Nether Makerfield 3057.7.20
‘So what does it say then?’
She had to smile. The look in his eyes was all mischief. Gerald Robarn just loved secrets, and delighted in being ‘the man in the know.’ His retirement from Mador’s service had not changed him.
‘Father, you should know better. This is a public place.’
‘Yes, dearest daughter, I am well aware that this very fine drinking house, which I happen to own, is a very public place; that is after all what it is for. However I note there are only three other people present: one is my innkeeper and the other two are Stam and Rona, a young couple I’ve known all their lives, so totally caught up in gazing into each other’s eyes they would not notice if I stood on this table and danced for them. I am also aware that we are presently secluded in a nice corner far enough away for our speech to be inaudible to them all. Unless there is some invisible presence with a magical power of hearing far beyond the skill of cats and bats, then, daughter dear, we are safe to discuss whatsoever we will whether it be the disposition of forces or the extraordinary size of King Mador’s underwear.’
‘I don’t think he will ever forgive that clothier.’
‘It is one thing to make ludicrous clothes for your King and yet another to tell the world about it. But that is a long way from being beside the point. What about the letter? I know I’m just an old fool—’
‘Rubbish father! We both know you’re not an old fool but I really should not be talking about this. I know you’re curious but this is the King’s mail!’
‘Yes, I am curious, Isolde, but more than that I am concerned. You have such confidence, you think you can take on anything and mostly you can, but Asteranor is a dangerous place just now. When all comes to all, my little Izzy, you are my darling daughter and without you I’d be lost. I want to make sure you will be safe.’
Isolde sat back with a sigh. She knew that this was as much simple manipulation as plain truth but ever since her mother died, nearly eight years past, her father had somehow lost the strength he was known for. She was indeed his mainstay and it was a role she accepted happily enough providing, of course, her father understood that it would work according to her rules and not his. She gave him her time, half of the time. Whenever she wasn’t on some mission or other for Mador she returned to the Lyndons and enjoyed her life there. But it was becoming more difficult, her work more demanding, her personal needs not addressed. Between Mador and her father, between work and home there was precious little time for anything that was just for Isolde. Her parents had shared a wonderful relationship for forty-two years. They had first met at a party for her mother’s seventeenth birthday and neither had looked at another since. There was an aching sadness in her father’s eyes these days but at least they had found each other and shared a good life together. Where would Isolde find such a relationship? When would she ever get the chance to look? Not yet a while. She reached across the table and took her father’s hand.
‘I love you daddy but I need to go my own way. I am so like you: can you not remember yourself at my age? You would never have taken the safe road. Only mum could have held you back and she never did; she never wanted to: she loved you for what you were.’
‘Hmm. For what I was, eh. Not what I am now. Oh, I am changed; I know it. I never knew love until I met Louise. My mother died when I was too young to understand anything and my father was always rather remote from us children. It was only in your mother and in you that I found my true place in the world. Losing her has hit me hard but for now I still have you. And you still have me, but I will not be around forever. Before I depart this world my darling I would like to see you find your own place.’
‘Father, you are as strong as an ox. You’ll be ninety before you die.’
‘You could have said a hundred.’
‘Let’s not get carried away.’
Her father grinned. ‘It’s being carried away I’m worried about. But we’re getting off the point. The original point, mind you: I still want to know what Mador is asking you to do. You know there’s a rumour that Xandra has gone missing? Yes, well I’ll not have him losing my daughter too.’
‘Oh really father, you can hardly blame Mador.’
‘Yes I can. Very easily. What fool sends his daughter to war?’
‘Any man with a daughter like Xandra, I should say. Do you think he could deny her anything she’d set her mind on? She wanted to join her House and that was that. How did you hear about this anyway?’
‘I have my contacts. As do you. Now, about this letter?’
‘You can be quite maddening at times, do you know that?’ The words were cranky but she was smiling: there was something of the old Robarn tenacity about him this morning and it was a pleasure to see. ‘Well, why not. It’s not as if I can’t trust you to keep a secret. To be frank, father, there’s not much to tell. Anparas and Temor are in Riverport—’
‘Yes, I know.’
Isolde raised her eyebrows and Gerald allowed himself a small smile.
‘And do you know why they have left their barracks?’
‘No, not really. Oh I did hear a rumour that Mador was intent on invading Gothery.’
‘Gods, is nothing safe?’
‘Not very, but don’t forget I had a position at Ayer for many years. I have many friends and I’m bound to hear things that others do not.’
‘Not that you go fishing for it then?’
