A Liar’s Grace
by Joseph Howse
|part 1 of 3|
Neetham Banderdrake had lost his boots just before the black hounds found him. They barked from the raised highway as he writhed in the bog below. His right hand was in the same sinkhole as his left boot. (He should have cut his losses.) His left hand was flailing for something to grasp, something like the branches that had gashed his face aways back. (He should not have cursed the branches.)
A horse wheezed on the highway. Neethem strained to see its silhouette against the winter night. Quaking, he waited for the sound of the rider’s wispy, almost sweet voice to descend over him: “Stay still, Neetham. No one wants to rush you on your way to the bottom.”
* * *
Earlier that month, Neetham felt he had attained the highest and firmest ground: N. Banderdrake, Royal Messenger. The post gave him the protection of the Crown without any responsibility for the Crown’s actions. Chancellors, generals, even courtesans could be expected to sway the Royal ear. Could the Messenger? Hardly.
For the newest Royal Messenger, Neetham’s first errand had sounded like an easy one: deliver an architectural diagram to Duke Calbin Tasher III. Certain weather-related risks were made clear to Neetham. He would have to beware of ice on the roads and under no conditions should he take shortcuts across the bogs, which were most unpredictable in winter, of any season. A steady foot on steady ground was his brew for longevity; so he was told.
“Fine, fine!” Neetham laughed to himself as mile after mile of the roughish highway passed beneath his stride. “I’m not an imbecile!” Not once did his heels slip and his mind drifted nowhere near any shortcut.
On the seventh day of striding, Neetham safely reached the foot of Tasher’s Tor. The stronghold’s slopes were held intact by dead and matted rye grass. Over generations of Tasher dukedom, rye seeds had blown far across the surrounding wasteland and rye tufts had overtaken the native heather on many drier rises of the land. This now-dormant, frozen battlefield had only one observer old enough to know the story from its start. The keep atop Tasher’s Tor had eyes — in its solitary gargoyle.
As Neetham climbed the slope, his gaze stuck to the gargoyle. This statue’s tongue — doglike — lolled from its maw and dripped as an icicle melted. He had never been able to placate dogs and this, if nothing else, should have kindled anxiety in the courier’s heart.
A little girl lurked in the grass but Neetham did not notice until she stepped in front of him with an armful of brambles. The wild plant’s defences had torn her blue, silken sleeves. Though she had picked an odd bouquet, what else could one do out on the bogs in winter?
“Goodday,” said Neetham, believing he was choosing an adequately respectful greeting for the child-stranger.
“You offend me!” the girl declared. Whirling her dark braids, she ran to the keep’s wall, slipped into the postern gate and slammed it shut with surprising strength.
For the first time, Neetham began to sense that something in his mission had gone astray. He wanted to go and correct the child’s bad impression of him. Perhaps he should follow. She had probably left the postern gate unlocked. On second thought, he went and knocked on the main gates instead. A Royal Messenger did not chase skittish children, especially not via the postern gate.
The peephole in the main gates snapped open. The pair of blue eyes behind it snapped open too when Neetham announced, “I come from his Majesty, the King!” Oak boards creaked and jittered against the frozen ground. As the gates finally flew open, Neetham started. Standing (or now curtseying) before him was the dark-braided likeness of the same girl, except aged about nineteen instead of five.
“I’m sorry if my looks offends ya, sir,” she mumbled. Her dress was, indeed, very plain. “Most times, see, the guard in liv’ry, he’d answer the gate, but he’s so sore ’n swollen from the toothache, he can’t hardly speak, sir. I can speak, anyways!” She laughed before biting her lip and curtseying again. She attempted to back away but stumbled over the pail of cold muck by the stable door.
“You’re paying me too much respect,” Neetham pointed out. “You only back away from the King himself, not from his Messenger.” He clutched his svelte belly, bent his waist and swept the corner of his green cape across the cobblestones. “But... I’ll show you courtesy in return.”
“Ow! Thank ya!” giggled the young woman, curtseying again. She straightened up, stared around and opened her mouth to the wide winter air. Her set of teeth was somewhat lacking. “Now, where’d everywhit get off to?” she murmured breathlessly to herself.
“I couldn’t say,” Neetham answered. “I did see one girl-child around. She resembled you...”
“Ow! Thank ya!” she repeated with just as much zeal as the first time she said it. “That be his Grace’s cousin once removed, daughter to his Grace’s cousin ’n... his Grace’s cousin. I remembered right!”
“Indeed...?” Neetham breathed. “But I hope I didn’t offend her permanently, given her noble parentage.”
“Ow! This week she say everywhit ‘offend’ her. Last week she say everywhit was fit for to be hanged.”
“That’s less than genial.”
“Ya chose the word just right; I’m sure of it!”
“Teach me one word: your name.”
“Gert, just like my mother’s name before it!”
“Short for Gertrude, is it?”
“Ow! She never learned me that!”
Neetham felt himself running short on words, so he bowed to rummage up some more. “Neetham Banderdrake,” he said. “That’s my name.” A snowy owl passed overhead. “You were right, Gert. There certainly doesn’t seem to be much of anyone around, does there?”
“No. No.” She curtseyed, then ducked her head into the stables. “The horses ’n dogs is gone. Mayhap his Grace’s whole ent’rage is gone hunting for winter hares.”
“But you would have seen them go.”
“Ow, no, I been with Artgur, the guardsman. Even swollen up from the toothache, he’s the handsomest common man in the keep — or he was until recent!”
“Yes, well, I’d better go meet him.”
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Joseph Howse