By Kris Kramer
A Rise of Cithria story
Chapter 3 (of 6)
“How many are there now?”
Ansen Havarton, Steward of Breakwall Castle, leaned over the massive mahogany writing desk that filled the center of his stark office. Dozens of parchments lay scattered across the top, a regular fixture of his daily routine as he pored through notes, letters, inventories and budgets. Two soldiers stood opposite him, a centnar and a decnar, both wearing polished breastplates, flowing red capes hanging from their shoulders, and stylized helms nestled in the crooks of their arms.
“We chased away around thirty,” the centnar said, “but there could have been another dozen or two hiding on the far side of the river. We don’t have an accurate count right now.”
Ansen slammed his fist onto the desk.
“Why here? Why are we suddenly a refuge for these people?” He looked at the two stone-faced officers, neither of whom appeared to have any more answers than he. “Is someone spreading rumors about buried treasure underneath the castle? Or a legendary sword? The tomb of a lost Thandaran Emperor? Tell me, because I am at a loss to explain why over a hundred vagrants and refugees have come from all over Caldera to Breakwall looking to find charity.”
The soldiers averted their eyes. Ansen huffed at them, then moved from the table to stand next to the narrow window that overlooked the courtyard of the castle from three stories up. He’d claimed this room as his office twenty years ago, after taking over as steward from his father, also named Ansen. The view allowed him to see much of what happened in the castle from on high, but he also secretly enjoyed the fact that no one liked climbing three long flights of stairs to come see him.
As usual these days, the courtyard was busy with merchants delivering goods, soldiers sharpening swords, villagers coming and going, and couriers hurrying through the gates. The castle was as it always had been – the hub of a bustling Artoran town lying in the shadows of Corendar. His work organizing this castle and the town it lorded over had been much of the reason why some of the earls seriously considered his lord as a successor for Tanchet’s debacle of a reign as King of Caldera, before Thaine Trannoch was plucked from the army. But now a disease had taken root in the town, and though he couldn’t see it, he felt the symptoms.
“Twenty at the docks, fifteen at the village church, another eight at the castle chapel, ten or so near the way house along the Corendar Road, and now upward of fifty hiding in the forest?” Ansen shook his head. “On top of that, Lady Violet has somehow found the motivation to personally provide them with food and alms, which means they have no incentive to bugger off now.”
The centnar grunted. His name was Sevris, and he’d been captain of the guard in Breakwall for almost as long as Ansen had been steward. “Poor timing for her to suddenly find her heart.”
Ansen gave him a warning glance, but nothing more. Lady Violet, despite being only a lord’s daughter, normally carried herself like the spoiled, whiny princess she imagined herself to be. That was probably inevitable when her father once aspired to sit on the Calderan throne.
The decnar, a dashing young man named Joah, cleared his throat. “People are saying all the refugees bring her gifts. Expensive ones, too. Seems easy to understand why she likes them if that’s true.”
Sevris grunted in agreement. Ansen leaned against the window with a resigned sigh.
“Keep sending men out to the forest. At the very least, make the Lady’s new friends see the value of congregating on the other side of the river.”
Sevris bowed his head and left, along with his decnar. Ansen continued to stare out the window, watching the chapel specifically. A young woman in stained, muddied clothes stood at the open door on the far side of the courtyard, looking out as if waiting for someone. Another newcomer to Breakwall, with a story that didn’t line up and a purpose that was fuzzy at best. Most of these refugees offered eerily similar tales about why they’d come to this place – they all claimed that they needed a new home, and Breakwall was where they wanted that home to be. As flattering as some in the castle found that notion, Ansen had trouble understanding why they didn’t go to Corendar, only a day’s travel to the north. The Church there was far more capable of handling such a large number of poor and homeless migrants. And they’d find more help in the form of alms and charity from the cluster of nobles there.
He rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn. He wasn’t himself these days. Troubling nightmares had plagued him the last few nights, bringing with them gruesome visions of black-robed men dragging him from his bed and taking him to the darkest part of the woods where they cut him and smeared themselves with his blood. Once he woke from the nightmare, drenched in a cold sweat, he couldn’t go back to sleep. Nor did he want to after such vivid horrors. But his lack of sleep lately was keeping him irritable and exhausted. And far too excitable. Worst of all, the fatigue kept him from making sense of this new dilemma.
He’d simply have to focus on his work. When life refused to make sense, Ansen had learned long ago to keep his hands busy until it did. He returned to his desk, picking up a small stack of documents that his lord would need to review. He left his office and walked down the spiral stairs to the second floor of the castle.
He found the door to the castle’s drawing room, where Lord Morgantin held private meetings with visitors or officials. He knocked gently and opened the door to find a large room decorated in the finest of Calderan luxuries. Red and gold-trimmed curtains framed two wide windows that overlooked the northern reaches of the Breakwall domain. Numerous elegant tapestries hung from the dark stone walls, and a thick, plush red rug covered the middle of the floor. Small wooden tables were arrayed around the edges of the room, each one displaying silver or gold artifacts, or fancy collections of mugs and dinnerware.