‘I’ve been casting my nets for half a century, Isolde: it’s hard to break the habit. Now it’s more of an amusement than a job. The invasion is on, then?’
‘I don’t know that I would use the word ‘invasion’. I’ve been told to report to Lomal for further instruction on my role in Gothery. I would imagine, as he knows me well, that I’ll be asked to liaise with the King.’
‘Liaise with Sirl?’
‘Well, ‘pacify’ might be a better word. Reassure him that it’s for his own good we’ve overrun his country and taken control. That kind of thing.’
Gerald laughed. ‘Good luck to you. Of course this is all dependent on finding Sirl still in charge. I heard tell he was ill and that his doctor seemed to be running things.’
‘One I’ve not heard. Who is this doctor?’
‘I didn’t get a name. But you’ll find out soon enough, I daresay. When do you leave?’
‘Tomorrow morning. I’ll take the carriage, if you don’t mind. I’ll be needing my trunk if I’m to dress for the King of Gothery. Lord Anparas expects me, and some others, at Riverport docks by noon at the latest. It’s thirteen miles. I need only set off at nine. Time for a good breakfast with my dear old dad before I go.’
‘That will be very nice. I’ll ask Jeffers to make sure the carriage is ready for eight. It won’t hurt us to have breakfast a little earlier and you’re more likely to be there on time. And Roddy can come with you too: Cook wants him to do some shopping for her. Now then, I’ve finished my sup and you never do, so shall we go?’
‘Only two pints today, father?’
‘One for the gut and one for the head. There was a poem I was working on and I don’t want to get too cloudy for it.’
‘Let’s go then. Perhaps you can give it to me before I leave.’
‘Perhaps. You’re so kind to your old dad, anyone would think you liked to read my poems.’
‘Some of them.’ She linked his arm and they made their way out into the bright sunlight.
On a bench up against the wall of the drinking house away to the right of the main door sat a young woman. Isolde and her father did not register she was there. The homespun garb she wore was almost the same colour as the grey stone she leaned against and she was completely still. Only her eyes moved, strangely violet eyes that followed the pair down the lane. She listened to their conversation all the way back to the manse, heard the lock of the door rattle with keys, she heard the cook tell them supper would be ready in half an hour, she heard the gurgle of water as Isolde filled a bowl to wash her face.
Satisfied she drew herself up and took the path to the main road where she caused a farmer to stop his cart and offer her a ride.
The ability to hear through walls and over distances was only one of her skills.
Isolde kissed her father goodbye once more and hugged him tight. She was leaving him once again. For some reason the parting seemed more difficult this time. She found it hard to let go.
‘Are we off then, Miss Iz?’ Jeffers opened the carriage door for her. Thank the stars he still had Cook and Jeffers, both of them just young enough to see him through to the end of his days and both happy to do so. ‘Best to get on, he’ll be miserable when you’ve gone however many kisses you leave him with.’
There were tears standing in her father’s eyes. She gave him one final squeeze.
‘It’s me that needs the kisses, Jeb,’ she said. ‘But you’re right: it’s time I got going. ‘Bye Dad. It’ll not be long this one before I’ll be heading back to Ayer with some message or other. I’ll call in on the way. Why don’t you come up to Ayer with me?’
‘Oh, they don’t want an old codger like me up at court.’
‘Nonsense father. You think about it. You’ve been hiding up at the Lyndons far too long now.’
He shrugged dismissively and then reached out a hand to help her into the carriage. Jeffers leapt up beside Roddy and with no more words and no more fuss they set off. She looked back once to see her father staring after the carriage, a forlorn look about him. She waved but he didn’t wave back: his eyesight was none too good these days. She settled back in the cushions and tried to stop worrying about him.
Off on the road again! This was her life; had been these five years. She had grown up at court. Her father’s work in Mador’s service had kept the family away from the Lyndons, the family home, for the best part of every year until her mother died. As such she was perfectly placed to make an impression and as she matured Mador was quick to recognise her best qualities. She was good at engaging people. When she spoke people listened; when she listened they spoke. She had a cool head in an argument and she rarely lost one. She understood politics and commerce. In short she was the perfect ambassador for Pars and the King. Much of her talent came from her father of course but in one regard she had the edge on her dear old dad: she was quite lovely, and sensible enough to realise that without it being a matter of vanity. Beauty was a great weapon if used carefully. Men, and indeed some women, became positively stupid whenever she turned on the charm.
She allowed herself the girlish giggle she kept for her most private moments. Last year she’d been sent to mediate between rival fleet-masters down in Pulonia. The two aggrieved parties were each claiming exclusive fishing rights over the same stretch of water. Both sides were represented by equally pig-headed, slightly more than middle-aged men determined never to sign up to anything that did not give them complete victory in the argument. Straightforward arbitration would have got them nowhere. There was only one solution and within only a week Isolde had them weak in the knees and weak in the head. They were each so desperate to impress the ravishing creature so captivating their attention, that the original dispute between them became a minor consideration. They awoke from their dreams of romantic pursuit to find that not only had they done a deal and signed on the line, but they had agreed to be bound by the contract ‘at the risk of the King’s Law.’ And then, worse still, they had then to suffer her ‘best wishes’ and departure for Ayer.
Sometimes she felt a little guilty. Her cheeks blushed fetchingly at the thought. But sometimes her charms got her in trouble.
Mador had insisted she must always travel with a guard or two to discourage any foolishness. Just at the moment, however, she was taking a rest from such support. Long hours on the road in close company with a beautiful woman could lead to misunderstandings: some men could think there may be a connection or a promise when there was none. Her ‘relationship’ with Redlan Ibbold had been particularly fraught. He was not a bad man, it was just that he couldn’t cope with the feelings she unintentionally provoked. The man wandered a perilous path between professing undying love and displaying an aggressive jealousy that threatened to explode into real violence. He had been sent away with House Imperan to do battle on the slopes of the Hurgals as much for his own safety as for hers. Isolde had retreated to the Lyndons frightened and confused.
‘What you want, girlie, is a man between your legs,’ he’d yelled at her as they parted, ‘You know you do and I know you do. So what’s wrong with me?’
It was a brutal way of putting it but she could sense the underlying pain in his words. So life goes: few people get exactly what they want when it comes down to love. He was right of course. She most certainly did want a man but it was not him. Not by a long way. She sighed the sigh that had been perplexing her father this past month. At least that was one secret he wasn’t party to.
She shook her head but there was no one to see it. Where was this getting her? ‘Why bother yourself Izzy’ she said out loud, ‘there’s always work. And there’s always friends too. And another thing, life is too short for talking to yourself.’ And with that she stuck her head out of the window and yelled ‘Move over Roddy, I’m coming up.’ Long and delicate blue silk robe notwithstanding, she hauled herself out of the window, up onto the roof and plumped herself down on the box seat. Soon Roddy and Jeb and Isolde were exchanging jokes and laughter and her journey away from the Lyndons and her father began to seem not so bad.
It was just about nine o’clock when it happened. The carriage was rumbling on, young, flame-haired Roddy was rumbling on too about what he could buy for his lass, and Isolde was contentedly taking in the warm sun and the lovely scenery when with a squalling cry a young girl broke cover.
‘Help! Please help me!’ she pleaded, casting herself dangerously onto the road before the horses. Jeb had the devil of a job reining in but as soon as they came to a halt Isolde jumped down.
‘Up you get, little one,’ she said, hauling the waif to her feet. A comely child she was, a well made twelve or thirteen year old with a pretty face but the face was streaked with tears. ‘What’s happened to you then?’
The girl twisted away from Isolde as soon as she was on her feet as though she had been scalded by her touch.
‘Not me, Miss, it’s me mam. She’s sick; it’s bad and I don’t know what to do. Can you come Miss? It’s just back there.’ She pointed to a track through the trees edging the road.
Isolde saw no reason to be wary but Jeb said: ‘I’d better come with you.’ The effect of those words on the girl was alarming.
‘No! No you can’t,’ she yelped. ‘You mustn’t. You won’t let him Miss will you?’
‘Whatever’s wrong?’ Jeb asked, an aggrieved edge to his voice. ‘I’ll not harm you.’
The girl was shaking with fright. ‘It’s my mam, see…’ she tried to explain, ‘Some men came… and they… they hurt her a lot. Last night. They’ve all gone now.’
Isolde shared a look with Jeb. ‘You stay here Jeb. She won’t want to be seeing men just now. I’ll be fine.’ She reached into the pocket of her gown and pulled out a thin brass cylinder. ‘If I need you I’ll whistle.’
Jeb wasn’t happy about it but he’d learned not to argue with Miss Iz whenever she had made up her mind.
‘Right then. We’ll wait. Just make sure you do whistle if anything seems not right.’
‘None of this is going to be right, Jeb.’
The track led to a white painted, one storey, one roomed cottage. The young girl ran through the open gate but came to a halt before she reached the door, terrified to go any further. She looked back as Isolde caught up.
‘She’s in here, Miss. It… it smells bad.’
Isolde felt nervous but she put the feeling aside, stepped past the girl and lifted the latch. When the door swung open the stench hit her like a blow. It was the acrid smell of ordure overlain by the unmistakable flyblown smell of a summer death. A hideous buzzing filled the air.
This was no place for a child. ‘Wait for me on the other side of the fence,’ she said to the girl, ‘I’ll be out again soon.’ The girl did as she was told without question. She didn’t want to go into the house and no one would blame her. Isolde stepped through the doorway.
There was no light other than from the door and it was difficult to make out the lay of the room in the gloom. She stumbled over to one of the windows, pulled open the casement and pushed at the creaking shutters. The stench was making her gag and she took in three lungs-full of clean air before turning back to survey the room.
Isolde was by nature self possessed whatever the situation but she almost screamed.
Over by the range were the savaged remains of what was once a grown woman. Her face was untouched but her body had been ripped apart. Her bowels were spilled everywhere, lumps of flesh were scattered round about: on the range, on the table, on the floor, a liver, a kidney, a womb.
Isolde couldn’t hold it back any longer: she bent double and vomited.
‘You alright, miss?’ came the girl’s voice through the doorway, ‘What’s happened?’
‘Stay out, girl!’ Isolde spat out the last of her breakfast. ‘Go and get my friends, will you? Now!’
She heard the girl running away, sobbing again. Stock still, she closed her eyes and forced herself to calm down. Whatever had happened here it was over now. She had seen corpses before and been able to cope. A dead body is a dead body, nothing more or less, and it cannot possibly hurt you. One more look, she told herself, just to see if there’s anything more and then you can leave. Bargain made, Isolde opened her eyes to the horror once more and set about her task.
She walked around the table, determined not to step on anything that was not the floor itself, and examined the destruction at close hand. The woman’s eyes were still open in a look suggesting surprise rather than terror. Isolde contemplated trying to close them but decided against: she would have had to wade through too much blood and flesh. It was an incredible sight. Surely, she thought, not even the most brutal of men would have gone this far. She bent closer to peer at the wreck of the woman’s torso. The edges of the wounds were not clean cut as with a knife but torn and ragged. It was the work of claws. Was there some savage animal on the loose? But that wouldn’t tally with what the girl said about men hurting her mother. Did they bring an animal with them?
Something moved. She heard it: a small something. Just past the range was a niche in the wall. Isolde was convinced that was where the noise had come from. A small, terrified part of her mind screamed at her to leave at once, to go no further, to not look. But Isolde looked.
And she could not bear the sight. Propped up against a small door like some discarded doll, was another child, her legs tucked under as though she had been trying to hide; her head dipped so that her long brown hair curtained her face. Her chest was bloody, she was dead. Isolde’s eyes filled with tears. Had they no shame?
The noise came again. Just there in her lap was a white mouse: the sort young children keep as pets. It seemed unconcerned by Isolde’s approach and continued to nibble at the piece of meat it had found and brought back.
By her size the girl looked to be about the same age as the girl who had brought her to this place. She wore the same style of clothes, had the same colour of hair. A sister perhaps. Isolde crouched and gently lifted the face by the chin to see if there was a resemblance.
‘No!’ she gasped.
The face was not similar, but identical. Just then a shadow fell across the scene. Someone was standing in the doorway.
‘Jeb? Is that—’
She sprang to her feet and whirled round in the same movement. The silhouetted form in the doorway was motionless.
‘She was a pretty young thing,’ it said. ‘Ever so sweet.’
Stepping forward into the light from the opened window came a woman of Isolde’s age, of Isolde’s height and weight; she had the same long, golden hair and she wore the same face. The only points of difference between Isolde and this shocking apparition were in the cat-like claws and the bared fangs.
The whistle shrilled and had Jeb and Roddy running like fury. They met Isolde staggering back down the path with the whistle in her mouth. Her clothes were torn and bloody, her hair was in a tangle and her face was battered. She fell to the ground just as they reached her but immediately pulled herself to her feet and carried on.
‘What’s happened?’ Jeb cried as he ran alongside, his arms desperate to hold her.
‘I was attacked! Don’t fret so. It’ll be right, Jeb, but we have to go – right now. I fought her off and she went, but the Gods help us if she comes back. I’ll explain when we’re gone.’
‘But what about the lass and her mother?’
‘They’re a long way beyond our help. Now let’s go.’
When they reached the carriage Isolde clambered inside while Roddy and Jeb leapt up top. Roddy groped about under the seat for the crossbow as Jeb whipped up the horses. Hopefully whoever had attacked Miss Iz wouldn’t be able to catch them but if they did Roddy wanted an argument in his hands.
Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages