Wednesday, 8 June 2016
Chapter 21 - To Ghastenhall
The waves crashed heavy upon the hull of the ship, the frosted winds crying from the north, battering the structure atop the water. The layered wood paneling did little to break the crisp chill in the air, an iced breeze freezing the tip of Willow’s nose, a rosy tinge of struggling warmth to her pale cheeks. Yet she found herself unable to remain cooped within the shelter of the cabin, relishing the freedom sitting on the foredeck, craving the open space and fresh air. The spray showered feathered mist across her face, as the bow plunged into the swell, before returning to its swaying travel.
“The open water suits you, my lady,” called over the billow, standing at attention behind the ship’s wheel.
Willow laughed, “Freedom is what suits me, my dear man.”
He gave her a hearty grin, “Aye, it does.”
She smiled as she turned her head back to the expanse, frothing water splitting as their small ship sailed towards the east, passing the last of the dense emerald ranges of the . They were destined for Ghastenhall, the city known as the cultural hub of Talingarde. Willow knew much of the raucous metropolis, having traveled north from Matharyn many times to attend the premieres of the work of the country's most famous and elite playwrights. The city itself housed the highest of talent in all areas of artistic performances, higher learning and cultural diversity. A place as heavily entrenched in the religious devotion as it was in the frivolity of creative ingenuity.
Willow rocked back and forth with the way of the ship, letting her eyes trail and her mind wander freely, thinking over the stagger of the long months she had been caged within the Horn of . She felt no loss as she pictured the shattered remains of the ominous place, she left no regret lingering amongst the rubble. She did however, feel the seeping trickle of dread, a quiet trepidation for what was to come. The Tears of were a force in itself to be reckoned with, a menace all of its own. As her thoughts turned sour, the sound of familiar footsteps lifted her from her anxious spiral.
“It is good to be away from that place,” she said quietly to Pellius, as he stepped beside her.
“Very good indeed, my lady,” came his polite reply.
“Have you had a chance to study the Tears?” she asked warily, staring across the lake, “Do you know much of what it is?”
A frown furrowed his brow as he took seat next to her, a contemplative look pinching his features.
“I have,” he said sombrely, “And it is not at all merely some mundane disease. It is what is known as a minor self replicating spirit, no normal illness, it wishes nothing more than to spread and constantly continue it's infection and contagion.”
“It's wishes?” Willow said in disbelief, scrunching up her nose, “How can a disease wish for something?”
Pellius gave her a strange, small smile, “It is not mindless, but a living creature, the lowest form of a . I would estimate its intellect to be that of dog, feline, or rodent. It has only one want, to multiply.”
Cringing at the thought, watching closely as Pellius pulled the vial from his pouch, turning it between his fingers.
“And it's symptoms are that of the most persistent and unpleasant,” he continued, “Early onset is detected by exhaustion, red irritated eyes and dry mouth. Second term begins the weeping. The eyes weep heavy salty tears, unendingly, until the body finally dies of complete and utter dehydration. For lack of a better phrase, you would cry yourself to death.”
“A poetic demise,” Willow said quietly, “And how is it cured?”
“Strong arcana,” Pellius mused, “Magical healing of the curative form would suffice.”
Willow huffed, “I shall be sure to keep some on hand.”
She leant back against the railing, sighing heavily as the ship continued its voyage, the rough waves swaying her slender frame with ease. She could feel the frown crimping her forehead, the worry set in lines upon her brow, the tension clenching her muscles. Sitting with both feet tucked under her backside, she pulled her cloak closer around her, sure the chill seeping into her spine was not all to blame on the winter’s grace.
“Care to speak your mind, Willow?” Pellius asked, his eyes searching her face.
Her frown deepened as she shook her head, “The same fears as they were last I spoke of them. How can Thorn be so sure of his ability to contain such madness?”
Pellius looked to the sea, the worry is his eyes betraying the calmness of his voice.
“We must trust him. For he is our master, and we must serve him.”
For a moment, she remained quiet, watching the tide sway in the reflection of his eyes.
“Then let us pray,” Willow said finally, “That he does not lead us and this land from the true path we are meant to take.”
“We will carve our own path, my lady.”
“Carve it through the blood of our enemies,” agreed.
Willow smiled, the barbaric sentiment resting well within her heart. She watched him, standing tall with the posture of a solider and the knack of steering a ship as if he had done so many times before.
“Do you remember anything more of your life before the wall?” Pellius asked , clearly in tune with her own thoughts.
A cold look came upon his face, the whites of his eyes sharper as his pupils dilated.
“Flashes,” he said quietly, “Fragments. Hellish red skies, dark scum rotten backstreets. Something giving chase. Something, wrong, bestial, heinous.”
Willow felt the agony within his words, the pain and suffering with each sound. Pellius either did not hear as she did, or did not care.
“What do you remember of this creature?” he pried.
“I do not care to remember,” snapped shortly, eyes forward upon the horizon.
Willow placed her hand on Pellius’ leg, squeezing gently. Looking to her, he held his tongue, eyebrow cocked. She smiled, knowing well that he understood her meaning. She too was curious of the orc who had leapt from the void of Hell itself, but she respected the man held his memories close. She could not fathom the horror of his time within the great walls of Nessus, but she had always known how to read people. And when she looked into his eyes, she saw the anguish of a soul ripped asunder.
As dusk fell and darkness covered the land, Willow headed below deck to eat with the others, planning to return topside to accompany Pellius on his shift upon the wheel. When she descended the small stairs, she was greeted by a sight that had her skip a beat. A laugh burst from her lips, the first in many weeks, tickling her tongue and chuckling in her chest. She saw Garvana sitting crossed legged beneath layers of cloth, pins and cotton, pin pricks littering her blood smeared fingers.
“May I enquire as to what it is you're trying to do?” Willow grinned.
Garvana’s eyebrows shot high, “I am not trying,” she said with indignation, “I am sewing.”
“Oh how daft of me,” Willow chuckled, taking a seat by her side, “May I enquire as to what you are sewing?”
“I am sewing this chair into the cloth,” Garvana said impatiently.
The laughter returned, light and cheerful, as Willow shook her head in humour.
“You shall have to run that by me again,” she giggled, “The chair… into the cloth?”
“Yes,” Garvana cringed, as she dug the pin into her finger again.
“Bah!” she huffed, throwing down her peculiar project into her lap.
When Willow had her giggles under control, she attempted to straighten her features.
“Tell me once more,” she said straightly, reaching for the mess of stitches, “Why are you sewing a chair, into the cloth?”
Garvana sighed, long and loud, “It is a spell, I can sew our entire treasure hoard into this cloth. We cannot possibly cart all of this into the city without raising suspicion, but I can sew each item with enchantment and cast them into the cloth.”
It was Willow's brows that rose, clearly impressed.
“That is, incredibly good thinking,” she smirked, “Perhaps I could offer one of my cloth petticoats? It would be unquestioned to keep it close at all times?”
“That is a great idea,” Garvana snapped angrily.
“Then what is the problem?” Willow asked, rolling her eyes.
Garvana growled in frustration, “I cannot get this cross stitch to thread without catching!”
At that, Willow smiled. Taking the needle from Garvana's hand and lacing the bobbin.
“That is a problem we can certainly fix…”
They sailed the long river eastward, breaking out into the expanse of Lake Tarik after just shy of a week. The journey was slow moving as they passed by the towns on the shores, each appearing more empty and desolate than the last, their inhabitants having left home to join the war against the bugbear horde. Although their mission had them pressing fast for Ghastenhall, Willow did not mind the creeping pace in which their ship moved through the water. The quiet of lake, the simple crash of the waves, brought a soothing touch to their travel. By day she watched the members of the Forsaken go about their business. She saw the friendships they had formed over their time together, the strange bond in which they shared, the joined battle in which they fought. As her eyes lingered over Pellius and his fine form, habitually performing his morning stretches, the words of her guide rang true. The strings of her heart were attaching themselves. Not only to the companionship that Pellius offered, but to the friendship offered by the others. She was caught between the want for independence and the need for amity. What an odd hand she had been dealt, she thought as she sat in her perch upon the foredeck. In the years of her life before the Forsaken, she could not have stretched her imagine to conjure the strange fate she was pursuing at present.
As the ship turned from the great lake and began its journey south down the slender pass towards Ghastenhall, the group planned their arrival. Their story of simple travellers had grown thin within the bounds of the small city of , it was a cover that would not hold as well in the metropolis of Ghastenhall. So they played best the roles they could, Willow and Pellius the part of a minor lady and lord, and Garvana the part of the personal house guards. They had discussed the necessity of using their arcane disguises as little as possible, keeping their lies as close to the truth, their chances fairing better that way. The instructions for their month in recluse were simple, deliver the Tears to the man known as Brother , then lay low for the remainder of their rest. Before they had fled the north, Willow had spoken to Martin, her contact within the underground. He had given her the names of a few men in Ghastenhall in which she could seek out to penetrate the black markets. She had left behind Willem and , under the guidance of Martin, tasked with correspondence and surveillance.
As the sun tipped into its slow decent as midday passed, the docks of the grand city appeared on the horizon. After called out to the others as he steered the ship onward, Willow tied her shoes and laced the strings of her bodice to the socially appropriate tension. Pellius appeared from below deck, dressed in his nobles outfit, sleek black trousers under his button up white coat. Garvana followed close, her sea-worn hair pulled back into a bun, her armour coarse from the salted brine of the lake. As was expected, Pellius stood at attention by the wheel, Willow placed delicately by his side. As the ship pulled along side the docks, the harbourmaster bellowed to the new arrivals. They pulled to a stop, the deckhands latching the ship to the quay, sliding the plank into place. Pellius took Willow by the hand, guiding her steps respectfully as they teetered along the wooden platform. They endured the usual customs and inspections, paying little mind to the men perusing their cargo. Willow smirked as she thought of the odd arrangement of items she had embroidered into the petticoat she was wearing under her dress. Chairs made of silver, eighty year old relics of value, things that would have been sure to raise questions. Sighting the harbourmaster, Willow let go of Pellius, and marched with authority to the burly man.
“Good afternoon,” Willow said formally, “It has been many a year since I have been in Ghastenhall. Could you point me in the direction of the finer accommodation?”
“Huh,” he scoffed, “Ain't no tour guide miss, pub down the road, ask them.”
Willow cocked her eyebrow.
“But I am asking you,” she said forcefully, holding up a gold coin.
The man took a second look, a frown deepening his brow. As he eyed her, he nodded.
