Winter was heavy this year. The world seemed to be made of grays and purples that only came from temperatures that could kill a man in seconds. The Lake of Dead Men sloshed against the shore like a lazy behemoth, full of ice and bergs. All across the sky the sun was choked beyond recognition. It had been so long since anyone had felt its warming rays it hardly seemed to exist in the severe weather. The people of The Valley of Life might as well have been on another planet.
But on this day, Lord Raven Noral, Marguer Losom, and Lord Wolfgang Neverfolt braved the elements to meet in private in a place where none could hear them. The three stood huddled together like a trio of thieves, rubbing their arms and legs for warmth.
Wolfgang’s ancestral blood helped keep some of the cold out of his bones, but even he was beginning to tire of the conditions they were in. Even werewolves died of freezing.
A gust of brittle cold wind ended their argument for a second, leaving them to the silence around their location. A pine splintered nearby and crashed heavily against its fellow trees, where it remained standing awkwardly like a drunken fool. It was definitely getting cold.
Marguer Losom took a deep breath, the release of it fogging enough to hide her face for a moment before dissolving.
“Lord Noral,” she began once again. They had been over this many times now. “I am the best eyes and ears the country has. There is nothing that the king hears that I don’t. All we are asking for is a little support. Nobody is threatening to oppose the king. We all love him dearly, but many are very upset about his latest decision to allow The Prophet of Dreams to remain as his Royal Advisor.”
“Don’t you see, man?” chimed in Wolfgang. He had to make himself very clear that they did not want to overthrow the king. He could be hung for such thoughts. “He is appointing a lunatic to a very important position. What if something happens to the king?”
Marguer Losom understood what was at stake here. “That is all I am saying. He has one daughter who is still only ten years old and no sons. Many of the lords are very upset over this. The king has to think more prudently. He cannot leave a raving mad man in charge should something happen to him.”
“We only ask for your commitment should we find others who feel the way we do,” explained Wolfgang, “We can depend on you to defend us in the public’s eye and be shoulder to shoulder with us.”
Lord Raven Noral was a very practical man. In the world of politics, every decision was a gamble. Men and women who lived a long political career stayed alive in the arena of government because of their ability to contemplate their decisions long before they had to be made.
And not for the first time, his dark eyes strayed to the hills behind his two companions. Was there an assassin out there waiting for him? Should he answer no to the two before him, would they give a signal that would hand him a mortal blow?
“I will have to think of your proposition.” He stated calmly. “You cannot possibly expect me to make up my mind right now.”
Both companions stared at him with silent misgiving running through their heads. He could see it in their eyes. They were afraid he would turn them over to the king. But so what if he did run to the king? No one would ever believe that he had been propositioned by Wolfgang Neverfolt to oppose the king. Could he convince the king of the woman Marguer Losom? There was no doubt in his mind of that. She would hang.
But he could never convince the king of Wolfgang Neverfolt. Lord Neverfolt’s younger brother, Remen, was already destined to be the Lord General. Lord Wolfgang was already the most powerful man in the realm. Easily the council member with the most clout and power, his contacts ran as deep as the lake they lived by.
No, that would never do. His best options would be to appease the two before him, and never look back. He would forget this conversation once he was safely within his home. Yes, he could never hope to survive a power struggle with Wolfgang Neverfolt.
It was Wolfgang who spoke first. “Think about it, Raven. That is all we ask. We must protect what is ours.”
Or protect what he wants to claim for his own some day. The thought ran through his mind like an oil stain across a perfect painting. In the world of politics, one had to learn how to make deals with his enemies, and how to break the most sacred of compromises with his friends. It was the part of his title and job Lord Noral hated the most.
When he was sitting in his office at the castle, making sure his people were taken care of, that’s when he was the happiest. The thought of his office and Castle Bonemeyer only punctuated his precarious situation once again. Standing there by the shore of a frozen Lake of Dead Men only reminded him once again that an assassin could strike at him at any moment should he fail to meet the expectations of his two suitors.
One wrong answer could bring him down just like the splintered pine standing precariously upright by the graces of his fellow trees. A stifling breeze made him wrap his cloak tighter around him.
“I will think on it, Wolfgang.” He felt slightly relieved now that he had said it. He also expected the fatal blow to come, as well. “That is all I can offer for now.”
With that, he turned from the pair and walked away, skirting the rocks and heading for the nearby frozen shore. The first hundred yards he walked, he expected any step to be his last. But the arrow never came and the knife in the back never materialized. He slipped almost once as he lost his footing on the icy beach, but that didn’t stop him from continuing on his chosen path.
He had always been that way, he figured. He always did what he felt was the right thing to do, no matter how difficult the path was nor how perilous. Growing up the son of a farmer and a midwife, he knew he was the only lord on the council to have been born a peasant.
He resented his background only sometimes, especially on those days when the rest of lords were feeling especially haughty. They would speak to him as if his schooling was not up to par with theirs. They would slow their speech and speak to him as if he was a child that still didn’t quite grasp large words.
It was this outlook they had of him that had convinced Marguer Losom and Wolfgang Neverfolt to approach him. They felt they could control his Simpleton mind. All the lords felt they could control him. The thought of their arrogant pride and outlook on life made him seethe for a moment, but he quickly suppressed it. There was no room in him for anger, especially when he had to make sure the people of The City had enough blankets and wood to keep them safe and warm.
It was his upbringing that made him the man and leader that he was. Men like Wolfgang Neverfolt, who had grown up with spoons in their mouths, could never understand the minds of the common folk. They could never see that the common folk were the true prize and heart of a country. A country and its lords were only as great as the people that allowed them to govern. But that ideal was a hard concept to grasp for people that never had to work for themselves.
And none of the lords on the current Council had ever worked for themselves.
He continued to walk along the beach, alone and wrapped in his thoughts. He forgot about Wolfgang Neverfolt and his proposition. He made himself forget Marguer Losom and her supple lips and creamy skin. The woman was enough to daze a man for weeks. The fact that she had approached him, the only single man on the Council, was not lost on him.
They truly did think he was a Simpleton. Their ignorance and arrogance almost made him smile. By the time he reached his home the waterfall behind his house had frozen completely over. He wondered when it had frozen completely. When had that last drop of water finally given itself over to join the rest of its comrades? Had it been pressured by the rest?
He decided to get a closer look and found himself tapping on the frozen wall. He was standing in the middle of the frozen pool, the waterfall jutting out of its center like a geyser made of crystal. It was one of the prettiest things he had ever seen. It wasn’t until he pressed his face against it that he noticed there was still water running to the pool beneath him to the river way close by. It only appeared to be frozen completely by the outer shell of ice that had formed.
He made his way into his lavishly built home. As he passed through the finely wrought iron gates, he asked one of his guards to fetch him a Home Guard. He quickly sat at his desk and pulled out a piece of parchment.
He laid out his instructions carefully and explicitly for the Home Guard to take extra wood and blankets to the poorer parts of The City. On a day like this, there could be no misunderstanding about his instructions. People’s lives depended on his concise orders.
By the time the captain of the Home Guard arrived, his note was neatly folded and ready to be picked up: his order ready to be carried out. He waited until the man had finished reading, just to make sure everything was understood.
The captain looked down at him when he was finished. “I cannot possibly cover the entire city today, my lord.”
Lord Noral shook his head. “I don’t expect you to, Jacques. But we can start today, and we can finish by the end of the week. Many will not last that long, but we have to do what we can.”
He followed the captain out of his chambers and let the man walk himself out. By the time he retired to his rooms and was sitting in his rocking chair enjoying the heat from his fireplace, Lord Raven Noral had forgotten all about Wolfgang Neverfolt’s plans.
* * *
Their plans would occasionally surface to the brim of his thoughts like some intrepid intruder that could not be kept out. During these occasions, he would ponder going to the king. He would contemplate turning Marguer Losom over to the authorities. But his course of action was set. And Lord Noral was not a man to change his mind once it was set. Inaction could be used like an assassin’s blade if used properly. And when it came to Wolfgang Neverfolt, he had mastered the art of the silent treatment. It was like getting into trouble and having to wait for father to come home. You would wait and wait until your own thoughts drove you crazy. Eventually, the anticipation grew so strong you just wanted to get over whatever was coming to you. But he never gave Wolfgang the satisfaction.
At times, he would stare at Wolfgang Neverfolt at their daily council meetings, and he could see his lack of response was driving the other man crazy.
He could see the frustration his inaction was creating in Lord Neverfolt’s being. Blackmail was surely expected. But the accusations never flew. The condemnation never came. Marguer Losom never hung for her treasonous thoughts. His total lack of indifference kept his two unruly suitors away like the plague. They avoided his company, and they avoided his projects.
He might as well have been a leper. But that was the way of Lord Noral. He had a way of responding to situations in ways that were never expected. Many years would pass in this fashion and not once did they ever approach him again to see if he would support their plans to have The Prophet of Dreams assassinated.
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler III