. But his knees stayed planted, his back rigid. He could not rise, he could not turn. Rory had felt fear before, but not like this. This fear consumed him, it nibbled at his soul and gnawed at his sanity. His mental barriers felt so frail before this behemoth. Rory trembled and shook, fear held him by the hand.
There was a loud crunching noise as whatever it was moved closer, sniffing with curious abandon. The sounds of claws clicking on rocks made horrible pictures flash in front of Rory's eyes and sent shivers of ice-cold fear pouring down his back to collect in his bowels, which froze from his terror. The smell made Rory's nose shut down, so powerful a musk it was. The smell of raw meat, rotten eggs, and decay was lost as his nose just stopped reporting for duty.
Rory squeezed his eyes shut. I am dreaming. This is all a dream. When I wake I will be back home, in bed. This is all just a terrible dream. Wake! AWAKE!
Rory tried to calm his breathing. Sheets damp with cold sweat cocooned around him, protecting him. He was not in a cave. He was not anywhere near the north. Home was far away, this was Portios, a city of the Thiian empire. This was not home.
Rory felt a groan escape from his dry lips. He tried to raise an arm, but found himself break out with sweat from the effort involved. They didn't hurt too badly. But they didn't want to function quite properly yet, which meant his body was doing what it was supposed to—healing.
Rory's ears started to throb. Someone was jabbering excitedly...no...there were two people, two distinct aura's in the ambience...no three. Two strange ones and...Rory struggled to open his eyes. Each eyelid felt as if someone had thoughtlessly attached a stone worth of iron to them and shoved sand up underneath the lid. As a crack of light appeared through his slitted eyes, Rory's entire head started throbbing.
He thought he had said that out loud. He just hoped someone was listening. The voices got louder then, his ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton. Rory shut his eyes again, trying to keep the pain at bay, willing the voices to start making sense. Voices faded and rose as he struggled to make them work.
"Get him some... ... ... no the other... ..."
A strong arm was suddenly lifting his head, then pillows were propped up under him and something cold was pressed to his lips. Water had never tasted so sweet before. He was only offered a small sip. When the cup was taken away, Rory tried to open his eyes. Everything was blurry, there were strange faces around his bed, three of them, two tall and one short. He couldn't recognize any of them as the world swam before his eyes.
"More..." Rory said, his voice was surprisingly hoarse, as if it had not been used for a long time. The cup was back, Rory gulped greedily until it was taken away. Slowly, his vision was returning.
Even though his face protested with pain, Rory tried to smile past dry lips when a small warm bundle threw its arms around his neck and began sobbing into his chest. Rory tried to return the hug, but his arms lay useless at his sides, aching away in their ignorance. That hurt more than anything.
"I thought...I thought you were to die!" the familiar soprano squeaked. Disel shook as her small arms latched desperately to his neck, her face buried into his chest, her breath came in heaves as she chocked on air.
"There now child, you'll suffocate him if you keep that up." A soft, kindly voice was gently reprimanding the girl. The voice was a rich tenor Rory had never heard before. He squinted, trying to make the world focus. Two men stood beside the bed. One was dressed in white robes fringed with the green and gold Rory had become so familiar with around the Worchester mansion. He wore a patient smile beneath a thick white beard that trailed down his chest in thick streamers. He gently detached the distraught girl's arms from his neck. "How do you feel?"
Rory eyed the man cautiously. He tried to shrug and he instantly regretted it. His shoulders flared with intense pain that made him feel nauseous and brought tears to his eyes. "Like..." Rory struggled to put his words together, "Like someone's...been flattening me slowly with a rolling pin."
"Tell me what happened!" The stranger beside the kindly old man barked. His voice was crisp and sharp, as if he was accustomed to giving orders loudly and having everyone in sight follow them post-haste.
"I..." Rory froze. His breathing stopped as his entire being became stained with revulsion. He had...he had... Rory's breathing started again, harsh to his ears, and much too fast. What had he done? It was unforgivable. It was a crime worthy of death. Rory should have died...why was he still alive? He should be dead. He had...he had forced Rev...oh god, he thought.
Disel was screaming something, "Don't leave again!" was what Rory thought she said, clutching one of his aching arms desperately to herself. The pain brought him back more than anything.
"Stop it Sergeant, immediately! I don't need you badgering my patient who was just moments ago clinging to life. You will leave immediately." The healer's voice was firm and brooked no argument.
"Rev..." Rory said shakily, he turned to the old man, "where's Rev? I need to...I need..." Rory slumped back into the pillow when he tried to rise. His body was too weak.
