Chapter 17: Steward Argenal
Table of Contents|
Chapter 16 appeared
in issue 138.
Through the blinding torrents of snow, Ian caught his first glimpse of the overturned carriage. It lay on its side by the freezing banks of the Andrienne River. The carriage door was torn from its hinges and no light shown within.
He maneuvered his horse confidently to the river’s edge. Across the way lay the horrific scene. He felt his chest tighten into a knot. His wife’s midwife lay several feet behind the carriage on the hard rock ground. Her neck was bent at an odd angle. Her eyes were open in mild surprise. Snow was beginning to gather around her gray, lifeless form.
Ian felt a cold tear gather at the edge of his eye. Sara Montress was no more.
In front of the carriage, four horses bloodied the ground, their flanks punctured by bolts. The driver of the carriage was nowhere to be seen. By the way the carriage had been flipped, it could only be assumed the man had fallen into the freezing river.
What a terrible death, he thought darkly.
Ignoring the chill in his bones, Ian followed the bank of the river to the bridge he knew lay up ahead. The snow continued to fall in angry waves and it soon hid what lay underneath like a blanket.
What could have done such a thing?
The young man ignored the lingering question that hung at the back of his mind. Shifting his horse up the bank, he tipped his hat to shake the weight of the gathering snow. Where was she? It was clear from his angle that the carriage was empty within.
Always a man of patience, Ian tried not to hurry. His wife would be in greater danger if she was still alive and he got hurt in his haste. A gust of wind stirred his cape behind him and made his eyes sting. His face was turning red from the ice particles in the air. The snow flurries grew stronger for a moment, and he feared he would have to stop his search. But what if she were still alive? Damn!
“Karen!” he yelled panic rising in his voice.
He barely heard his voice above the gusting wind. His horse nickered and whinnied in sympathy. The horse probably knew him better than most. It had grown up with him. He had trained the gelding personally.
“Karen!” he cried. “Karen! If you can hear me, cry out! Try something! I can barely see in this snow!”
“Ian!” came the angelic voice he lived to hear. It came floating to him through the air as the freezing winds shifted.
He felt his heart pound. She was still alive! Driven on by a force he could not explain, the Lord of Nomen spurred his horse forward. He charged through the numbing grayness that surrounded him. Flanked by the river, he stayed on course.
“Where are you?” he cried all around him. He stopped for a moment to listen. Where was she? “Karen Montress, tell me where you are?”
Then he heard the commotion. He heard a struggle and then a splash up ahead. The bridge! Charging along, he tried to make out the bridge he knew traversed the river somewhere near. He heard another yell. This time it was filled with pain.
“Ian,” he heard her voice. He didn’t stop to listen this time. He knew where she was, in the river. She must have fallen over as she tried to cross it. It was close, he knew.
Then the bridge came out of the gloom like a ghost. It was a large, squarish thing with a road crossing it. It had two small walls on both sides and a large pillar beneath it that went into the river to help support it.
Ian didn’t pause to notice its details. Slowing his horse a bit, he turned right and up the bridge. He felt his horse slip a little and then regain control.
“Karen!” he yelled from atop his horse. He looked east where he had come from. The dark waters lay sloshing together. They were dark and lifeless. He turned west and he saw her there. She was barely visible through the slight mist the churning waters were giving off. She was holding on to a large rock that protruded the river’s angry surface. He called out to her and she looked up. Her golden hair was matted to her scalp, her large blue eyes looked scared, and she shook visibly. He could see her hands were straining to hang on as the water pounded her and the rock. She couldn’t hang on much longer.
“Karen!” he called out. “Hang on! I’m coming for you. I’ll make everything right! You’ll see!” Tears welled in his eyes. He didn’t have much time.
“Ian!” she cried. “Listen to me. We’re not alone.”
He didn’t hear her, or maybe he wanted to ignore her words. Nothing would stop him from saving her. He got off his horse and went for the rope in his saddlebags. It would be something he would debate for years over lonely nights and drunken stupors.
