From beneath her cowl, her face in shadow, the Grey Sister peered out. Her pale green eyes looked upon an old man lying on a large but simple bed, under a maroon blanket and recently changed cotton sheets. The blanket slowly rose and fell where his chest was. This was accompanied by a wheezing that sounded more like an ancient wind seeping through underground cracks. A thin sliver of saliva drooled from the corner of the man’s mouth. His eyes were closed to the world. She stood motionlessly nearby, as was her duty.
“It won’t be long now,” whispered someone to her left. She turned ever so slightly towards the speaker, the setting sun’s light coming in the windows behind him creating a rotund silhouette. The portly man wore pristine white robes, with gold and silver cuffs and collar. A similarly designed biretta with a single ruby attached at the peak adorned his balding head. Her simple, grey hooded woollen gown was a stark contrast to the richness of his attire.
“Till what?” croaked the man abed, eyes flicking open.
So you were listening, thought the Grey Sister.
A fit of coughing followed the old man’s words. Shrouded in the drab colour of her order, she quickly put a cup of water to his lips. He let the water drip into his mouth, and then pushed the cup away irritably. His eyes turned to the man who had spoken too soon.
“Till I die, Brother Eswic?”
More coughing erupted from this now frail man. His voice was hoarse but still held a strength, albeit one waning in its power.
“If so, will I meet the Ever-Father, eh? Or am I to be cast into the Abyss to be tormented for eternity by Oblivion?” He paused. The holy man said nothing in response. “Or will I just cease to be? One for the philosophers, eh? Not much room for discussion with your lot!” he finished icily.
The Grey Sister could feel the tension that was creeping into the chamber. So much hung in the air here. Not just the sickly-sweet scent that accompanied illness but also the whiff of ambition and perhaps deceit. She again adjusted her field of vision a small fraction to bring others in the room into view.
Her movement was so subtle that an observer could be forgiven for thinking she was a statue, until they noticed that statue had moved since last they looked. She was as seemingly motionless as the four pillars that stood in the corners of the room, brooding sentries that kept watch over this dying man. Carvings of ivy were etched into their stone, circling each in spirals until the pillar sprouted a square head that met the ceiling. The two pillars beyond the bed were untouched by sunlight and were lit solely by the torches lining the walls. To the Grey Sister, the ivy seemed alive with the flickering flames, slithering serpents ascending into the darkness above. Unlike these pillars and the huge tapestries that clung to two of the walls, there was no design on her cloth, making her look more a shadow of a past age that lingered.
Another man stepped forward. He was tall and spindly, wearing a long, black coat that buttoned right up to his throat. His equally jet-black hair was swept back and tied in place at the back of his angular head. His lips were pursed, waiting for the right moment. The Grey Sister knew that this man was well aware when to speak and when to hold his tongue.
The poorly man in the bed turned his head to him, the effort clearly causing pain. His words came out in a rasp.
“Any words of counsel, Chamberlain Worsteth? Anything I am neglecting?”
The Grey Sister knew the question was goading in nature and waited to see how it would be answered. She marvelled that the old man could still fence verbally even as the sickness ravaged his body. Chamberlain Worsteth did not take the bait, though, and stood there silently.
“Or perhaps some advice on how I can rid myself of this cursed ailment,” the frail man muttered, a resignation now in his voice that would never have been heard before the sickness took hold.
Perhaps the fight is finally leaving him…
Worsteth clasped his hands before himself, almost wringing them in a show of helplessness. The Grey Sister was impressed by the act. The chamberlain spoke in his clipped tones, each word precisely delivered.
“The work of the High King is never done, Your Grace. There is much that needs your steady hand in guidance, but it can wait until Your Grace is in good health again. I beg your forgiveness that I know not what has brought on this malady so suddenly. To be sure, it is a most evil sickness that ails you, but I feel sure Your Grace will recover soon.”
High King Sedmund’s laugh caught in his throat and erupted more like a cat coughing up a fur ball. It seemed he did not share his chamberlain’s optimism.
“Good health?” he croaked, “I was in good health not two months ago. And now I feel as if I am sliding into an early grave.” There was a pause as the old man stared at the ceiling above, his jaw tightening. “To perhaps make peace with my father,” he murmured.
Worsteth looked away, seemingly at a loss for anything to say. The administrative matters of a kingdom were where his skills lay, thought the Grey Sister, not words of comfort. He bowed his head and took a step back, perhaps inviting another in the room to say something. Or perhaps just wanting to be away from this room altogether. The chamberlain was likely unused to the oppressive air that came with sickness, something with which she was all too familiar.
“Speak not of such things, Your Majesty.”
The strong, commanding voice had come from slightly farther back in the room. The Grey Sister knew the voice well and had a feeling close to sadness for this man, knowing what would follow. She breathed deeply but barely audibly. Her order had always kept to the shadows. Be unseen but be ready when called upon. The words etched deep into her consciousness.
High King Sedmund inhaled and spoke. “Come forward, Torbal. I cannot see you. I cannot see your eyes. I would look into your heart now, General.”
Sedmund gasped sharply as some pain stabbed at him from within. The Grey Sister could feel all those in the room tense suddenly. But the High King regained his composure and the tension dissipated somewhat.
The general marched five steps forward, coming smartly to a halt. He wore a wine-red cloak clasped over a pale grey tunic; a bronze hawk skilfully stitched into the chest area. A white mane of hair sat proudly atop strong features that looked to have been chiselled from the mountains. Craggy but crafted. His beard was not trimmed carefully like Worsteth’s but grew gracefully and gave the man a regal quality. The general was at least fifty years of age but was still clearly in robust health, certainly capable of handling himself.
The Grey Sister knew this was not a man to be underestimated. If the High King was indeed destined to succumb to this sickness, General Torbal would subsequently play a major role in the governance of the Rihtgellen Kingdom and the wider realm it ruled. Torbal had the loyalty of the military and that was no small thing in a power vacuum. Beneath her cowl, she mused on how this unarguable fact would rile the others present.
The general spoke softly. “You know my heart, old friend. And I know yours. Your heart beats throughout all the lands. Without your will to bind us, we risk rupturing this kingdom and falling prey to forces of ill intent.”
Torbal locked eyes with Brother Eswic as he said this. A warning? A subtle threat? The Grey Sister was surprised this had been directed at Eswic and not another. Torbal spoke again, this time to Sedmund and in a tone that suggested the general loved his liege in a genuine fashion.
“This malady will not defeat you. This is just another battle where you will gain victory, as we have done so many times in the past.”
A shadow of a smile crept onto Sedmund’s face. The Grey Sister could see Torbal had touched him, reminded him of a path they had ridden together.
Sedmund turned his eyes to the ceiling, perhaps remembering better days. The small woman in grey lifted her eyes also. She studied the faces of those in the room, her movement slight as she shifted her gaze from one to the next. The head of the church, Brother Eswic; the Royal Chamberlain, Chancellor Worsteth; the High King’s Shield, General Torbal; and one other who had yet to speak. The sun had disappeared in the west now and only torch-light touched those present. The new moon meant darkness would swallow the realm this night.
A silence was now upon the room, waiting for Sedmund to say something more. High King Sedmund. The most powerful man in Ragnekai, or Marrh, as the realm used to be known. Ruler of the Rihtgellen Kingdom and the realm of Ragnekai. The kingdom had existed in some form for almost two hundredyears and enjoyed regional superiority for the last seventy. This man had continued the reign over the lands that his grandfather had won by both diplomacy and the sword.
Finally Sedmund answered Torbal.
“I do not intend to falter now, Torbal. The Ever-Father must wait a while longer for me. There is much that needs to be done. Much that must be guarded.”
His eyes wandered to the far side of the chamber, where nobody stood. Sedmund then closed his eyes. The silence that had been briefly broken now returned, save for the hoarse breathing of the ruler of the Rihtgellen Kingdom. Brother Eswic looked to Worsteth, the chamberlain holding a shared look with the leader of the church momentarily before turning to focus on the general. Torbal stared at the floor, seemingly unwilling to meet the other two in any kind of non-verbal exchange. A slight shuffle of a slipper on the stone floor behind caught the attention of all three men. A strikingly handsome lady emerged from the shadows and looked upon the dying man.
“Perhaps we should let His Grace rest now,” whispered the lady, the fingers of her felt-gloved hands knitting together as her hands rose to her chin.
“Such kind words, Lady Ulla,” hissed Brother Eswic. “And are you keeping your brother Orben abreast of His Grace’s health? Will you be returning to your home in Helliga with glad tidings?” He stared at her with barely concealed hatred. “I wonder if our dear ruler’s sickness is the will of the Ever-Father or by a more mortal design.”
Ulla took a measured step towards the supposed authority of the Ever-Father in this mortal realm. Her ashen-blonde hair was tied in two braids falling beside her face, reaching down to her mid-riff and perfectly accentuating her beauty. Her icy blue eyes seemed like deep pools of secrets, seeing all but revealing nothing. She wore a deep violet cloak about her, its hood hanging loose at the back.
“Careful what you say, most devout of the Ever-Father’s servants,” she said softly.
Brother Eswic may have been at the pinnacle of his holy hierarchy, but he withered in front of the lady. The Grey Sister could feel the authority and menace exuding from Ulla. Being the sister of the second most powerful man in the realm did have its merits, she thought. And if the seemingly inevitable happened, her brother Lord Orben would arguably take Sedmund’s mantle.
But will they call him High King Orben? And how long will his reign last?
Brother Eswic turned away now, muttering to himself, perhaps saying a prayer. The Grey Sister, with movement as imperceptible as a shadow creeping up a wall at sunset, shifted her gaze to Torbal. The general looked genuinely sad that Sedmund was so ill and weak. The Grey Sister found this curious that a veteran of battle would let his emotions be so visible to all around him. Perhaps this was to his credit. Torbal was relatively free of the tedious scheming that was an everyday part of court life. The sturdy general coughed and moved a few paces back, perhaps wanting to avoid this new tension that had reared its ugly head.
Ulla spoke again, her voice gentle.
“High King Sedmund, you and my brother may not be friends or even allies, but there is peace between our peoples. I would urge you to appoint someone to manage the affairs of the realm until you are restored to health. Like gardens, realms have a habit of running wild if they are not tended. Weeds can spring up.”
Lady Ulla emphasized the word weeds as if in warning. A warning to Sedmund? Perhaps Torbal. She had not directed the comment at anyone or turned her eyes away from Sedmund, but the Grey Sister speculated on whom the weeds might be.
“Name someone you can trust to uphold the peace and not let it disintegrate into petty squabbles that could spark a greater conflict.”
“You have someone in mind, I take it?” asked Worsteth pointedly. The Grey Sister again moved her head a tiny degree so that the chamberlain was in her field of vision. The man had a slight smile on his lips.
Does he really believe Ulla means him?
“Yes. I do, as it happens,” she almost purred. The chamberlain visibly puffed out his chest.
“General Torbal.” The feline delivery had disappeared, and the words were a dagger to Worsteth.
The slender man spluttered as he choked down whatever he was going to say. He looked at Ulla with disbelief, then turned his eyes to Torbal, a certain venom contained within them. The Grey Sister knew he had just seen his chance for greater things crumble before him. She did not miss the subsequent look shared between Worsteth and Eswic.
Torbal looked at Ulla and the Grey Sister could see he was taken by her beauty. This was a man who could stand tall on a battlefield and inspire his troops to victory. And yet he seemed almost nervous when confronted by a strong lady with allure. The Grey Sister saw he was about to speak but his mouth closed again before any word came out. In her plain garb and silent role, the little lady did not experience the interactions between men and women that revolved around lust and desire, but she had seen it bring many a man down.
“Come now, Torbal,” Ulla said in a voice that was once again demure and silvery, so gentle to the ears. “Do not be so humble. We all know the people would support you if you were steward of the throne until the High King recovers. You are well respected and a known leader. And you have the backing of the military…which is always an advantage in these precarious situations.”
The Grey Sister could not help but again admire Ulla’s oratory skills. So soft and generous when talking directly to Torbal, yet steady when bringing in the wider audience. And then sly when making a point intended for certain people in the room. Weight given to certain words, slight alterations in tone, subtle movements of her eyes and hands. This lady was a true master of speaking and persuasion.
The Grey Sister’s attention returned to the man abed as the others continued to talk. She peered closer. The tiniest of gasps escaped her mouth. She moved closer to him, her cloth slippers whispering across the stone floor. Her hand extended from her robe, and she placed her fingers against his throat, trying to find a pulse. There was nothing. The man was dead.
Her grey cloak hiding all her features, she quietly turned and walked the few paces towards the people still conversing. Brother Eswic visibly jumped as he noticed her at his side. Now she had all their attention, she gestured to the man lying abed, and then hung her head as low as she could. She did not see their reactions, only heard their gasps and a moan that sounded like Torbal’s.
The Grey Sister retreated to the shadows, her work done for the moment. She would now become unseen again. But ready to serve when called upon.
Cold, cold, cold. So damn cold. Colder than Oblivion’s breath, colder than the Abyss itself… it’s really bloody cold.
Arth hated the night watch at the Royal Mines. Even in the summer months, it was frigid up here in the lower climbs of the mountains, within which were blood-red rubies Arth knew he would never possess. He could have done without the precious gems; a warm blanket would have been welcome right now. Bitter winds blew around these parts. Winds that Arth reckoned may have been warm once but were chilled by the icy Jagged Heights to the north. And now he was chilled to the bone.
Working in the actual mines had to be back-breaking labour but at least it was warm down there, he reckoned. Sitting in a wooden tower with just a thick coat and his own grit to ward off the night’s cold was a thankless task. And slightly pointless, really. The young native of Bregustol was bored. And cold.
Colder than last night, I swear. And nothing happening in this neck of the woods.
High King Sedmund had died and the realm had begun to unravel in places, but not much seemed to have changed here at the mines. Precious stones were still rolling down the Ruby Road to Bregustol in their wagons and greedy merchants were still counting their gold. The Helligan nation had taken up arms but not against the Rihtgellen kingdom. They had gone west and taken the city of Meridia, so were clearly in no rush to come this way for the wealth. Arth felt sorry for the people in Meridia. He had never been anywhere in the realm of Ragnekai except for the capital of Bregustol where he had grown up, and the mines of course, but he had met people from all over and Meridians had always struck him as decent folk. It just seemed wrong of the Helligan lord to attack his neighbour. None of my business though, Arth told himself. His mother had always told him to keep his head down when trouble was brewing, and he intended to do exactly that.
Up here things are as silent as Oblivion’s voice, he thought as he pulled his coat tighter around his shoulders. The Unvasiktok tribelands to the north were as cold and frigid as ever, with nothing more than snow and hail whirling down from those frozen wastes. Then there was the Deadwood, sitting off to the north-west of the mines, which was as lifeless as its name suggested. There was no doubt about it: night watch was tedious, exhausting, and cold.
So damn cold! But at least the moon was shining brightly tonight. It was glowing a particularly luminescent white in the night sky above him. Arth looked at it, trying to see the face that one of his friends in the watch had assured him was there. Looked more like a rabbit making something to Arth, but to each his own, he shrugged.
Arth didn’t really understand why the moon got smaller and then bigger each month, sometimes even disappearing completely. The sun never vanished or changed shape. The clouds might hide it, but you could still feel its warmth or see a glow behind the grey. Arth’s mother had told him that the sun didn’t even disappear at night; it just hid out in the west somewhere, resting or something. But Arth had never seen a crescent sun and that meant there was something mysterious about the night’s guardian.
The captain of the night watch had tried to explain to him that the moon wasn’t actually changing shape and that you just couldn’t see it all. But that didn’t make much sense to Arth. If he couldn’t see the milky white, or sometimes dull yellow, glow of the moon, how could it be there? Even on cloudless nights it could still appear as half a circle and there was nothing else in the sky that could cover the moon. Something was strange. His captain was a clever man, but he didn’t know everything.
Is Oblivion pulling the moon into the Abyss?!
Arth shivered even more, the eerie thought of the Ever-Father’s fallen Son having power over the moon itself suddenly erupting inside his head. But if the moon were being gradually pulled into the Abyss each month, why did it come back out again? Arth frowned. Perhaps the moon wasn’t being pulled into the Abyss but was falling and then rising slowly from it. This meant the moon was somehow connected to the Abyss. Connected to death! Arth hugged himself against the bitter night cold as he considered this.
Damn it, I think too much doing this bloody night watch.
He often wondered why he had taken up this work. It did pay better than regular guard duty in the capital, Bregustol, but Arth was fairly sure he spent the extra coin earned on warming himself up once the dawn came and his shift ended. The hot spring baths a hundred yards from the mines were not so cheap anymore. Arth tutted. He was sure the increase in price was down to that bloody Brother Eswic saying the springs were blessed by the Ever-Father. Maybe they had been blessed but that was no reason to charge extra coppers. The Ever-Father was supposed to be kind to those with little money. His mother had told him that also. And his captain, so it must be true.
Wish the Ever-Father would bless me now with some roast lamb shank and warm mead.
Arth gritted his teeth and pulled his coat even tighter around him, wishing he was soaking in the hot waters of the springs right now. It was only about halfway through the night though he reckoned, and so far his shift had been as uneventful as always. The only light came from the village of Gimmweg over to the southwest of the mines, where the Ruby Road began. Arth looked at the flickering torches and the larger bonfire that was lit in the village square every night. He imagined what the miners and villagers would be doing now.
Some would be fast asleep in warm beds, covered with layers of furs. Others would be making love by a roaring fire in their homes. Perhaps some would still be tearing juicy red meat off the bone and washing it down with some good, strong black beer.
Arth turned his attention northwards. He gasped and jumped to his feet, almost toppling out of the watch tower as he leaned forward to stare.
In the name of the Ever-Father…
Arth couldn’t believe his eyes. Coming down from the Unvasiktok region was a lengthy line of tiny bobbing lights. Flaming torches. And a lot of them. Arth tried to count them all but soon gave up—there were just too many. Maybe fifty. Maybe a hundred. A wave of panic swept over Arth. They were coming to steal the precious stones. The Unvasik tribes were raiding again!
Arth had to warn the people here—wake the garrison. He scrambled around in the small space of the tower, searching for his horn, but couldn’t find it.
Damn it! Must’ve left it in the bunk-house.
He looked out again and stopped short, puzzled at what he saw. The line of torches had turned and was disappearing into the Deadwood. They weren’t coming this way. Arth hugged his arms to his chest and watched as the flickering blobs of flame vanished into the dark mass of the forest.
Where are they going?
Arth closed his eyes and listened intently, his ears straining for the beat of drums or war-cries. The only sounds that came to him were the whisper of the night and a vague tinkling from Gimmweg. Arth sat back down on his stool when the last torch disappeared. He frowned and tried to understand what he had seen. Were the folk of Unvasiktok on some kind of hunting expedition? Why did they go into the Deadwood? Any fool knew there was no return from that ungodly place. Some said that Oblivion prowled there on occasion, a dark shadow gliding between trees, waiting for unsuspecting souls to feast upon.
The tribesmen, if that’s who they were, would be dead by morning. Arth yawned. He kept his eyes on the place where they had entered the Deadwood but nothing else happened. He shook his head. In the quiet, it had been like watching Wisp Fires.
Maybe they were Wisp Fires!
Perhaps what Arth had seen had not been Unvasik tribesmen at all, but woodland sprites. Arth rubbed his chin and frowned. His mother had told him Wisp Fires used to be everywhere in the realm, but the Ever-Father’s light had pushed them into the darker forests.
He wasn’t sure whether or not to tell his captain. Arth didn’t want to be laughed at and talk of wraiths and spirits was likely to bring ridicule. He hugged himself harder, hoping dawn wasn’t too far away. He shivered.
So damn cold…