Tomas stood at the foot of the drawbridge. He had changed into his best, had cleaned himself at the inn and done his best to stay clean since, and had donned a new eyepatch that was more aesthetically appealing but not yet comfortable.
Making sure it was fastened he hefted his carryall and nodded to the coachman.
The trip to Hamelford had been uneventful. The caravan had been well guarded and after one attack by bandits was run off by a crossbow volley and Tomas himself charging the front rank and tearing a man’s throat out with ease they had not seen any more action.
Either there had been no more bandits in the area or those who were there had heard word of their strength.
Either way, they had been avoided.
The only worrisome event was a man who he kept seeing. Black trenchcoat, red scarf, and a face that always happened to be in shadow. He had been behind them on horseback for a while, and then fallen behind after they had been attacked by the bandits.
When he re-appeared watching Tomas from across a busy street he had at first been surprised that he had not fallen to the bandits.
His second though had been that the man was in league with them, perhaps as a spotter of some kind, and he had tried to fight his way through the crowd to find him.
By the time he got to where the man had been, he was gone.
Tomas had forgotten about the man until he had found a red scarf caught in the lid of his trunk upon arriving at the castle. His trunk had been sealed and locked the entire time; nothing should have been able to get stuck in the lid the way the scarf had.
But he had to put all that out of his head right now. He was going in to see his betrothed now, he needed to focus.
He stepped forwards onto the drawbridge and advanced to the gates where two guards stood watching him from.
“Tomas Bern. I am betrothed to Lady Juniper Aveu Glante”
“Ah. You. The little Ladies Lordling. We’re supposed to let you in”
“But, you know, I don’t think we feel like it, do we?”
“Nah, not really”
The two guards sneered, their helmets casting their eyes in sinister shadows. Hands tightened on the hafts of halberds, threatening their use if he did not do as they said.
“And you can’t do anything to us or else risk offending your betrothed”
“Not that he has any chance of not doing that anyways. Whats an ugly mug. You’d think he was a tavern brawler, not some lordling fit to marry her Ladyship the Pain in the Arse”
Tomas’ fists tightened, not of their own will, but so that he would not be tempted to Sketch. If he was he knew that the guards would be dead before they could blink, and he would never be allowed to marry Juniper.
He would do his family a service and allow them to insult him.
“Yes, I am indeed in a bind here. I cannot be allowed in now, or I will report you for what you have just said, and for delaying me. However, I cannot turn back as it is my duty to my family to go forwards. We are clearly at an impasse. The best solution I can see would be if you both accepted my oath that I will forget what I have heard here just now in exchange for quick and safe passage inside”
The guards glanced at each and their sneers grew wider.
“Nah fancy sir with your words and jests, I don’t think we will let you through easily. We could not allow one so ugly into her Lady Light-Tree’s presence. Why do you wear that eyepatch? To hide a hole you got in your head from peaking where you shouldn’t have?”
“Yah, because thats the closest he’d ever get to a woman, peeping at her from afar. Not even a whore would go near him with that face”
“Gentlemen. Or, no, sorry that is not right. Men? Nay, still to high born. Sons of sows? No, that does your mothers a disservice that they do not need; they have suffered more than enough by birthing you two”
He began to gesture with his right hand as he tucked his left behind his back and began to surreptitiously Sketch from muscle memory.
“How about beasts? No, but that implies that you at least have instincts for self preservation, and that you can be tamed. I don’t think that you two can be tamed. And all you seem to be able to do is insult, and, based upon your comment about those women who are forced into selling their bodies, I presume that the two of you visit the houses that employ them regularly? Which tells me that neither of you can land a woman of your own. Perhaps all your comments so far have been mere projections of your own insecurities onto me? And perhaps there is a reason you cannot find a woman. Since you so clearly enjoy each others company, perhaps that enjoyment extends to after your shifts end, perhaps extending to one of your bedchambers? Although that assumes that you are able to feel emotions at all. Which brings me back to fitting names for the two of you. Lice? Annoying yes, can sting, yes, but lice are more troublesome than the two of you. Mosquitos? Mites? What is there that lives only to fulfil its own pleasures, cannot be reasoned with or tamed, cannot be said to share intelligent conversation and are indeed happier in a rum soaked tavern than anywhere near a courtroom?”
Tomas pretended to puzzle over it for a moment, raising one finger to stop the two visibly fuming men from speaking.
“Ah-ha! I have it”
He had in fact known the comparison he would make from the very beginning of his rambling insult.
“The two of you are as a pair of mushrooms, those small ones that look like tiny balls? You know the type, the ones that don’t even taste all that good if you eat them but aren’t poisonous. Entirely nondescript but for their nondescript nature”
He Completed and waited for the two to react.
“You done your speech Ugly?”
“If you are talking to me, then yes, although I have already told you my name is-”
“Shut up. We were going to let you through in a moment and forget everything, but you’ve taken it too far”
The one on the left doing all the talking was clearly the spokesperson of the two, but the shorter one on the right seemed to carry himself with more deadly grace, the better fighter.
“And now I will pay?”
“And now you’re gonna pay!”
He lunged forwards with his halberd, point first. Tomas saw through the obvious ruse and the other guards’ intent to trip him.
It worked better that they did, so he let his legs be swept out from under him with the shaft.
Falling with a thud and letting the air woosh out of him he made sure to hold their attention, trying to hide the Sigil for as long as possible.
It did not work.
“He’s a Sketcher!”
The one who had tripped him spun his halberd around to try and finish the job but Tomas was quicker.
Grabbing the halberd as it went by he let it get most of the way around before jerking it in the other direction.
The man didn’t react quickly enough to let go and was flung into his partner by Tomas’ superior strength.
As the second man fell Tomas spun around on his left palm, scissor kicking the legs out from under both.
And before they even began to fall he had sprung to his feet and brought his elbow cracking down into the back of the shorter one’s head.
There was a crack and then another when the man’s nose splattered on the wooden planks. The taller man was still toppling backwards so very slowly and so Tomas helped him.
Snatching the halberd of the shorter man as it bounced up on its first clatter he lay it across one knee. The hatf went between the guard’s legs with the blade out the other side.
One palm pushing down on the blade brought the haft up to catch in the poor guard’s crotch. But Tomas didn’t stop pushing then, only intensifying the pressure so that the weapon would act as a lever before it inevitably snapped.
The guard was flung up into the air, face still barely registering the surprise before it began to register the pain and fear,
Not wanting to kill the man on the landing Tomas tensed and jumped, spinning in midair.
The guard’s eyes widened as he saw the young lord coming, To him, the angel of death was arriving to finish the job. Instead Tomas planted his boots in the man’s middle and kicked off, altering both their trajectories enough that the guard landed in the moat with a splash as Tomas touched back down on the drawbridge.
Remembering the first crack he rushed the the first guard and, dismissing the Sketch, began to Sketch a variant of the Sigil, one for healing. He did not want to go to such lengths to save the other while the first one died by his hand.
Finishing the Sketch, he poured the healing energies into the unconscious guard. A sudden ragged intake of breath told him that he had been successful.
And checking over his shoulder he made sure that the one he had launched was making his way to the shore.
The only issue now was that his clothing had gotten a bit dirty from the fall. But he did not have any time to change; he had bought himself entry with battle and so he had better make use of his purchase.
He brushed off what dust he could reach, straightened his eyepatch once more, and stepped inside.
As he walked down the corridor he tried to compose himself.
The guard’s words had struck a chord. He knew that he was not beautiful or handsome. He knew that he would never be one to make the ladies swoon. He was altogether too slim and almost bony to match the physique of many of the knights.
And he had his scars…
He had earned them. He had tried to save his cousin Aline from death. They had been on the mountains and she had slipped when the hillside collapsed. She had caught herself on a branch and held on as tightly as she could, but it too had begun to rip free of the hillside.
Two years younger than her he had at first panicked, and then ran forwards, desperate to help. Scrambling down the slope he had bruised and cut himself, but that did not matter, only saving Aline, only saving the girl that he loved and looked up to.
He had almost reached her, was extending his hand for her to grab when the hillside gave out and the tree ripped free. The roots pulled out and whipped forwards, scratching the side of his face and all down his arm. They had been jagged and sharp, and one spur had stabbed into his eye socket and left with most of his eyeball.
He might have had a chance to have the flesh healed without scarring if he had returned to a Sketcher right away, but he had instead gone to see if Aline was ok.
He had been left with the scars as a reminder of his failure to protect, to save, his family.
He would not fail them again.
He came to a stop just inside the main doors. Placing his carryall on the ground he looked around.
Nobody was there to greet him. Perhaps they were busy? Should he call or look for a bell to ring, or a string to pull to alert them?
Before he had the chance to do anything like that a side door opened and a small man bustled out.
“Master Bern, Master Bern, it is good that you have arrived. I am glad that the gate guards did not give you any trouble. Those two are difficult, but the Duke keeps them on as they are the sons of a friend”
Ah. And that prevented him from having any kind of good relationship with the Duke.
“I would not say that they didn’t give me any trouble Mister…?”
“Drake sir. Drake the Steward. And they did give you trouble? Oh I hope that they didn’t hurt you at all! Did they, oh no, I think I see a tear in your shirt. Did they put that there?”
“Mister Drake, they may have. They tripped me, knocked me down. It may have happened then as I did not have time to get up gingerly and spare my shirt. However, I would not worry about reprimanding them, if that is anywhere in your thoughts; I do not like to be insulted and like less to be attacked. They are both outside now. The shorter one may require further medical attention, and the taller one will need to dry off before he rusts”
“Master…what did you do to them?”
“I repaid them their harsh words in blows of my fists and their own attack tenfold. I believe I broke the nose of the shorter one and I cantilevered the other into the moat. May I see my rooms now?”
Tomas was ready to leave and ignore the issue of the gate guards when Drake began to laugh.
“Ah, Master, that is most amusing. The Duke will be most pleased”
“Pleased that I assaulted two of his soldiers?”
“Yes. He dislikes them immensely. As I said he only keeps them on as a favour to his friend. If you stay here long and perhaps continue to discipline them they will perhaps leave of their own accord. That would be a happy day indeed”
Tomas nodded, slightly confused by the result, but understanding the Duke’s predicament. He had likely agreed to help his friends without foreknowledge of the men’s buffoonery. Having agreed to help them he could then not turn the guards back onto the streets.
The only question was, who was the Duke dealing with that they needed jobs for their sons as guards, not in the family business, or in training as potential heirs?
“And my room…?”
“Ah, of course Master Bern. My apologies for keeping you waiting”
Drake hurried off back down the corridor he came out of. The castle was gloomy, slightly damp, and dark, narrow arrow slits providing the only light in the hall.
“This castle was originally built during the Succession Wars, after the fall of Deros the Grand. With the Torin Islands divided for the first time in centuries the smaller families, the Dukes, Lords, and even merchant princes set their sights on the throne, whether that of the Islands as a whole, or of a smaller piece of land. Starting by stealing the Sigils from Deros’ shattered Mosaic they incorporated them into the first Sigilians. Many of those old houses have died out, but some still exist today. House Glante and House Destral are two of the ones that have survived.
“House Glante decided early on that they were going to support their longtime allies bid for the throne. At the time House Glante was not a house, but a single Knight, Star-Bright Glante. He don’t know if that was his real name or an assumed one, but it is what he went by. The Family has tried to stay true to his name and name themselves in a glorious way.
“But, the history. As House Destral expanded their territory outwards they needed new keeps and strongholds. Unfortunately it was impossible to build a new stronghold in this area as this keep stood. It was the base of operations of a minor merchant lord in league with their chief rivals, the Lords Ascendant, a council of three lords who were-”
Tomas tuned out the steward. He was not trying to be rude, but he did not care. He knew that he should try and listen, try and learn about the family of the woman he was betrothed to, but he could not stand to listen to the prattle.
Star-Bright? What fools decided that that was the name of their ancestor let alone that they must follow his stupidity in naming?
He knew that he should be more charitable to the family, but he was done being charitable with them. He had not imagined his life going like this, not imagined himself ending up marrying into some insane House that named their children ‘Glowing bush’ in order to honour the stupidity of their ancestor.
He had wanted to be someone, someone important, and someone powerful. That was what he had dreamed of as a child. Being someone who mattered to the world, who did important things.
But he had failed his family once already with Aline’s death. He would not fail them again now.
“-Star-Bright charged in, sword held high as the cavalry swirled behind him. Since he had torn the gates down from the inside the cavalry had fought their way in and joined him. While they set to work killing the remaining guards that Star-Bright had not himself killed he took the three best fighters and most loyal men, and rode straight to the central hall of the keep”
Drake had not noticed his lapse in attention and had kept the story up as he climbed a set of spiralling stairs. Remembering the outside appearance Tomas assumed that he was to be billeted in the west-most tower of the keep itself, likely reserved for guests.
“-And he swung his sword down, crashing through the man’s defenses. With that, he killed the current ruler of the keep, but that was not enough for Star-Bright, oh no, you see-”
Glancing out one of the arrow slits Tomas confirmed his guess. They were indeed climbing up one of the towers of the keep, although it was apparently the one at the north-west corner rather than the south-west like he had though. Odd because he hadn’t seen any staircases leading from that hallway up to that tower, although maybe this was a direct corridor.
“-He rode out the very next day, the bloody head grasped in his hands as he charged the flank of the Council’s army and-oh, here we are. Your room Master. To summarize the Keep was awarded to the House for exemplary service. We’ve been the Crown’s loyal supporters ever since”
Drake unlocked the door and ushered Tomas inside. He found himself in a well appointed sitting room. Open doors led into a bathroom, a bedroom, and onto a balcony. The room did not appear to have been used in some time, but had been well aired out and cleaned for there was no dust and did not smell musty.
“You can put your carryall down here now and freshen up. I’ll have your other things brought up along with some fresh water so that you can wash your face, ah, it looks like you’ve a bit of blood on it from the fight, well, it’ll soon come off. Please, make yourself at home, unpack your bags, enjoy the room. The Lady Juniper will send for you when she wishes to meet you, hopefully before dinner. If not then someone will come to bring you down to dinner in the Dining Hall with the Duke, Duchess, Lady Juniper and her brothers the Lords Aeron and Aiden. Is there anything else you needed just now?”
“Nothing, thank you. I’ll settle in while you send for those things”
As Drake hurried out Tomas took another moment to look around.
The rooms did not look lived in. They did not feel welcoming. The whole castle did not feel welcoming. It was not just the guards; it was the feeling of the building itself.
It was cold, and dark, forbidding and gloomy. He was not surprised that the family with names about light and stars had not built such an abode. It was too grim, too military to be welcoming.
And above and beyond all that something else felt wrong. It may have been in the silence of the courtyard or in the actions of the guards. It may have been Drake’s abundance of chatter and cheeriness and his efforts to distract Tomas from what was around him.
But it was most of all just a feeling in the back of his mind. There was something wrong here. And as much as he wanted to do his duty to his family he did not want to stay here a minute longer than necessary.
Placing his carryall on a chair he walked out to the balcony. Out here at least it did not feel as stuffy, nor was it as dark. In fact the only good thing about his rooms were that they had large windows. Perhaps they considered a room this high to not be threatened by archers. Or perhaps they didn’t care if their guests were killed. Either way, though he usually preferred candlelight, in this castle he was sure he would soon grow to appreciate what natural light he could get.
Leaning on the rail and looking down he almost fell over the edge in surprise.
Far below, and a few hills away, a man in a black coat with a red scarf sat atop a horse.