Thursday, December 1, 2011

Chapter One: Part Four

Continued from Chapter One: Part Three, posted on November 29:

“Is he leaving already?” Hilda warbled. They passed her as they went into the great hall. “I’ve already turned down a bed and all.”

“Yes. Mother wants him to leave now,” Trilby said shortly.

“Well, the better demons be leaving, anyhow,” Hilda muttered.

“Hold your tongue, old woman,” Trilby chided.

Rather than obey, Hilda mumbled and wandered off on her business, a broom in her hand. Twig still heard every word she said about demons and witches. He hoped she guessed wrong about him. He had no comfort to give her. It would comfort him to be away from this house and these people—for their sakes, not for his. Although he felt in perfect control of himself, the thought of what he had the power to do to them made him uneasy. If he ruled this house he would make himself leave.

He helped Trilby pull a shawl around her shoulders, then they went out the large front doors back into the chilled sunshine. When they came onto the porch, Trilby slipped her hand through the crook of his arm, in a polite gesture. She flinched at how cold his arm felt; she tried to hide it, but Twig noticed it. He dismissed it. Appreciating the warmth of her hand meant more to him just then.

Exhaling completely, he filled his lungs with her smell, and thought about it. Clean, milky, warm. She kept herself well fed and she spent a great deal of time outside. Her heartbeat calmed him. He kept its rhythm in his mind. Listening deeper, he got a read on the baby’s heartbeat.

“She has a strong heart,” Twig said. Trilby smiled.

“You can hear it?” she asked. Twig nodded. “That’s curious, isn’t it?”

“It is strange,” Twig said.

“Useful, though.”

Yes, it was useful. Twig remembered how it came in useful hearing the variations in the hearts of the Holy Assassins, telling him when they were sure or unsure or surprised, where their blood went to older injuries that he could use to his advantage. Very useful skill.

“His father has a strong heart,” Trilby said, resting a hand on her belly. “Or her father, rather. I’m glad that she has a strong heart.”

They had reached the stables. Trilby drew up the latch on the door and they went inside. The twenty horses in the thirty stalls whinnied, nervous, more wary than shocked now that they’d become a little used to Twig. Trilby frowned at the horses but made no comment. Horses had good instincts. Twig trusted horses. It took courage for Trilby to give him the benefit of a doubt.

“Mother doesn’t like my child’s father,” Trilby said, clearing her throat and guiding Twig along the line of nervous horses. “She says he’s a vagrant and a deadbeat. I think he’s charming.”

“You are not married to him,” Twig concluded. He wondered if the boy was some gypsy. The thought had a story in it of a poetically minded Trilby who enjoyed fantastical things. It met with no disapproval from him.

“He is the son of the Wiga. There was a Wiga when you went to war, was there not? Lord of Chaos, say that five times fast, eh?” She smiled. There had been a Wiga when Twig went to war. In times of legend, the gods had blessed the greatest warrior to beget a line of warriors as great as himself. There had been a Wiga ever since—only ever one. The son of the Wiga spent his life traveling, training, learning. Adventure found him, and he learned what he could from it. Whenever the Wiga died, the son inherited the title and the supernatural blessing. That’s how the story went. It showed good taste on Trilby’s part, Twig thought. “He travels too much to be married just yet,” Trilby finished.

“I see,” Twig said.

She smiled again. “You are so straight-faced, I don’t know if you disapprove.”

“I approve,” Twig said. “The Wiga has strong blood.”

She smiled more gently. “He is a faraway man—or boy—perhaps he is a man. I am not sure. He strikes me more as a poet than a fighter, always gazing at nothing and getting lost in little things. I have trouble knowing what he thinks. I don’t mind that, though.”

Twig had known a woman like that once.

They paused on their walk past the skittish horses. The stall next to them held a grey mustang, a low horse who would be capable of walking and trotting practically for days. The mustang stood quietly chewing hay, unconcerned by the skipping of the other horses in the stable.

“Well,” Trilby said, “I had rather thought this horse would never see the light of day again. No one likes him, except the grounds man, who died not long ago on his way back from the plains. Bones here carried the body back. He’s not a bad horse—solid little pony, obedient and calm, and I think he’s very bright. The lads just find him a little too quiet for comfort. They found him wandering out in ghost country a few seasons back. Curious.” She looked Twig in his calm face. “I’m sorry you feel that you have to go,” she said.

“It is best,” Twig said. He looked the mustang called Bones in its big eye. Bones looked back, chewing the hay.

“I suppose. Mother is dedicated, and you do make the animals nervous.” She gestured at the horses. “That is never a good sign.”

“No. It is a bad sign,” Twig said.

Trilby looked unhappy. She frowned and looked away from him, though she had to agree. Twig felt better that way, a very little bit. Being so near this girl’s hair, her face, her dress, her voice—so familiar, and so different… He would never be at rest here.

“Where will you go?” Trilby asked.

“I will call out an enemy.” The Holy Assassins made the first move. Twig would make the next. His quarrel was not with the Assassins themselves. The Assassins were soldiers, as he was. They followed orders, leaving the questions to be asked by men higher up the chain. He would reach higher up the chain. The Ferryman himself had earned Twig’s retribution. The Ferryman had been in charge of the Zombie Corps as well. He should not have sent his dogs after Twig. Someone had to account for that. “I have to send my enemy a message,” Twig said. “I trust that Súthende still has a board where the wanted posters hang.” Súthende: the nearest town.

“Yes,” Trilby said. “More full than ever. More people are out of favor with the aristocracy than ever were. Somehow the lords who rule us now have brought out the worst in all the lowest men. It’s dangerous to travel.”

“I do not know who rules now,” Twig said.

“Oh, no, I suppose that you wouldn’t. It’s strange to think of,” she cleared her throat again and her expression turned thoughtful. “The north is nominally ruled by the sorcerer, Considine, but he does nothing to govern. No one’s seen him since I was five. The land south of Súthende is split in two. The middle is ruled by the warlord, Engelkind. His territory borders all of Wildhagen,” she said. Wildhagen was the name of the North Country.

Engelkind had been the name of a general when Twig joined the Zombie Corps. If he ruled most of the world then the wrong side had won, like Widow Lockwood had said. Engelkind had been an enemy of the Zombie Corps. “And the whole continent is divided in only three,” Twig stated.

“Well, there’s the far west, where the desert is past the mountains. No one much cares about there,” Trilby said. “And the Savages on the east coast still keep control of the islands and things. Nobody bothers them. But Wildhagen, Engelland, and the land far south watched by the rulers in Kunigsgrad are the big countries. It’s peculiar to imagine, really, that everything is so set and regimented. I remember things being different.”

“As do I.” Twig wondered what Kunigsgrad was. He had never heard of it.

“I’m sure it’s a shock to you,” Trilby said.

“I feel no shock,” Twig said, and truthfully. All the new information merely went into his head and began filing itself as if he wrote it all down and could look at the words from behind his eyes. His mind organized itself as he learned new things. Cross-referencing with the new information into old information began happening without his making it so.

“I wish things were different,” Trilby said. “The world feels so cold.”

“Perhaps a spark could be lit under it,” Twig said.

Trilby smiled. “That’s pretty,” she said. Twig liked to see her smile. She sighed, seeming to have no hope for the future. “Let me help you pack Bones,” she said.

They got a black saddle on the mustang and some saddlebags. Trilby offered to get Twig some supplies. Every whiff of food that he had since waking had caused him revulsion and he declined. When she insisted, he accepted some tea leaves.

“And surely you will need a weapon—we have some swords that—” Trilby said. Twig cut her off, though.

“No. Please—um…” He had spoken too quickly and startled her. Concern entered her eyes. He scratched the side of his nose with a hand still clutching the end of his cloak’s sleeve to hid the bloodstain on the sleeve of the leather. “Thank you. I will be all right. You have already been kind enough to me.”

“Hmm,” Trilby said, looking away with a motherish purse to her lips. She dropped it, though. He was grateful. Soon, he had prepared to leave, with his melancholy mustang and his empty saddlebags.

Sitting on Bones, he and the mustang turned toward the road to Súthende.

The household had mostly turned out to see him off. Hilda had showed up to cheer him away. “And good riddance!” she said out loud. No one shushed her this time. The men who worked the manor lands stood nearby, stoic, quiet, just watching Twig ride away from them.

“Goodbye, Twig Lithnmark,” Trilby said. “May Lady Wendy be your comfort on the road and guide you to a safe landing.”

Twig rather hoped she would—Lady Wendy was goddess of comfortable things like mothering and food. She supposedly had good wishes for everyone. Twig hoped to be included.

He looked up at the manor. A curtain in a second story window dropped into place. Twig managed to see Widow Lockwood before the curtain hid her.

A daughter. It pleased him. She had done well.

He turned his eyes to the road.

End of Chapter One

Continued on December 3...

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