Nevertheless, he never saw the dark forms that came out of the forest around the bridge and river. Six of them, he would later remember. Six.
Gathering the rope in his gloved hands, he turned to help his wife but she was gone. He gave a cry of anguish as he searched for her. She came up from below the freezing water gasping for air. She cried out in pain, but the yell was faint. The river was pushing her away. He was already losing her to the snow filled grayness.
He turned to run and stopped short. Two men stood at the foot of the bridge. They each held crossbows and they were pointed at him. Without hesitating, he turned the other way to head down the river and found another two men blocking his escape route. They were clad in suits made to keep men warm in temperatures such as this.
He felt the anger rise in his throat, and then came the wave of panic. His wife needed him! She would die without him.
He felt something whiz by him and he tensed. Next to him, Dreigan whinnied and then stumbled to the floor. He thrashed wildly for a second and Ian had to kick his way out of his horse’s hooves as it began its death throes. He felt the saddest loss settle into his chest at the sight of his dying horse. Another whiz right by his cheek, another thud, and his horse lay very still. From somewhere in the river, west of him, he heard another cry.
“Don’t move,” came the command from a throaty voice.
Ian felt like screaming. They would kill him before he hit the river below. He could never explain his decision later, but he didn’t move. He saw the man who had spoken smile.
“Wise choice, my lord,” he said as he came up the bridge to stand several feet from the Lord of Nomen.
Ian felt his knees weaken. His heart almost stopped beating right then and there. Tears welled in his eyes and he didn’t reach up to wipe them away as they fell from his cheeks. He only hoped the wind would lessen so he could hear if his wife was still calling out for him. Just to hear her voice one last time.
“She still lives, my lord,” said the man as if reading his thoughts.
Ian could only plead. “Please, I beg of you. Let me save her. She doesn’t deserve this.”
“No, she doesn’t,” agreed the man. “But you do. We all must pay somehow. Killing you would be too easy. I take from you your most prized possession as you did mine.”
Ian didn’t understand as he stood there defeated and hopelessly lost. Confusion must have shown in his eyes.
“You had my father hanged,” spat the man. “You disgraced my family and you hanged him in front of the town of Nomen. We couldn’t even get anyone to sell us a piece of fruit. My son died two months later from starvation. Then mother had to go to another town for fear of starving, too.”
Ian still listened for the sound of his wife. He hadn’t heard from her in a long while. Maybe she was already gone.
“Listen to me, fool!” He got a crossbow in the pit of his stomach. A young Ian fell to his knees next to his dead horse. Maybe he would die, too. It would be for the best. For a moment, he regretted not running to her. If he was to die anyway, he would have preferred to die by her.
“You paraded my father in the name of justice, so you said to the people.” The man was yelling in his ear. Ian didn’t care. His life was over.
The pain in his soul was unbearable. Maybe he should throw himself into the river and freeze along with his wife. He could drown out all his sorrows and go down with the love of his life. He would never be the same. Never.
“I think you paraded him so you could show Alias Demondread that you could rule with an iron fist. Alias is no king!” The man’s voice was filled with utter contempt. “Bastard, you had my father killed to please a man! Alias is only a man. A man with a title is all. That’s all he is.” The man moved away from a prone Ian.
“I am innocent of killing an innocent man.” Ian could barely speak the words. His voice seemed hollow, just an echo from a ghost that rode the wind. “Alias tried him in a fair trial. The king condemned him to die. Not I.”
The man roared with anger and kicked the Lord of Nomen in the mouth. For sure his jaw was broken. It still didn’t compare to the pain he felt within. Shame started creeping into the recesses of his mind, and guilt.
“You had the power to stop it,” yelled the man into his face. Ian stared up at him, ignoring the snow that threatened to sink into his eyes. Maybe they would melt and hide his tears. He didn’t blink when a flake landed in his eye. Maybe it would blind him and he could live the rest of his life in a world where everything was white. He would hide behind the excuse of being blind.