“You'd be ’ the miss,” he replied.
“Ah yes,” she smiled, “The Lord's Quarter. It seems not all has changed. And is there an inn you would recommend?”
“Try the Royal Hunt, pass’ the Dukes Gate. Is where the ’ nobles stay.”
Willow nodded, inclining her head, gently handing him the coin, “Thank you.”
She turned from him, walking back to the others, smirking as his eyes widened at the shining gold. As and Garvana carted the packs and luggage from the ship, Willow returned to Pellius’ arm.
“Shall we freshen up before seeking the priest?” she asked, brushing the salt from his coat.
Pellius smiled, “A fine idea, my lady.”
By late afternoon the four of them had secured lodgings in the inn, stowed their belongings and regrouped, together seeking out the Library of . Standing tall within the Priest’s Quarter, lay the grand building dedicated to the pursuit and collection of knowledge. They paid the three silver fee to enter the athenaeum, marvelling at the twenty foot high shelves and rows of tomes, scrolls and books. The library housed literature on all matters, from the bestiaries of the most far reached creatures, to the fictional tales of imaginary realms. There was only one topic that was forbidden, knowledge on one entity that was vacant from the thousands of tomes. By church decree, no lore of their Dark Prince Asmodeus was allowed to grace this hall.
A young scribe pointed Willow in the direction of Brother , to the western halls she meandered, eyes wide in the face of such immense knowledge. She found the priest quite easily, his small form upon a ladder; hunched back, wrinkled face, spatters of white hair protruding from his beard, eyebrows and temples. By all accounts, he appeared a humble priest of Mitra, content in his organisation of the lore within the church's library. It was only when his shrewd gaze found her own that she saw the hint of discrepancy. Cold, calculating eyes searched hers, they held wisdom and knowledge, a depth in which took her by surprise.
“Brother ,” she said politely, “May I beg a moment of your time?”
“What do ya want, who are ya?” he grumbled.
“I am Lady ,” she introduced, giving him a small bow, before gesturing to Pellius, “And this is Lord Emerson , my husband. It is curious, may I ask whom you serve?”
The man narrowed his eyes, looking the four of them over before nodding sharply.
“Only knowledge,” he responded, “If you're interested in seeking knowledge, perhaps you'll join me for a symposium tomorrow evening in the basement lecture hall.”
Before Willow could respond, turned swiftly and hobbled away. When he had disappeared beyond the towering shelves, she chuffed a laugh.
“Charming fellow,” she said.
“Indeed,” Pellius agreed sarcastically, “But perhaps while we are here. It would be wise to gather information of this ‘Vale’ that we are destined for.”
Willow nodded, “Very wise, indeed.”
Returning to the inn as the day grew dark and night came to the city, the group settled into the parlour of the establishment, to mingle among the other guests. and Garvana ate beside the other house guards, leaving their masters to dine in finer style, seated in the small hall along an intricate table of heavy oak. Pellius was as charming as ever, indulging the nobles in polite banter and small talk. He left the telling of false stories and lies to Willow, remaining the part of the husband allowing his wife to carry on the chatter. He listened closely as she sourced the rumours about town, yet kept his face calm and relaxed. Only Willow would have noticed his interest peak with mention of the Red Quarter, the scum of the city having expanded since the bulk of the martial forces had left the city to join the war in the south. The nobles scandalously whispered mention of a fighting pit having opened, ran by the notorious opium dealer known as Vex. Willow feigned shock as the lady beside her hushed her voice and spoke of the foul doings within his abode. The lady's husband reprimanded her sternly, before calling to the men to convene in the adjacent room for cigars and brandy. Willow bid goodnight to Pellius as he left, staying at the table to continue the conversation with the women.
“So where was it you said you were from, dear?” a small older woman asked Willow.
“,” she replied casually, “Just north of Fell Valley.”
“I have not heard of it,” the lady said apologetically.
Willow smiled, “It is a small estate, I am not surprised.”
“What is it that has brought you north?” she asked, “Such a perilous time for travel, with the war waging ever south.”
“We have been travelling since before the war began,” Willow continued, smiling wistfully, “Lord has fancy of relics of the past, I must admit, I too share his ideals.”
The older lady smiled, “Then you must visit the Library of ! They have quite the collection.”
Willow gave a small laugh, “We have just returned from there. We shall be attending again on the morrow…”
She spent the following day getting acquainted with the city, exploring the quarters, wandering the market district. Willow had dressed in disguise, leaving her elegant dresses behind and donning her slick black armour, before slipping unseen out of the window of her suite. She followed the directions that Martin had given her, into the lower districts across from the docks, seeking a balding man by the name of Chase the Simple. She found him exactly where Martin said he would be, sitting by a rundown building, black hat upturned by his knee. The beggar did not hear Willow approach, he continued to mumble his ramblings, jumping in fright when she spoke from his side.
“I have something for you,” she said, flicking the carved iron coin that Martin had given her towards him.
His fright was erased quickly, his hand lashing out a catching the coin in the air. He inspected it quickly, slipping it between his fingers before it vanished from sight.
“Third door round back,” he grouched, “Tell ‘em ‘the wings soar forward, the feet fall first’.”
Without a word, Willow slunk into the shadows, swiftly creeping to the back of the decrepit building. She found the door and did a quick look around her before opening it and slipping inside. The room itself looked exactly as it expected from the outside, rotten timber walls, uneven broken floorboards and piles of debris in the corners. A single door stood at the of the room, a rusted iron door covered in scratches and dirt. Willow cautiously approached, timidly reaching for the handle, inspecting it for any sabotage or trap. It opened without resistance, revealing a slender stairway leading down into a basement. As she descended into the chamber, she saw the crumpled form of a man hunched in the corner. When her weight fell on a loose board, the creak it let out seemed to alert the man to her presence.
“The birds!” he called manically, sounding every bit the mad man he appeared, “The birds come! How do they come?! How do they fly?”
“The wings soar forward,” Willow recited, “The feet fall first.”
He laughed a lunatic cackle, gesturing to the bare solid wall in front of him, “And the tail flaps last!”
At his strange words, the wall shimmered, the image rippled across the panels and a door appeared. Willow frowned, hesitant to enter. Martin had warned her that the underground in Ghastenhall was more eccentric than that within . But what she had been expecting was certainly not this. She sighed inwardly, stepping up to the door and turning the handle. When she stepped through the door way, she felt a strange presence beyond the room. She knew not how to explain it, she only knew it reminded her of Switch. She knew it was not him she was sensing, nor did she think she had sensed him before. But there was a familiarity to the feeling, something she recognised but could not pinpoint. She followed the winding corridor to another door and felt the feeling grow stronger. Opening the door into a room filled with bustling stalls, men and women in hooded robes, stolen goods and contraband upon tables. Willow followed the feeling in its growth as she approached a room at the far end of the hall. Without thinking, she opened the door and stepped through.
“Can I help you?” snapped a crotchety voice.
A small man sat behind a desk, a deep unimpressed frown upon his brow, scowling at Willow. Layers of parchment and contracts sat upon his desk, scrolls and tomes lined the walls, chests and small vaults littered the floor. But none of this was what had her attention captured. It was the tall and slender man who stood slouched against the wall to her right. A half elf; sleek fine features, dark windswept hair, long pointed ears. He stood with an easy grace, relaxed in his posture, his long limps at rest. His keen eyes were certainly captivating, calculating, alert and watchful. Yet still, it was not what had her breathing hitch. It was an invisible glow radiating from below his sternum. A colourless, lightless glow that throbbed, as if she could see it without her eyes.
“Secrecy is our greatest ally,” came the words from her mouth, spoken in the strange foreign language that Switch had given her.
“As we strike from the shadows,” the half elf responded.
The man behind the desk huffed and rolled his eyes.
“What is the meaning of this?” he snapped.
“Calm Kenneth,” the half elf said in a soothing tone, “There is no cause for alarm. Will you leave us? The lady and I have much to discuss it seems.”
He stood from his relaxed state, walking gracefully to stand by the door as Kenneth grumbled his way out. Willow eyed him suspiciously as the half elf closed the door, fingers upon her daggers, frown pulled tight.
“Young Lady Willow, I presume?” he said casually.
“How do you know my name?” she clipped, the hairs on her neck rising.
He chuckled, “Switch has a rather loose tongue.”
Willow's eyes flew wide, the implications racing through her mind.
“He is quite proud of his new protégé,” he said with a smirk.
The confusion clouded her thoughts, suspicion flaring hot and red. She ripped her daggers from their sheaths, preparing her stance and slowly circling the man.
“Explain!” she demanded.
The man only chuckled again, “He said you were a fiery one, and a pretty one at that. Right on both accounts.”
Suddenly, his form shuddered, his face morphed into that of a female. The black hair grew down, his height shrank lower and his ears extended longer. He appeared not as a man nor a half elf, he became a full blooded elven female.
“I am ,” she said with a bow, still ignoring the threat of Willow's daggers, “Sister to you, one of the Black Serpents.”
Realisation clicked into place. Willow slowly lowered her daggers, still frowning as she slipped them away.
“He said I would be able to identify the others,” she said carefully.
“And you did,” smirked, “Did you sense me from far? I could feel you when you entered the quarter.”
“The mark,” Willow said when it dawned, “I could see it, but not… with my eyes?”
“That's a good way of explaining it,” she smiled, “I am the first you have met?”
“Only Switch, but his did not glow the way yours does.”
“No, his does not,” she said wryly, “He is capable enough to hide it, from all but the most powerful of us. Well, that certainly explains the way you barged in, bad for business that is.”
“Oh,” Willow cringed, “I apologise, I was not thinking. I was, well, distracted.”
laughed, “No harm done. I almost assassinated the first Serpent I met. I thought maybe it was how we identified our targets.”
Willow laughed, before shaking her head and realising what had happened.
“Wait,” she said, “What form is your own? Your magic is most confusing.”
chuckled once again, “I am a my dear. My form is that of which I take.”
She grinned, a wide toothy smile, very unlike an elf.
“But alas,” she said seriously, “I must return to my business, Kenneth is becoming restless. I shall put in a good word for you, he is a most resourceful contact.”
Willow inclined her head in appreciation, before exiting the study, passing a bustling Kenneth on her way out. As he entered and shut the door behind him, Willow stood for a moment. She could feel the pulse of the Black Serpents pull, recognising it now for what it was. She rubbed her own sternum, shaking her head to clear it. Looking around the long hall, a trinket stand caught her eye. Two cuff links sat upon a small cushion, the brilliant red and black gems glittering against the light. Willow felt a strange sensation come over her, a tightness around her chest, a feeling she refused to address. She smiled politely to the man, handing over a small silk pouch of coins to the vendor. He placed the cuff links in a miniature black box that she slipped in her pocket with unsteady hands. She sighed, turning form the stall, before making her way back towards the inn.
was waiting for them as dusk fell heavy and the group returned to the grand library. He escorted them down the spiralling staircase to the lowest level of the building, opening the wide double doors into a great hall, lined with rows of seats and imposing marble tables. Three brutish looking men stood waiting within, eyeing the group with suspicion.
“Close the doors and guard the entrance,” snapped, “We are not to be disturbed.”
The men nodded sharply, quickly retreating back to the doorway. Only when the doors sealed shut, did turn to the four of them.
“I am the fifth,” he said, his deep rumbling voice echoing off the walls, “And you are?”
“We are the ninth,” Willow responded, inclining her head.
He looked each of them over, seemingly trying to decide something.
“Welcome to Ghastenhall,” he said in a more cordial manner, “I am Brother , and you are expected. Word has already reached me of your great triumphs. I presume you have something for me?”
Willow locked eyes with Pellius, only a moments hesitation, before she nodded. He eyed the man suspiciously, before slowly reaching in his pouch and pulling free the feral vial of pestilence. As the Tears of reached his hands, he stared at the eldritch bottle as if entranced by it.
“And behold,” he whispered, “A pale horse and hell followed with them.”
He shuddered, almost cringing at the venomous contents, “I will do what is asked of me, but I say now. I am filled with dread of this errand. Once unleashed, I am uncertain how easy it will be to put aside the Daemon's Gift.”
Willow lifted her chin, and spoke softly, “You are not alone in that trepidation, Brother. Yet we put our trust in our master, in his plan and in his power to control what he has unleashed.”
“Aye,” he nodded solemnly, “You are wise to trust in the Cardinal.”
He slipped the tears into his robes and inclined his head, “For now the Tears must wait. The time is not yet right to use his weapon against our enemies. I am told you will be staying in our fair city for a while, towards that end, I have already arranged for a small villa in the Lord’s Quarter – The Crowley Estate. It is stocked and well supplied for a months stay. There are servants that will make your stay more comfortable. My name is not attached to it so I care not what you do there. I will continue my duties as a keeper of the Library of and should you require any assistance you have but to seek me out. We will not meet openly in the library, instead, contact me and I shall arrange a suitable place.”
He reached into his robes and pulled out a small bag of black gemstones.
“In exchange for the Tears, I was commanded to give you these. Each of you has an iron circlet, yes?”
He pulled out a circlet of his own, a black gemstone already mounted into its frame.
“Merely place the jewel in the centre and the crown will be strengthened. It is a gift of Thorn’s esteem. Now, is there anything else?”
Pellius questioned on his knowledge of the city, he asked of the Red Quarter and it's odd happenings. Willow had already gained such knowledge from the gossiping nobles within the Royal Hunt. She had questions turning through her own mind, but they were questions she sensed were not going to be answered or received well from another of Thorn’s servants. So when the words came from Garvana's mouth, Willow cringed deeply.
“Do you know of Samuel ?” she blurted out.
face rippled with shock, too late he covered it and returned to his composed state.
“I know no one of that name,” he said sternly.
Garvana sighed and spoke quietly, “I know you are not entirely truthful, but it clearly causes you distress, I shall not mention it again.”
Willow's eyes bulged at her rudeness.
With raised eyebrows he responded, “If I did know it, I would know it is not a name one mentions in polite company. But… Out of curiosity, where did you come across that name?”
Willow shot Garvana a piercing look, her eyes flashing red in warning. It was a look that was clearly understood.
“Oh I don't know,” Garvana replied vaguely, “Came across it some time ago.”
huffed in response, “Well, with that done, I shall depart.”
Garvana bowed, “Praise be to -
“Do not say the name of the Father here!” he silenced her, “The name can draw… attention.”
“Ah,” Garvana replied, “I am most apologetic. Praise be to him-
“Bah!” snapped , “You are reckless!”
“Indeed she is,” Willow said coldly.
shook his head, “If that is all. I bid you good night.”
Willow bowed to him as he turned to leave. The group watched him march to the door, throw them open and disappear with his brutes up the stairs.
“That went well,” chuffed.
Laughing, Willow rolled her eyes, “Yes well, if we are done here, I wish to collect my things from the Royal Hunt and settle into the Crowley Estate.”
“I think I shall survey this Red Quarter,” Pellius mused, “, , care to join me?”
grunted his approval.
“Count me in,” Garvana agreed.
“Send word if you're going to compete in the fighting pits,” Willow winked, “But otherwise, there's a large tub of steaming water and a handful of trained servants waiting for me at the estate…”
Floating atop the bath with searing water soaking her skin, trained feminine hands washing her hair, had Willow sighing in pleasure. It had been a long time since she had bathed properly, the way a noble lady of her status was used to. The fresh cinnamon and cassia lingered fragrant scents throughout the room, the candles flickering soft light amongst the darkness of the bathing chamber. Willow had not been so content since the first night at Thorn’s manor, so very long ago. It had only been one year, but it felt like a lifetime. The pathetic state in which she had entered his abode, the young child she only now realised that she had been. Now, she was so much more. A woman, she certainly was, she was always going to grow to be. But now, she was powerful. A strong woman of might, talent and erudite.
As she rose from the tub, the steaming water trickled down the toned frame of her body. Her skin marred with small scars and large ones, each one having taught her more of herself, each one a new lesson in power. She kept her wrist covered as she entered the brighter candlelight, hiding her brand from the servants. She dried and dressed herself, slipping into the black night slip, draping the long satin camisole over her arms. She was lucky enough to find that one of the handmaidens had a particular talent with dressing hair, so she sat by the vanity as the young woman took the scissors to her tresses. As the months had passed, Willow had let her black locks regrow, the ragged tips now sitting low beyond her collarbone. She spoke casually to the girl as she watched her work, a pretty fair haired child, no older than sixteen.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“, my lady,” she replied quietly.
Willow smiled softly, “Are you nervous child?”
“Um no, my lady, I mean yes. But, I am sorry my lady.”
“It is alright child,” Willow laughed delicately, “I only wish to hear the gossip about town. I shall be here for four weeks and I have no clue as to what to do with myself.”
“Oh,” stuttered, “Well, I suppose you'd like to see the Festival of Iris, my lady. It begins next week! The Duke throws a ball every year!”
Willow frowned, “Iris? Iris of Ghastenhall?”
“Yes my lady,” said sombrely, “You've heard the tale then?”
Willow recalled the strange ring she had found upon a plaque within the Horn of . Dead from a broken heart and a poison dagger, read the inscription.
“I do not seem to recall,” Willow replied, “Will you retell it for me?”
“It is a sad tale, my lady. Eighty years ago, the Duke’s daughter vanished without a trace. Never to be heard from again. The Duke still offers the reward of a favour for any information on her disappearance. They say, that's what sent him mad.”
“Mad?” Willow questioned softly, eyebrows slightly raised, “Is that the way to speak of your Duke, young ?”
“I'm sorry my lady, but that's what they say! They say he's completely mad! I've heard he runs around, wearing nothing but his crown!”
Willow laughed, “Do not believe all that you hear, whispered in corridors.”
When had finished, Willow turned to see her own reflection, her white skin shining against the black satin. She dismissed the girl once she had cleaned up after the haircut, sending her on an early finish after she had retrieved a bottle of the house wine and two glasses. Willow sat alone in the dressing room, she leaned forward, staring into her own eyes. She saw herself, the hollows of her eyes a little deeper, her cheeks ever so slightly more gaunt. The path she was treading was taking more of a toll on her than she would admit. Though she did not believe the worst was over, she was thankful to be free from the confines of the Horn of .
A bustle of noise from the outside of her room broke her dreamlike trance. She stood from her seat, gliding through her chamber towards the door. When she opened it, the smell wafting from the three others was an assault to her senses. Opium, alcohol and sex. Pellius smiled his usual charming grin as his eyes raked over her half dressed figure.
“Ugh,” Willow cringed when she smelt him, “If you bathe and get rid of that stench, return here. I have something for you.”
Before he had time to respond, Willow closed the door in his face. She sighed, pressing her back to the door, shaking her head. The small black box sat upon the dresser, she stared at it from across the room, it seemed to shine like a black beacon. What had her most concerned, was that she was unsure what her own motives were. She had seen them, she had thought they would make a nice gift, so she had purchased them. Yet her own mind struggled with the concept. She knew he was homesick, she knew he craved familiarity. And she wanted to console him, more than that – she wanted to please him. She leant heavy against the door, racked with indecision over what she was to do. The sudden knock on the door startled her. She turned and flung the door wide, alert and wary. stood in the doorway, eyes wide in shock. To her credit, she held the bottle and glasses tightly even as she jumped.
“,” Willow said, exhaling sharply, “Thank you, you may put them on the dresser.”
The girl quickly scuttled to the dresser and back, head bowed as she skirted back passed Willow, curtsying before disappearing around the corner. Willow closed the door, walking to the wine and pouring herself a rather large glass. She drank it quickly before pouring another and wandering to the windowsill. The manor had small cushioned seats upon its windows, perfect nooks to curl up in and watch the sky. Willow sat with her legs folded beside her, eyes staring up into the black abyss of night. She did not know how long she stared, but after a while, another knock sounded on the door.
“Come in,” she called.
She did not need to look away from the window to know it was Pellius as he entered. His familiar footfalls sounded, strong and wide step, even as he casually entered her chamber. He closed the door behind him, before lifting the other glass and helping himself to the wine.
“It is nice not to be able to smell you from here,” Willow said, cocking an eyebrow.
Pellius chuckled, shrugging nonchalantly, “I have missed the big city.”
“It has been a long time, has it not?” Willow replied.
Pellius smiled, leaning beside her, “It seems much longer…”
They stayed in silence for a while, both staring out at the city’s expanse, the street lanterns glittering along the ebony landscape. Finally, Willow spoke.
“On the dresser, there is a gift for you.”
With a look of intrigue, he strolled to the nightstand, placing his glass down before picking up the box. Willow watched him in the reflection of the mirror, as he opened the box and a smile touched his lips. He pulled out the jasper cufflinks, inspecting the carved crosses.
“I am surprised to see something of my homeland,” he said, holding the gemstone to the light, “What marvellous craftsmanship, truly an exquisite gift. Thank you Willow.”
He gently returned them to their box, placing it back upon the dresser.
“A gift so grand must have a cause, to what are we celebrating?”
Willow shrugged, trying to sound as indifferent as she could, “It is just a gift, nothing more.”
She remained facing the window, staring firmly ahead of her, heart slowed to a thrum. Quietly, his slow prowling footsteps sounded behind her. His fingers suddenly gripped deep into her neck, his teeth scraped her lobe as his voice rasped close to her ear.
“Then let me show you my thanks,” he rumbled.
Willow felt the crushing pressure as she was lifted by the neck, her body quickly setting alight and craving his touch, a craving that was fed as he pushed her down into the seated cushion and his weight pressed into her. The glass of wine was flung from her hand and all but forgotten about, as he slid his hand around her throat and lifted her head so she could see their reflections. She stared into his eyes as his other hand traced lower, and on deep contact, she watched the hellfire flair in tune with her amorous moan. The thrum of his Infernal blood sped its thundering beat, with each guttural groan he forced out of her, the pulse grew stronger. She could feel the raging roar as his Infernal side tried to take control, it wanted to move fast and intensely, he wanted to move slow and methodical. It was a fight that he was losing, as Willow neared the apex of her pleasure, the beast within him howled for release. His grip on her neck tightened as he forced her head to the side. His lips touched the column of her throat in a deceptively gentle manner, in complete contrast to what the rest of him was doing to her. As the first wave of turbulent rapture came crashing over her, his teeth bit deep into her throat. Even as her body slumped in his arms, his grip remained achingly fierce. He lifted her head to see his face once again. His eyes throbbed with scarlet fury, his voice like velvet flame.
“Tonight Willow, may make you never wish for my thanks again…”
As the sun rose and its warmth caressed the iced layer that had frozen the windows of each building, the city blossomed in its morning life. Willow's eyes flickered open as the mattress rumbled and shook. She rolled to the side to see Pellius, sitting upon the edge, his sculpted wide back bare to her. Pulling the silk sheets with her, she slowly lifted herself to her knees and crawled to lean on his back, wrapping the sheet around both of them.
“I shall endeavour to find you more gifts,” Willow whispered, her voice husky with morning grace, “If that is the thanks I receive.”
His deep hearty chuckle had a smile touch her lips.
“Where are you off to so early?” she asked, as she gently pressed a kiss to the side of his throat.
“I have some business to attend to,” he replied easily.
“I was thinking of visiting the Duke today,” she said lazily, tracing her hands over his broad shoulders, “I found some interesting news of him from the servants, could be well worth looking into. Would you like to accompany me?”
“I'm afraid I'll be gone until this evening,” he said regretfully.
Willow smiled against his neck, intrigued in his secrecy, “And what is it that is keeping you out all today?”
She could feel his smile creep upon his lips, “Purely business, I assure you.”
Rubbing circles with her thumbs, pressing them deep into the tight muscles layered on his shoulders, enjoying the warmth between their bare skin.
“Shall you be competing in this fighting pit this evening?” she asked.
He laughed, shaking his head, “No, my lady. I shall leave that to the more brutish of our companions…”
Willow was dressed by mid morning, donned in a subtle pale peach frock, high collared and long sleeved. She braided her hair back into a soft halo, powdered her skin and set off to find the others. She found sitting by the fireplace in the parlour of the manor, staring off into the flame. Frowning, she wondered what sort of thoughts would be running through the mind of a soul so troubled. As he heard her approach, he came out of his haze, giving her a simple smile as she glided into the room.
“Am I interrupting?” she asked gently.
“No,” he answered, “What can I do you for?”
Willow smiled, cocking an eyebrow, “I am headed for an audience with the Duke, regarding the ring we found in the Horn. Yet it would be most inappropriate if a married lady such as I appeared unaccompanied. And it's seems my husband has better things to do.”
chuckled at her tone.
“Would you care to accompany me, house guard?” Willow winked.
“Of course, my lady,” he joked dramatically.
They fetched their coats and set off on foot, up the winding path towards the Duke’s manor. The walk to the mansion was one of beautiful sights, the first layers of winters snow had fallen over night, gracing the tops of the trees with white tips. The gardens within the Duke’s grounds were kept immaculately manicured, the hedges short and sharp, the now vacant flowerbeds arranged articulately. Willow had heard of the Duke in her previous station. Lord Hadrian of , another of the line – cousin to the Baron , now the last gasp of old nobility left within the country.
When they reached the gate, the guards stepped to attention.
“State your business,” the guard called.
Willow smiled, offering a slight incline of her head.
“I have come for an audience with the Duke,” she said with authority, “I come with news of his daughter.”
“His daughter?” the guard scoffed in disbelief, “If you have such news, I'll take it and pass it on to them. We don't just grant audience to anyone.”
stepped forward, his grand physique and soul penetrating eyes a threatening menace.
“I'll have you apologise to my lady,” he warned, his voice a growling snap, “Do not speak to her so, show her the proper respect she deserves.”
The colour seeped from the guards face, fear paling his features, eyes widening as the hulking orc towered over him.
“I do apologise, my lady, I meant no disrespect,” he stumbled, “We are under orders to only grant an audience in extreme cases. And if you have news, I can see it delivered to him.”
