Author’s note: The following text is a short chapter excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Tomb Of The Father. This installment will be one of the last chapter excerpts released until the book is completed.
Lord Eadwulf’s castle lay an hours ride from the city of Hableale, ensconced in rolling woodlands that trammeled out and merged with the flat vastness of the moor circumferent. The outer keep was a massive thing, ringed first by moat and second by huge curtain walls, ancient and wrought of stones from a foreign land, their providence as unknown to the inhabitants of Haberale as their age. Trumpets sounded from somewhere within the hulking monolith as two figures entered on horseback, driving hard across the drawbridge, through the mighty barbican and deep into the well trammeled haven of the outer bailey. To the right, a storehouse before which was chained a massive hound of some breed beyond the rider’s collective reckoning and to the left, a length of stable-barns from which the shunted braying of great steeds emanated like mighty gusts of wind. Folk of every lower class there labored; stable-lads hefting thick clumps of hay and the refuse of the equines as maidens dressed in the elegant red robes of the Order of Marta watched from afar, reveling in the excitement of their voyeurism, giggling with mischievous delight, fantasizing about that which their fathers would prefer they not. Older men moved large sacks of grain and salted meats from the castle proper and placed them within the store house in well-ordered piles and then dusted their calloused hands and stood chatting idly as their eyes followed the crows who turned half-circles up in the thermals.
The sky roiled with the dark harbingers of sunder, a heavy, howling wind tearing off from the far mountains and soaring in and under the battlements to scatter the hay and seed and chill the bones of every present soul. The guards looked to the darkening horizon nervously and then latched the great gate behind the two riders and then lead their horses to the stables and there bound and calmed them.
Gunvald dismounted first and looked around in wonderment. The grand keep’s ambit was so verdant and so ancient that it seemed more of some other world, some higher plane than the dull and barren sprawl of the short-flung town. He moved from the outer stable-barns and started on his way towards the wide stone-slated path which wound up to the mouth of the donjon like a gigantic serpent comprised of cloud. Baldric quickly followed and together, with a retinue of two guardsmen, they entered the castle proper. Through double doors of oak and across wide floors, well-laid with lavish carpeting, and up and down steps they went until at last they entered the well-packed banquet hall to the sound of muted strumming.
A great feast was underway and much merriment could be heard rising every now and then over the raucous clatter of instrumentation. Eadwulf Charmian sat, as was his right, at the head of the polished long table upon a throne garland with cushioned silks, hands overflowing with the splendor of his kitchens; spiced wine and phasianid. He was surrounded on all sides other by the host of the house, the chamberlain, his marshal, knights and footmen aplenty; pantler and butler moving to and fro with dutiful reserve, carrying plates of cheese and meats and trays of fish and hearty loaves and great and shimmering samovars of wine.
As Gunvald and Baldric made their way to the table they paused and, respectfully, bowed to their noble host who rose with great animation, smiling broadly.
“Duteous gentlemen, we welcome thee unto our hearth. One face familiar, the other, less so.”
Baldric gestured with melodramatic flair to his compatriot and then spoke in booming undulations.
“May I present, Ye Lordship, Gunvald Wegferend of Haberale, loyal solider to The Crown and honorable hero of our thede. Twas he alone who survived the massacre at Rivenlore and paid back the damnable cur, that architect of our goodly men’s demise, two-fold!”
A light of recognition there entered into the lord’s puffy, dull and inebriated eyes.
“Not with silver and gold, I trust!”
“No, m’lord,” Gunvald replied with a faint smile, “With blood and steel.”
“Aye, a most handsome reply! Come, let me embrace thee, worthy comrade!”
With a sudden burst of energy, the lord bounded across the floor and threw his chubby, ineffectual arms about Gunvald and then kissed his bewildered guest full upon the cheek and released him, smiling widely, patting the warrior’s arms as might a beneficent uncle.
“Now come, let us wine and dine and make merry!”
With some hesitation, Gunvald nodded and joined his Lord at the resplendent banquet table. Eadwulf made no direction and so Gunvald took a seat beside a old and grizzled pikeman whose helmet sat upon his lap, o’erturned as if he might at any moment don it once more and spring fiercely to violent action.
He scoured all present heads and gave a muted sigh. His lady was not present.
Where hast my love flown?
As Lord Eadwulf bade his Marshal, a stocky man named Haiden, raise the samovars and fill the newcomers goblets. Gunvald gritted his teeth, exerting every ounce of his considerable willpower to restrain himself from inquiry. At last, it became too much to bare; he turned full about in his chair and addressed his gracious host curtly.
“I hear tell, thee’ve taken on new hands. A young woman, if thy yeomen tell it true.”
Eadwulf gave a libidinous smile and in that moment, were he any other man, Gunvald would have leapt from his seat and cleaved him in twain. But he wasn’t any other man; he was a duke and more importantly, he was of Torian blood; of a certainty, there was no greater crime than the murder of one’s own kind – Gunvald recalled that not even that most abominable deity, Dactyl, whose very name were as a curse upon both the living and the dead, ever drew the blood of another Origin.
“Aye,” responded the lord, a twinkle in the eye, “A darling girl. A commoner, but none more beautiful, I tell thee true. Leofflaed is her name. I must introduce thee once she quits her bath.”
“She’ll be joining us?”
“Indeed, this is a special night, dear countryman! Hath thy dull brain been so wrought with valorous contemplation that ye’ve forgotten the day?”
Baldric, who sat dutifully beside his cousin, leaned in, whispering, “Tis Winter’s Dance.”
Gunvald perked up instantly, raising his goblet and forcing a wan smile.
“Of course, of course, I’d nearly forgot, tis Winter’s Dance.”
“Aye, Fall holds ever diminishing sway, master of the seasons no longer – the whispering winds of The Rimn rattle the cottages of our dainty hamlet already like the breath of some great beast,” Haiden exclaimed, shuddering slightly.
This pronouncement of fell dismay seemed to rouse much discontent in the host, the lord most of all.
“What now, sir? Is my Grand Marshal – sovereign of both horse and man – afeared of a light Winter’s gale?”
A portly old man nearest the Marshal, crimson frocked and hairless, replied darkly, “Haiden speaks it true, m’lord. These winds which blow so ceaselessly, the odd fog that seems to hang omnipresent o’er the moors, what seems to follow one in the passing, and those accursed crows – everywhere, simply everywhere – tis a bad sign. An omen. Marta is warning us.”
“Hush now, Summoner Thane,” Exclaimed Eadwulf, squirming upon his garland throne with nervous agitation, “Afore thy doomsaying proves ruinous to the good mirth of the house.”
The old man leaned back in his chair and folded his hands about his chest, over the heart. Gunvald recalled that the superstitious, masked peasants he’d met upon the road had made the same gesture when he’d uttered the name of the Eyeless-all-seeing. Gunvald remembered being taught as a child that the earthly manifestations of Marta affix themselves to the heart. It was said that the heart was the source of all emotion and that, if sufficient appropriations of piety were made to the goddess, she would cleanse the ailing organ of all that troubled it. Due this attribution, some had taken to calling her, Our Lady Pure-Heart, others still, The Reaper of Woe, though Summoner’s of a more parochial variety looked down upon such name-giving – some to the point of declaring such monikers heresies – for in the purist’s eyes, it was the very summit of arrogance to denominate pet-names to an Origin of beautitude. What place, after all, did the finite have naming the infinite?
Thane opened his wrinkled maw to speak but a harsh glare from his lord caught it there in his throat and, quickly, he fell silent once more, nodding to himself rather sadly as might the father of some harumscarum lad who’d the mind to go frolicking about the moors at night. Haiden too said no more and seeing this a fresh smile broke out over Eadwulf’s rotund and rosy face. He reached forth with his beefy, bejeweled fingers and raised his glass for a slender serving wench who poured a fresh pint of wine.
“What do thee make of all their pronouncements, landsman Gunvald?”
Gunvald looked from Haiden to the holy man and then shook his head.
“I am a footsoldier, before that, farmer. Premonitions and omens are, I am afraid, well beyond my ken.”
Suddenly, a new voice intruded upon the feast, low and sonorous, mannered like some orator of yore.
“This once venerable council has fallen to superstition most deplorably. Here you sit, High Summoner and Grand Marhsal, in the keep of the most powerful lord in the north, quaking like unsuckled babes at the prospect of supernatural despotism. Our dreams can, in times of direst contest, follow us full from that queer parlor, sleep, and pass into the waking world, latched to the insides of our selfsame skulls like a gaggle of phantasmal parasites. There they spring loose upon our fertile imaginations all manner of signs and signals, every style of omen and fell proscription. But by what method do we discern whether it is some connective coil that lends itself to providence or merely our dream’s own alcahest? Answer that question and thee shall surely have seized upon the truth of it.”
All present heads turned left, to the grand stair that let out to the upper landing, to behold a young man, garland in the finest of silks, blue and white. Upon his shoulder nested a falcon, whose piercing black eyes scanned the crowd the same as its master’s own and his lapis blue and more striking still.
Eadwulf gestured to the well-spoken dandy, “Landsman Gunvald, may I introduce to you the honorable Baron, Czemis Avarr, Ironmonger and Falconer of Caer Avarr. Our barton’s Master of Game.
Gunvald nodded respectfully towards the beauteous man who bowed respectably, but with a slight smile playing up one side of his face, as if he were possessed of some knowledge about the members of that venerable gathering which, if divulged, would bring about considerable embarrassment. The falconer then advanced to the table, his footfalls so soft and feline he made almost no sound at all. When he stood before the only empty chair opposite the lord, Haiden sighed and gestured to the falcon.
“Master Avarr, surely you do not mean to bring that carrion-beast to our table?”
The falcon sqwaked as if in rebuke as Avarr smiled ever so faintly once more.
“Not at all, for see thee not, he’s no carrion-beast. My friend prefers his prey were lively. The struggle of the hunt well whets his appetite.”
The Grand Marshal furrowed his brows with deep puzzlement and some apprehension, unsure as to the significance of the young falconer’s words.
“Meaning that he will leave thy food unmolested, lest thou there hath eft or shrew a scuttling.”
Avarr smiled his ghosting, barely discernable smile and straightened, extending the arm upon which his falcon nested as he whistled a command, whereupon the majestic beast flew full up to the rafters and then back down to perch upon the lower railing of the staircase like a dutiful guardian. The avian surveyed them intently as its master took his seat opposite Eadwulf, removing a small, silver cigarette tin from some inner fold of his jacket. All the while he moved, Gunvald’s eyes followed him, transfixed to the supple elegance of the singular man as he slid a machine-packed cigarette between his blood-red lips and lit it with a golden lighter. Languid and masterful were his movements, so much so that even the mundane action of his tobacco consumption seemed to eat up the energy of the room, to refocus and refine it. After a few long, languid drags upon his opium laced cigarette he leaned back upon the unadorned and old wooden chair at table’s end as if it were a throne more resplendent than Eadwulf’s own. The gesture seemed to say that it were now permissible for the party to continue, that his entrance had garnered sufficient appraisal. It seemed, to the veteran, that any man or woman who had no foreknowledge of the rightful placing of the household would have assumed this guady, white-haired falconer the rightful master of the keep.
“Thou must be Sir Gunvald, tis an honor to make thy acquaintance, loyal kinsman.”
Avarr extended a supple, white-gloved hand to the soldier who took it with some hesitation and shook it firmly. The falconer was far stronger than he looked.
“The honor is not thine alone, Baron Avarr, thy reputation precedes thee. Six years of fighting the grey folk and yet I never once encountered thee or thy men. Yet there were stories aplenty. Not a month went by where there was not talk amongst the war camp of thy valor. I wish we could have, if but once, shared the field.”
“We never had the chance to fight, side by side, as I never fought at the front. Fering – before his passing – stationed my regiment in the north-eastern forests near the base of the World Spine; despite my protestations, he believed, correctly, as it turned out, that my prowess as a huntsman would prove useful against the remnants of the Grey Folk who had deserted their war combine and who operated from that festering wood as brigands of a most savage disposition. Their operation had severely hampered our supply-lines and without supplies thy lot in the front would have crumbled, not from the foes to the north, but from the pangs of hunger and thirst. As thee well knows, the Grey Folk were not seasoned in open warfare, they’d have been crushed like insects under the hooves for a boar had they confronted the Torian Legions, army to army, on some open plain, as is our custom, for those weapons from my forge are scarce rivaled, even in Sage. Rather, they preferred the confounding architecture of their grand forests – subterfuge and skullduggery from behind bark and vine – arrows in the dark, knives in the back in twisting avenues where grapeshot is ill advised. Thou mayest recall the furor their tactics caused, we Torians had grown complacent in our ways and were outraged, foolishly, senselessly, when a tribe decided that rules and warfare mixed as water and oil. So our gracious Lord sent me to confront them at their selfsame game and thanks to the valor of my own men and, if it is not too bold to say, my own slow-flowering plans, I was able to best them most decisively.”
“As humble as ever, Baron.” Marshal Haiden sneered. Gunvald sensed bad-blood between the two and wondered at its origins. It seemed to Gunvald that there was some mote of jealousy in Haiden’s tone, buried firmly beneath his facade of civility. A venom particular to a man once scorned and unrecognized. A strange thing indeed, for the Grand Marshal was, in the hierarchy of the court, second in importance only to Eadwulf and the Arch-Summoner himself. What, Gunvald wondered, could he possibly be jealous of? What could a countryside ironmonger of minor nobility possess that the chief of The Lord’s army could not?
At length, Avarr turned to the Marshal and poured himself a glass of wine and lit himself another cigarette before speaking.
“I’ve been called many things in my life, Grand Marshal: ‘whore-monger,’ ‘addict,’ ‘pretentious,’ ‘tree killer,’ but never, ‘humble.’ At this point, such an allegation would sting worse than all the others. What is ‘humility’ but the perpetual pretense of inferiority? Nothing else. The humble man is he who says, ‘Ignore my prowess! It is meaningless! Praise only my boundless insignificance!’ When indeed, in reality, the feigning of his impotence and insignificance is the very thing which he hopes is praised; a substitute for true virtue. To be called humble is to be called a liar.”
The members of the house gave several terse, nervous laughs, unsure if Avarr’s comments were meant as jest or lecture or some queer combination of the two and when he laughed with them their mirth turned in earnest. Haiden merely grimaced and returned to his goblet, clearly displeased but not so sufficiently as to ruin his Lord’s graceful gathering.
Eadwulf leaned over his mutton, goblet in hand, remnants of fowl clinging to his girthful and graying beard, “Is Leofflaed coming shortly? Or is she still mucking about with her perfume and spice?”
The baron leaned back in his chair, smoking idly and looking off to where his feathery comrade fluttered about the rafters as if in silent rapport. At length, he spoke without turning.
“She dresses as we speak. I expect her any-”
Suddenly a shrill, impetuous voice boomed out from the upper landing.
“So I see that all have begun without me!”
Gunvald followed the voice from whence it came and turned his gaze to the grand stair whereupon a young woman stood, pout-lipped and grim-eyed, hands at her waist. Gunvald was shocked and elated. Elated at the sight of his beloved, shocked at how much she had changed in the space of seven years. Gone was the radiant smile of youthful innocence, in it’s stead, a cold, disdainful frown. Gone were the sun-faded and form-fitting lineaments of the village, replaced now by garish vestments of the keep, silk and sapphires, silver and gold. Gone was her agile frame and the supple movements which the soldier remembered so fondly from his youth, replaced now by an ungainly girth. None would have called her fat but the burgeoning plumpness of castle-excess was unmistakable.
“Thou hath no right to look so put-out, Leofflaed, one cannot expect all the world to run along the lines of thy clock,” Avarr replied flatly from below.
She surveyed the falconer with slowly softening vexation, then the party. Gunvald was surprised the Lord did not reprimand the baron for his chastisement. At length, she sighed and descended the stair, taking a seat beside Lord Eadwulf. As one of the serving girls pulled out a seat for Leofflaed, Eadwulf smiled and gestured towards her, his mouth half-filled with meats.
“Radiant, my dear, most radiant!”
Her only reply was a half-hearted smile, as transitory as the light glinting off her eyes.
The Lord motioned for the serving girls to fill her cup and move the food down to Leofflaed’s end of the table, as the silk-robed woman looked over the faces of every present soul. She seemed wholly disinterested in the affair, hands folded about her waist, lips stuck in what seemed to be a perpetual pout. Though she had gained weight and her countenance wore grim, she was still quite beautiful, the luster of fertile youth not yet wholly faded by time. What stirred Gunvald’s passions more than all her fading beauty was the memories of those fairer days wherein she and he had twined about the steps of the old temple, bounding here and there over moss and lichen, bracken and fern; how they had played hide and seek in the forests beyond Castle Avarr just before the moorland; how they embraced in times of woe and how they had kissed underneath the white bone of the moon by the statue at the edge of town whereupon he’d stumbled across the curious, one-eyed beggar. He remembered how they’d made love the day before he’d left for war, how she’d moaned and later cried and how they had pledged themselves to one another as the sun had risen red as the blood of all the men he had ever slain, as if portending all the masterful savagery he had done and all that he was still to do. Crushing sadness and unignorable agitation swam within the body of the swordsman, moving within his bosom and up from bosom to throat and from throat to mouth, bursting free of that fleshy cage like a lantern shattered in a barn of hay.
“Ne’er did I dare to believe that I would behold that face again; not in wildest dream-wanderings.”
Leofflaed turned to the upstart instantly, one brow going up with mild shock, the other down in confusion. Eyes met there for some indeterminable sphere’s turning, brown to green, green to brown forest to earth, plateau to vine. The shock swiftly dissipated into perplexed consternation.
“And thou art?”
Gunvald’s heart stilled a moment, then a pain, eerie and ethereal, slithered throughout the totality of the soma, palling the mind with direst imaginings. The soldier parted his lips to speak but no sound there escaped; he merely looked on, stunned to speechlessness. Fists balled like stones at his side, trembling with agitation. How, he thought, could she not remember?
Avarr turned to the woman and gestured to the soldier with his half-burned cigarette.
“Lady Leofflaed, may I introduce thee to Gunvald Wegerferend. It were he that slew Grim-Claw, Chief of the Gray Hordes of the North. Impressive, no?”
Leofflaed’s eyes grew wide, her body tense and still, her breath catching in her throat until a muted gasp escaped therefrom.
“Please… excuse me. I’m not… feeling well.”
Eadwulf lowered his goblet, furrowing his disorderly brows.
“What’s this now, have ye taken too much port afore the meal?”
“No, my dearest,” she turned full away from the still-standing soldier as she addressed her liege, as if she might wither away beneath his gaze, “I… do not not know what has come over me, some allergy perhaps, a fever of the seasons.”
Her facade fooled none but a few of the serving maids who cloistered round their ward, one of them fanning the lady with an empty soup dish, all the better to dispel whatever had befallen her. None spoke and, at length, the Lord intoned softly and somberly, “Well, get ye gone then. Off to bed. Off.”
The Lady left without another word as an uneasy pall settled over the feast. After the last footfalls of the Lady and her entourage had vanished up the well-varnished steps of the keep, The Baron rose and took Gunvald by the arm.
“Join me for a smoke upon the terrace.”
“But… the feast…”
Gunvald glanced over his shoulder and found Eadwulf’s beady eyes affixed to his own, sullenly regarding them with growing suspicion from beneath craggy brows and matted locks.
“I and our kindly guest wish to ply our senses to the crisp night air, by your leave.”
The Lord looked on a moment, his suspicion melting away almost instantly into a look of sadness then bewilderment, then comprehension. He nodded, “Ah, yes, yes, of course. Give him the goodly tour of it!”
“So I shall, my lord. So I shall.”
The two men, the baron and the landsman, left off out of the great hall to the whispering of the inner court, the distance rendering the sounds unintelligable.