“You had the right to stop it,” mumbled the man. “So now I give you your life back devoid of all meaning, bastard.”
Ian almost yelled with frustration as all four men retreated. He felt another wave of anger as he realized they weren’t going to kill him. He didn’t want to continue. He didn’t. Where was his wife? Karen? Sara?
He felt a pair of hands hoist him up. The world spun for a moment and then gasped for air as he splashed into the freezing waters. I should have just gone after her, he thought. I should have just gone after her. I should have just gone after...
His lungs exploded as he hit a large rock and then darkness.
* * *
The large gates to Castle Greypearl opened with a loud cringe. The sight brought back many painful memories to Ian. Cursing slightly, he turned to face the people that looked back at him expectantly. They wanted an explanation of some kind. He wasn’t sure he had one for them.
They were all wet and soaked. He knew the first thing to do was to get them warm and dry. Thunder rumbled overhead and he glanced up at it with growing concern. This could be a bad situation.
He thought he heard more barking and growling somewhere very close by. His concern grew worse. The only comfort he could take was that they would all be safe soon. Nodding to his men, he led his people through the gates and into the looming presence of Castle Greypearl.
It was a large castle by normal standards. Four towers stood guard over the entire estate with parapets accompanying each structure. A widow’s walk led from the center of the main fortress to the largest tower. High arching windows showed a wide double stairway that led to the upper suites from the ground floor. See through curtains allowed for an easy glimpse of the showcase. Lights shown within many windows and guards scurried all around with the arrival of their new guests.
Outside, Ian led them through a courtyard and around a splendid fountain depicting a woman and her child. Both figures were made from a rare rock that looked gray under moonlight. He passed three gardens that he hardly attended and an outhouse where many of the people stopped, including his guards. He almost reached the side door to his estate when he realized he was walking alone. He turned around to find his men looking at him questioningly.
“My lord, are they not to stay in the guest quarters?” asked the captain of this particular guard.
“No,” came the immediate reply. “They are my guests of honor. All of them. Bring them inside. Hurry, the rain seems to be upset this night.”
He didn’t tell them that he suspected raindogs were out and about.
* * *
Will we ever be again? Ian chewed over the words quietly in his head. They haunted him every night, and every night they brought the same pain. He sat quietly behind an oak table. He dipped his quill in ink and continued to write.
He explained to Father Rayul the events of the night. He wrote that the Rune Man was dead. His death could not have been avoided, he wrote. It was either Romen Garrenson or himself, he explained. He went on to describe the destruction of the tenant’s home and to inform that they were now his guests of honor. It was his duty as their lord that they were cared for in the best possible manner. The only way to do that was to keep them all in sight.
He hesitated to write about his weapon. He described only the fight at first. Then, rather reluctantly, he stated all the facts in detail. He could not explain why his dagger had done the things it had done. Magic was the all-powerful force. Nothing could defuse such power, but his dagger had.
Was there such a thing? Ian didn’t know. Geamehn was magically protected. So was the Sun Cathedral. But Light Bearers had made the Sun Cathedral that way of old. It had also taken a little help from all six Shining Ones to build it, too. Geamehn was an entirely different matter. Geamehn had been magically protected right after the Conquest. That had been during a time when the greatest wizard of all time had still been alive.
So where had his weapon come from? Who or what had made it?
One thing was for sure. He wasn’t about to give it up. His wife had given it to him. He would not part ways with it. No matter at what cost. They could borrow it, but not take it. His wife. He could still see her. He could still smell her hair. Feel her soft skin. He could still feel his heart beat harder with a flash of her smile.
A knock brought him out of his thoughts. It was just as well. His thoughts always turned dark after that.
“Come in,” he ordered.
Copyright © 2005 by Julian Lawler