The threat of a resurgence of the Unseelie King is one of many things I have to deal with. While terrifying in anticipation, it is, as yet, unformed, and I will know no more until I consult with Vedis regarding the security of Llwyd, who, last I heard, was in her charge. Perhaps that is not so now. I do not know. I have not seen her in many a month, nor my dear friend, Galyanna, whose company I do miss.
Another, more concrete threat, well, stone anyway, is to the fabric of the castle. There is a new crack in the walls, one I cannot definitively put down to the aftermath of the shard of Gwythyr’s sword. As it turned out, that was far from the case.
I approached it, first of all, as my father might, as purely a structural problem in need of remedy, measuring the width and depth and length and estimating what I might need of materials to repair and protect it. Oddly, the appearance was that it had been caused by a blow from inside. It was not so wide or deep that it could not be filled with mortar, but I decided, for safety, that I would ask Hobbs to make some iron reinforcements to place as ties across the crack.
Material causes aside, I could not dismiss other causes, so I nicked my own thumb, squeezing out a few drops of blood onto the stone, so that I could reconnect with the castle senses, to see what else might be amiss.
The castle sense was all there, much as I have become used to. The solidity of the stones and rafters and tiles, the presence of the castle staff and the lighter presence of the unofficial residents – rodents and such scurrying in the background. Beyond that, the villagers going about their business. Yet, there was more, an unfamiliar note; of cold, wet rocks, the taste of cold steel and an ungodly shrieking, distant, yet, at the same time, right beneath my fingers. I withdrew slightly, and refocused my attention on the immediate area, cutting off the rest of the castle and the village. There it was again, like a distant battle, far and yet near. There within the tower, the dusty bones of a long-forgotten enemy of Maric’s, entombed there so many centuries ago, an enemy long dead, and yet not, and I knew it to be the one that we had given word that we would release into the tender care of Vedis. The screams echoed from afar, bringing with it the cold of mountain air and the sound of metal on stone. Another voice called out, a woman’s voice, commanding me to stay back.
Somehow I knew this voice, this presence, for it had shut me out from the tower once before. I also realised that I understood the command, even if the words were unfamiliar to me, that she had spoken in that most ancient tongue of Maric’s, that of Illyria, and that I too now understood this language. Some, I knew I had gathered from trying to understand his journals, but this was more, as if the tongue were my own. Perhaps one last gift he had given via the blood. I steadied myself, calling on my own willpower for what could be an unfortunate confrontation. “I mean no harm,” I said in the same tongue, projecting my thoughts to that distant voice, as well as speaking the words.
There was sudden silence for a few moments, interrupted once again by shrieks and screams, a voice pleading with me to free him from this witch, to stop her. Latin, he spoke, or something like it, yet again I understood it. Another blow of metal on stone stilled the voice and I saw a distant mountain landscape, rocks and chains entangled and somehow, a figure caged within. There was another figure, armoured and brandishing a sword. She turned to me and pointed the sword. “I shall do my duty as HE wished,” she told me, “you shall not free this one.”
I kept such thoughts as I might have had regarding her prisoner to myself. Now was not the time. My first duty was to the castle. “This one is not my concern,” I told her, “The safety of the castle IS my concern. I command here now. He that gave you this duty is no more.”
The prisoner shrieked and laughed at the same time until he was silenced by a backhander from the woman. She pulled her helm from her head, an imposing presence; for all that she lacked any great stature. An iron grey plait of hair and eyes that had seen too much in a weathered face. She stared at me as if she might strike me, but then, her expression softened with sorrow and she lowered her sword. “Agron?” she said, which name I did not know, but took to be a name Maric had worn in the past. “I did not want to believe, but when the chains loosened, I should have known what it meant.” Somehow, though still distant, she seemed closer. “Is he truly no more?” Her eyes, as dark a brown as I have ever seen, searched me, seeking truth or treachery. “You should not be able to see me,” she said. “Did you slay him to take his place?” Her words were as cold as the icy winds that blew from that distant mountain.
Hard as it was, I did not flinch, for I knew my position to be right and true. “No,” I assured her. “He was my dearest friend and mentor.” I told her that he had trained me as his deputy, and that when he knew his time was nigh, when he knew the last battle had taken more than he had to give, he had made me his successor, conferring all rights and titles upon me, including the castle. “He passed at the Equinox,” I told her, reasoning this a date she would understand, “in the presence of many who loved him, including me.”
She stared long at me, as if she suspected some falsehood on my part, until she satisfied herself that I spoke truly. She sheathed the sword and placed a fist at her chest, bowing her head and muttering something, a prayer, perhaps, or a eulogy. In respect, I mirrored her gesture, for I too had loved him. She stood again, every inch a queen and fixed me with her gaze. She said that she would mourn the passing of her husband, but this duty, she gestured at the prisoner, was by her own will. The wretch that caused her husband so much ill would never be free so long as she existed.
I too straightened up, having paid my respects. I reminded her that he had been my mentor and my friend and that I had loved him dearly. I too had chosen my duty freely, to continue his works, which included the protection of the castle, the village and its people. That was my duty, given to me by Agron, or Maric, as he was known to me. I understood her duty, but where her duty impinged upon mine – I showed her the damage to the castle – then I must stand firm. “That is what he would have wished,” I said, “I am sure you understand.”
Anger flared again in her face. I was the one who did not understand, she told me. She indicated her prisoner and said that he strove to break free, to release himself from the chains and stones. Her duty was to protect hers from harm; Agron and the castle. “Now do you understand, stranger?” she asked.
I did not allow her anger to touch me, maintaining the same calm demeanour. “Then our duties coincide,” I told her. “My name is Nathaniel Ballard, and Agron, known to me as Lord Maric of Mysthaven, gave the castle into my care. Since our duties coincide, we should not remain strangers. For now, though, I must leave you, so we may each grieve in our own way and we will speak again, another time, I hope.”
She stared long at me, and at the last, seemed to unbend somewhat. She nodded and told me that she was, had been, Queen Teuta of Illyria, who had reigned long after her husband’s mortal passing, until the dark god who had taken him came for her. She agreed that we should speak again, and soon, for the chains that held her prisoner would not last long, now that her beloved was gone. With that, she faded from my vision and senses, and there was nothing left but the faint echo of her voice, and the cold stone beneath my hand.
“Fare thee well, Queen Teuta of Illyria,” I bade her, even if she could no longer hear me. “Perhaps we can find something better than chains.”
I stepped away from the wall and took myself to my armchair with a large glass of wine, thinking. Perhaps there was an answer that could satisfy all parties. If I could convince this ancient queen that delivering her prisoner into the tender care of Vedis was as fitting a punishment as that which she had meted out, then we could achieve that promise, and then, perhaps that ancient queen could be at rest, and the castle stones at peace. Yes, this could be an answer for all. I sat, then, thinking on what I had seen and contemplating the vast breadth of history in which I played such a tiny part. A sobering thought, but for the wine, and one that stayed with me, long into the night.