"Shhhh," the old man was soothing both him and Disel, whose head he stroked reassuringly. "Stop Rory, you're too weak right now. Rev has been put under arrest, you're safe here. I'm a healer, I've been taking care of you-"
Rory's eyes widened, "Arrest...what...what do you mean arrest?"
The healer's eyebrows disappeared under his long hair. "What? ...have you lost your memory? He tried to...kill you." The doctor avoided his eyes and spoke hesitantly.
No, no, no! This was all wrong! Rev hadn't...well he had...but it wasn't Rev's fault. Why was it that all these people knew about it? Rev shouldn't have told anyone—unless...? Rory cursed himself silently. Of course Rev would have been unconscious as well from the emotional shock. The knowledge of his screw-up threatened to overwhelm him. His breathing rasped unpleasantly in his ears, but he couldn't stop it. He would have long retreated back to the silence of unconsciousness if not for Disel, who grasped his arm and anchored him firmly in the present. Her tear streaked cheeks made his already swollen heart clench painfully.
Rory turned to the Sergeant, "Rev...didn't do anything to me. It was...an...accident; on both sides. I swear...he didn't do anything. I need to...I need to talk to Sir Edmund."
Bernweld glowered back at him stonily. His hand had slipped absentminded to the sheath that hung from his waist, he fiddled with the handle of the gilded short sword.
The healer's eyes watched warily, "Bernweld!" he snapped angrily.
The big man sneered as he looked back into Rory's eyes. "I'll go get your master slave. Then you had best explain everything. And I truly mean everything. That boy's life depends on you." He turned and started to leave, "As does yours." Rory grimaced, but somehow the prospect of seeing Lord Edmund and straightening this mess out lightened his mood somewhat.
To keep his mind occupied, Rory took stock of his surroundings. He was in a room he had never seen before. It had high ceilings and was domed, with an arch that led into an adjoining room. The entire left side of the room was covered floor to ceiling with large gallery windows, only partially covered by great silken drapes that hung loosely around the edges. The sunbeams from the great windows fell just short of the magnificent bed: Four posts, silk sheets and fluffy feather pillows. If Rory hadn't been so sore, he would have enjoyed the feeling of sinking into the soft bed to no end.
Rory accepted another sip of water from Disel before he turned to the old man, who was busy rummaging through a great bag he had set on the small table beside the bed. "How long...?"
"Seven days and a morning," Disel replied before the old man could even open his mouth. "I thought you were never going to wake up. When will you be well enough to ride again?" She was already scrubbing her tears away with the back of her sleeve. Her eager enthusiasm was contagious. The dull feeling of horror was slowly subsiding, it just hovered in the background...waiting. What was Edmund going to say about all this? How was Rev coping?
Rory smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. "I don't think-"
But like usual, Disel never really waited for an answer to her questions before she was off again. "It was dreadfully boring, and I kept worrying...and Jaden and daddy kept fighting over you...it was dreadful! I said that already didn't I? But it's OK now, `cause you're awake. Who's Rev?"
Rory laughed then, which quickly turned into a grimace of pain and a groan. "I'm glad you're still as energetic as ever. Uhhh...Rev is a talented swordsman."
"I bet my brother's better!" Disel grinned, she edged closer to Rory on the bed as she enthusiastically described some of her brother's feats.
Brother? Rory couldn't help wondering. Since when did she have a brother?
"AND!" Disel was winding down, having described how he had disarmed a man during a duel blindfolded with one arm tied behind his back in a pit of vipers. Pit of vipers? The story must be made up...at least, he hoped it was. "He's a seventh! Only daddy's better than him. I've never seen them fight though, although I'd like too. I think daddy would win though."
"You'd rather have your father win?"
Disel screwed up her forehead as she thought. Rory thought it was cute how she took the question so seriously. "I said I think he'd win." She sighed patiently, Rory couldn't help grinning again, his face wasn't protesting now, but Rory was sure it would later. "But I'd rather have daddy win. Jaden's been really mean lately. Ever since..."
"That's none of your business young lady." The old man suddenly spoke up. Rory had forgotten he was even there, so quiet and still he had been. He was fiddling with some used bandages by the looks of it, just turning them over and over in his hands.
Disel reddened and shut her mouth. Rory couldn't help but wince as her eyes lowered and an awkward silence smothered the room. Luckily, it was another excuse for Disel to give him more water, which was rapidly returning his throat to some semblance of normality. When his stomach growled, the old man winked at him and turned to Disel.
"Why don't you go run and tell Isabel to cook something special for Rory, I bet he's mighty hungry after seven days."
Disel's eyes brightened at that. She jumped off the bed and was halfway to the door before she stopped in her tracks. She was very nearly bouncing with excitement. "I'll get to make...umm...do you like soup? That's what I have when I'm sick. Chicken broth and biscuits!"
The way his stomach was rumbling urgently, Rory wouldn't have turned down eating last week's leftovers. With his approval, Disel hurried to her task. Rory turned to eye Gotfried shrewdly. "You're a healer?" It wasn't really a question.
"Of sorts." The man's sly grin could freeze lava. He lifted the bandages up for Rory to see, then pointed to his arms that were gaining feeling as they spoke. "Neat trick you've got there. I'm getting old, so maybe my memory is playing some mean tricks on me, but I could swear those arms were a hundred times more battered two days ago, not so mention one of them was broken. I'd wager it's a bit more advanced than sleight of hand...if you catch my meaning..."
Blink. It was then he touched the ambient elemental plane, just brushed it gently with the tips of his senses. That hurt, the backlash of Rev's bond had pretty much whited out Rory's sense for the other plane, but he forced himself to stay connected nonetheless and ignored the flashes of pain as best he could. A pale figure waited for him, made up mostly of shadows and swirling air, it stared back at him smiling. The effort to keep contact made Rory's head ring, he let his connection gently cease.
"So you knew then?" Rory asked, his eyes never leaving those twinkling eyes of the old man.
"I was already on my way to the stables when Lellil summoned me. Anyone sensitive would have felt what you did from miles away." The healer frowned, his eyes darkening. "Although I haven't quite been able to figure out what it is you've done. I can't detect anything on you or Rev...so it had to have been something else. I don't suppose you'd want to fill me in would you? Ah...I thought not."
Strange thoughts whirled through Rory's head. No one was supposed to know. Not even Sir Edmund knew. Rory had sworn an oath never to reveal his secrets, to anyone no matter what. It was the Bern'alad creed. This man, Rory realised with a lurch of his stomach, had to die. The thought made him nauseous. It was a good thing his stomach was empty after all.
"You haven't...told anyone yet...have you?" It was half a hope. If the man had spoken then it wouldn't matter much if he killed him. The thought put a grim smile on his lips. Here he was plotting to kill a man when he couldn't yet properly lift his arms. As if worried about being forgotten, his stomach rumbled loudly.
Gotfried opened his mouth to reply, when a great crash echoed through the archway. Rory couldn't stop when his eyes widened as a youth much his own age, trailed by the Sergeant, strode into the room. This wasn't Lord Edmund! The thought froze in his mind. Rory nearly flinched as grey eyes locked on to Rory's own, they sucked all the energy Disel had managed to provoke in Rory, it left him drained and exhausted. Was this the `Jaden' Disel had spoken of?
There was no doubt that this was Edmund's son. They had the same piercing glare. Rory tried to meet his eyes, but that only seemed to infuriate the grey-eyed teen, further provoking him.
"Get out, both of you. See that I'm not disturbed." Jaden's voice was curt, and bordered on rude. Rory was half expecting Sigfried to chastise him, but the old man just sniffed and turned, but not before smirking Rory's way with a look that promised more talk later. Bernweld on the other hand, was staring daggers at Rory.
"Sir, he's a Northman. I should stay!"
Jaden turned and raised his right arm, for a brief moment it looked to Rory as if he was going to strike the large hulk. Instead, Jaden dropped his arm in brisk practiced movements and flicked his wrist, pointing meaningfully at Bernweld's sheathed sword. That made the big man pale. He clasped his hands together and bowed stiffly. Without another word he retreated after the healer.
Despite his circumstances, Rory couldn't help but marvel again how strange Thiian customs were. He took a careful second look at Disel's brother. He had rushed here, by the look of him. His raven-black hair was matted with sweat that ran down his sharp features. His face was narrow, but it wasn't pinched like some faces. It fit his tall frame, which looked already well filled out. His arms weren't huge like Bernweld's, but when they moved, his forearm muscles rippled, belying the cord-like muscles those lithe arms sheltered. He could have been a coiled whip for all Rory knew, and looked very able to uncoil in any direction at any given moment. Jaden wasn't breathing hard under the light brown leather armour he wore, Rory noted, and like Bernweld, Jaden wore a kilt of black and red, but unlike the Sergeants', the colours were inverted, it was black with red fringes and had a strange crest emblazoned on it. Jinx hadn't explained those colours to him, it was yet another Thiian mystery.
Just like the mystery of why Jaden was here and Sir Edmund was not.
Jaden followed Bernweld's exit with his eyes, shaking his head slightly with annoyance. His piercing eyes then turned to contemplate Rory. "I'm glad you've finally woken. How do you feel?"
Rory was fully intending to say something snarky, and it was on the tip of his tongue. Unfortunately...or fortunately, he never ended up speaking. Jaden was already talking again, and the mystery of who Disel had inherited her quick talking skills was revealed. "I've been hearing a lot of things about you lately. I should admit I don't know what to believe. That's where you come in."
Rory pulled himself up, sliding backwards so he could sit straighter without completely submerging himself into the plush pillows. If his arms had mouths they would have cussed him until his ears bled. "Where...where is my Lord?"
The question looked to have caught Jaden by surprise. He looked at Rory silently, studying. Rory got the strange feeling Jaden's eyes were devouring every detail of his face. For some odd reason, Rory felt his ears become hot under those fierce eyes.
"I..." Jaden caught himself as his voice raised, he lowered it when he continued and it became embittered, "But of course...you wouldn't know. Of course you wouldn't know. Bloody hell."
Jaden schooled his face and bowed briskly, well, inclined his head at the most. "I am Jaden Worchester, Edmund Worchester's son, Captain in the Emperor armies, and your Lord owner—although don't ask me how that last one turned out..."
Lord...owner... "Now wait a minute! What do you mean by that?" Rory wasn't sure he liked how that sounded at all. "I thought Lord Edmund...um...owned...me." Rory said, feeling awkward when talking about himself as property.
Jaden's shoulders fell. He sighed dramatically and sat abruptly on the end of the bed, one leg bent under him so he could face Rory. "I'm not happy with it either. My father has some rather incurable faults when it comes to my business. He sticks his huge nose where it more often than not, doesn't belong. The long and the short of it is, that you were bought for me."
Back home in the North, Rory had gotten into many fights. He'd been punched, beaten, bruised...but in all his life he had never been slapped, like Jaden had just done. Bought for...you. Through the pain and unresponsiveness of his limbs, Rory's hands curled angrily. His voice made the bitterness of Jaden's own seem like the murmurings of butterfly wings before the mighty gusts of a hurricane.
"Well, when fishing there's always the option to throw your catch back. It's not like I asked to be caught and brought here. I don't fit in, and everyone is bloody terrified of me. I'd rather be home, thank you very much."
Jaden opened his mouth, his eyes flashing, but again he reconsidered before he spoke, and his eyes softened somewhat; if Iron could be softened at all. "Yes, well. I guess we're both in the same boat." He shook his head and changed the topic, "Bernweld told me that Rev didn't attack you. Your testimony in this matter is vital to Rev's life. Tell me what happened."
His voice trembled a bit when he spoke, and Rory hated himself for it. He explained to Jaden what happened, in bits and pieces of what he could remember, leaving out all the stuff he had exchanged in private about Thiians. Rory didn't consider that lying. The only part Rory changed was the last, the most important, that he couldn't tell to anyone until he talked to Rev. The axe had to fall somewhere. It was almost ironic, Rev was being accused for something he would most likely do after his name was cleared. More bitter thoughts without bitter words to match.
"...And we must have connected at the same time, because when I woke up I was here, and if what you said is true, then that follows right? His sword was faster than I thought...though I'm not much of a swordsman anyways." Did Rory really have to say that? Oh, but he was right awful at lying. Jaden wasn't stupid, at least, he didn't look stupid. His stomach was in knots, and it wasn't from the lack of food. It hurt Rory to lie. This time, he had no choice in the matter.
His interrogator said little during the questioning, except to ask for clarification or more details. He found the part with Janna rather amusing, and nodded to himself absently without realizing what he was doing, and a half-grin broke the icy ramparts of his face. He didn't mention anything about the last that Rory had said except for nodding. Jaden rose and offered Rory the glass of water, which thankfully, Rory managed to grab with his right hand without making a total fool of himself. That was good, his arms were gaining strength rapidly.
"Interesting." Jaden said, and when Rory looked up from the cup, Jaden's eyes were looking at his arms with a raised eyebrow.
"What is it?" Rory's face started to redden and he had to look away. "I know they're small but you don't have to make fun..."
"What...? Oh, no." Jaden thought Rory's misunderstanding was amusing, a wry smile again put emotion on his stony face. He motioned towards Rory's arms. "I was just surprised that all your bruises healed so fast. It's almost like magic."
Rory froze. He knew. Had Sigfried told him? This was bad, a disaster. No-one was supposed to know. And now two people in one day...three if Rev was counted. Surely the young swordsman was well aware of Rory now. "I...what?" Rory resisted the urge to wince and check to see whether his stomach had fallen through the mattress onto the plush carpet below.
Jaden grinned then. It was a boyish smile, but Rory had a sneaking suspicion it held a deeper meaning. "You know, Sigfried. His healing is almost magic sometimes. I sometimes wonder if he's an elementalist under-cover, the coalition does that every once in a while. Even they need their spies in the Emperor's court."
Rory tried to school his features. Saved. But it brought an interesting question to mind. Was the Worchester household not aware of Sigfried's powers? How had he managed to stay under-cover for so long...as a healer no less. The urge to use his power to save someone must have alerted someone, sometime. Something to keep in mind when he next talked to the wily healer.
"Well, I mean they're still a little hard to move, and my head is all fuzzy." His vision had started to swim again and he had to give the cup back before he spilled it all over himself, "...And when did you learn to walk on the ceiling?"
For the first time, Jaden laughed. It was hesitant, and awkward to Rory's ears. This Thiian Captain did not laugh often. Although he seemed very well practiced in the art of sighing. "That's the water talking. I think Sigfried put something in it. It's to help you relax." Jaden stood and replaced the cup on the table just out of reach beside the bed. He seemed a little more at ease than he had coming in. He went to the large dark cabinet that filled half of one of the walls with its multitude of engraved doors. From its depths Jaden pulled a thick luxurious towel and started drying his hair.
"Disel should be back with some servants and food." When Jaden noticed his confused expression, he explained, "I met her in the hall. I also need to submit some reports...and let Bernweld know I'm still alive after talking to you. He's...not much of a people person. I hope you won't think ill of him. I don't mean to pressure you or anything, but you will be seeing him a lot. It would ease my burden somewhat if you two got along."
Rory winced and lifted one of his hands to his head, "I don't. I just wish he'd speak a little quieter sometimes. He makes my head want to explode." That was almost true, it didn't make much to make his head throb these days. "Did something happen between him and Northmen, he seems to distrust me simply on principle."
Jaden's deep breath and sigh of vexation did nothing to soothe Rory's worries. "Nothing that I know of. Then again, it seems like everyone is pointing out how much I don't know recently."
Rory didn't think Jaden was expecting a reply, and after an awkward good-bye, Rory was alone again. The brief time alone was torture. His throat began to dry out and since he had nothing better to really think about, his thoughts again wandered to Rev. Rory dreaded meeting the swordsman, because now, on top of having repressed anger, Rev probably knew exactly how to kill him, or destroy him at the very least. Disaster didn't even cover half of this mess.
Rev's thread was there, taunting Rory in the ambience. He had to resist the urge to peek in and see what the boy was thinking. Rory's mind was already battered from however many days ago the incident had happened...any more of that and Rory and Rev might well never wake again.
When Disel's bright smile peeked in the doorway followed by trays heaped with steaming dishes, tears welled inexplicably in his eyes.
God...I'm so stupid...
Huh? You actually read it all? Jeez, you must be pretty persistent, foolhardy, stubborn...or crazy.
Yea, I know....I KNOW. Only one chapter. I've got three more sitting on my hard drive waiting to be edited. Be patient. PLEASE BE PATIENT. I love you all, but you need to be patient with me. Slugging through 15,000 word chapters is no mean feat. Especially with my busy busy life!
Thank you all for e-mailing me. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!!!!1111122
Recently I have been getting lengthy e-mails where people want to discuss plot, characters, themes...whatever. I'd love to chat with you all in depth, and if you do want to chat about writing, please do e-mail me. Just remember that it'll take longer for me to respond, and only when I find some time to answer you properly. Comments and critiques I look forward to every day to read. So hit me hard! I want to get better.
To celebrate the release of chapter 7 or 8 (as time permits) and the 200th e-mail you whackos sent me (WHOA NOW!? 200 people actually read this? wahhhhhhhh!!!!!), I'm going to release a special "behind the scenes" sneak peak at what Rory, Rev, and Jaden get up too when you guys aren't watching ^_^ Parental discretion is advised :)
If you haven't already, I highly encourage one and all to come on over and check out GayAuthors. Its a place where readers and authors of all sorts gather to read and discuss pretty much anything. I recommend you guys and gals check it out and register on the forums there (They don't bite...I promise). Peruse the archives, meet some new people and chat about stuff you love! I know they'd love to meet you.
On that note, I do now have my own tiny website (don't look at me...I couldn't make one for the life of me!!!! Thanks Myr!) You can find it here: Dio's Corner
Until next time... db signing off.
Dio.is.Broken@gmail.com (As always, I have a mailing list running. If you want to be added drop me a line with the subject "Add me to GEJ mailing list". Clever huh?)