Willow waved her hand dismissively, “You men have no idea. Your callous brute approach can do more harm than healing. It is not good news I bring, but harsh words tempered by the soft touch of a woman's approach can bring closure, rather than anger.”
The guard paused for a moment, looking into Willow's eyes. She had always known how to use her vibrant wide eyes to win a man over. She knew he saw sincerity, though how much was actually there would be a rather questionable tale.
“Alright,” he said, “My lady,” he added at flaring nostrils, “I'll be back in a moment.”
A moment was all she had to wait, as the doorman escorted her into the sitting room. Willow had expected to linger in the parlour for far longer, as an unannounced meeting with a Duke was far beyond the norm. After only a few minutes, they were shown into the throne room.
“Lady of ,” the announcer called.
She kept her posture straight and her chin high as she walked the embroidered runner on path to the throne. The room was filled with the noble elite of Ghastenhall, they stood circles chattering in hushed whispers, throwing sly looks towards Willow's arrival. She was glad she had used the magic of her circlet to slightly morph her features, for a handful of the nobles in the room were those she recognised from the Matharyn courts. Sitting atop the regal throne, sat a man in gaudy lavish robes of scarlet and gold, littered with rings of ruby and sapphire. His dark hair sat curled high on his head, his elvish ears pointing directly out from the mass of locks. Strange eyes stared back at her as she approached.
“My lord,” Willow said respectfully, bowing low with one foot forward in the noble tradition, “Thank you for seeing me, I wish our meeting could have been on a less sombre note.”
His odd eyes flashed as she bowed, he held out his hand, his shining rings glittering close to her face. A strange custom, one not usually performed within the lands of Talingarde, Willow kissed the tip of the ring on his second finger.
“Lady ,” he said, his voice deeper than Willow would have expected, “I hear you have news for me.”
Willow stood, eyes filled with sadness as she spoke.
“Yes my lord,” she said softly, “I have just arrived in Ghastenhall, and heard talk of the coming Festival of Iris. In my travels, this came into my possession, I have come to believe it was the belonging of Lady Iris.”
Willow held out the ring bearing the inscription ‘IOG’. Hadrian waved to his guard, the man stepped forward to retrieve the ring, stepping up to the throne as the duke accepted the ring. For a moment, he merely turned it over in his hand. Willow was surprised with the lack of emotion he showed towards the news she was bringing. Though she supposed that it had been a very long time since he had given up on believing she still lived. After a few moments, he sighed.
“Yes,” he said, “This was hers. Pray tell, how did this come to you, and what of her fate?”
“I am somewhat of a collector of curiosities. It came from a merchant on the edge of the ,” Willow lied, “Paired with story that it was retrieved from the halls of the dreaded Horn of , found on a plaque stating that she met her demise, ‘dead of a broken heart and a poison dagger’,” Willow bowed her head, “I am sorry, your grace.”
He stayed quiet for a moment, staring down at the ring with little feeling showing on his face. Willow could not read his emotions, his features remained stale and perched.
“Well then,” he said finally, “I suppose you have heard of the reward? A favour from the Duke of ?”
Willow gave him a small, sad smile, “I did not come for gold, your grace. I come to bring closure, for that is its own reward.”
Hadrian leaned forward from his throne, “That is very gracious of you,” he said, then more forcefully, “But I insist.”
Willow frowned, having not thought her plan this far ahead. Getting in the good graces of the lord of Ghastenhall had been her only objective, gold was never unneeded, but the taste sat sour in her mouth. A sudden idea struck her.
“Well,” she said, continuing to frown but giving him a small smile, “I have been on the road for many a year. It has been a long time since I have attended a soirée and simply danced the night away.”
“Then the matter is settled!” he bellowed loudly, as if the statement had not been only for her benefit, “Present yourself to the guard on the eve of week, and let's see if we cannot organise a dance!”
He stood from his throne and bowed dramatically, far lower than one in his station would be expected to bow. Willow mirrored his bow, holding for as long as he did. Suddenly, he sprang up, twinkling his fingers.
“!” he called, before marching from his chair.
Willow was amazed at her ability to keep her face composed and her laugh inside. The strange man marched almost in a frolicking skip to the other room, leaving Willow standing beside in front of the throne.
“I believe that is all, my lady,” chuckled quietly.
Willow smirked, turning for the entrance and gracefully strolling to leave. As they passed the guards and began their descent back down the path, Willow mused over the duke’s odd behaviour.
“I am not entirely convinced that he's mad,” she said quietly.
“Ha!” laughed, “Did you not hear or see him Willow?”
“He's certainly an eccentric man,” she smiled, “But I cannot tell if it is all an act.”
“An act?” repeated, scrunching his nose, “Why would he possibly want to act like that?”
Willow shook her head, the intrigue of such a man a delicious tickle on her tongue, “Why, indeed…”
The city lamps were lit, as the night sky cast its shadow of Ghastenhall, the group left the warmth of the Crawley Estate. Willow smiled under her hood, eyes wide in excitement, cheer sitting low in her belly. She had not realised how solemn she had been over the last few months. Confinement and inaction did not suit her, she thought. This did - creeping through the backstreets of an unruly city, seeking out the verboten nightlife. She looked to the others, giving them a devious grin. They may have only a month within the respite of the great city of Ghastenhall, but she was going to make very good use of it...