Lord Selvan Morgantin sat in a high-backed chair in the rear-center of the room. He was thin and impossibly tall, an imposing man who literally looked down his nose at everyone. But he was also a good man, for a Calderan lord.
Seated on a plush bench to his left was his only child, Lady Violet Morgantin, who engaged him in conversation with a furious scowl on her face. Upon Ansen’s entry, however, they both stopped and looked at him.
“Ansen,” Lord Selvan waved him in. “Enter.”
“My lord,” Ansen bowed his head and took a few steps into the room. “Can we speak a moment?”
Lord Selvan nodded. The steward hesitated briefly to see if Lady Violet would leave the room, but she remained seated, turning only slightly to face him. She was twenty-two years old, having been only a babe when Ansen took office, and still unmarried. She’d had suitors, but she’d tired of them all for various reasons, usually a lack of money, or a lack of manners. A few simply stopped calling on her, providing decent enough excuses, although everyone in the county knew the real reason they lost interest.
“I bring word about the recent troubles we’ve had.”
“Yes, my lord. I believe it to be a symptom of our refugee problem.”
“Problem?” Lady Violet balked. “Why do you use that word, Steward?”
Ansen blinked. The Lady of Breakwall had only recently become involved in the day-to-day affairs of managing the Morgantin domain and he still wasn’t used to it.
“Lady Violet, the mercy you show these people is commendable, and lauded throughout your father’s lands. But the fact remains that these people are unknown to us. They are draining us of food, water, supplies, and coin, and they all give us different reasons for being here. Sometimes two different reasons on the same day. And now, immediately after they blacken our shores, we have two murders to address.”
“So you assume the killers are amongst these refugees? Despite having no proof of that fact?”
Ansen tried very hard to remain calm.
“My lady, we haven’t seen anything so vile in these lands for a decade, and the last time it happened, the killer brazenly declared himself in the West Gardens after killing a man he accused of improper relations with his wife.”
“It still sounds incredibly circumstantial to me.”
“We have three witnesses who claim that a man in mud-stained clothes was near the Redbird tavern when Eric Gavelson was killed. As for the boy in the village, another refugee had been bothering his family for food only the day before. No one else is suspected in either crime, and the people of Breakwall believe that these murders were committed by someone hiding amongst the refugees. It is my duty as steward to see that these criminals are found, and I must start with the obvious suspects.”
“Your entire argument is based on nothing more than–”
“Violet,” Lord Selvan said, casting an annoyed glare at his unruly daughter, “that is enough. You’ve had your say on this matter. Please leave us.”
“Of course, father.” She gave a slight bow of her head and left the room. Ansen watched her for any sign of annoyance, but she left with as much grace as she could possibly muster. She really had changed. A few weeks ago, she would have thrown a tantrum before storming out red-faced.
Violet closed the door behind her, and Ansen turned to the lord, who shook his head with a weary smile.
“That girl does nothing but perplex me, Ansen. One day she’s screaming at her handmaiden for leaving a speck of dust on her dresser. The next, she’s bringing food to men and women living in filth or hiding in caves.”
“Perhaps she has finally discovered her noble purpose in this world.”
Lord Morgantin shook his head. “If only that were true.”
“You should have faith in your daughter, my lord. Some people find their calling late in life.”
“Perhaps. As I always say, my friend, I pity the fact that you’re fourteen years younger than I. When I die, and she becomes the true Lady of Breakwall…”
“I will have my hands full, yes. But I welcome the challenge. And if I find that I cannot rise to it, I can still retire to my home in Artalia.”
Lord Morgantin laughed.
“You would sooner leap to your death from Goldcliffe than leave anything here undone.”
Ansen smiled. His lord knew him well. “I live to serve, my lord.” He set his papers on the table near the lord’s chair, before taking a seat of his own.
“Now,” Lord Morgantin adjusted to face his steward, “to the more pressing issue, justice must be done. You wish to send for sentinels from Corendar?”
“Yes, my lord. I spoke with Didach Antonis at the church, and he says some of the sentinels there claim they can read the truth of a man’s intentions. I would like to summon them to question the refugees and see if they sense anything amiss.”
A flicker of surprise crossed Morgantin’s eyes. “Sentinels can read a man’s thoughts, now?”
“Antonis claims that it’s actually more subtle than that. They use their magic to sense changes in feeling or mood. When someone lies, they get scared, or angry, and the sentinels can see that in the man or woman’s temperament. Apparently it’s an old Inquisitor trick.”
“Don’t we have a sentinel?”
Ansen shrugged. “Gunnar is not in Breakwall, as far as I can tell. He left two days ago, without any notice.”
Morgantin sighed and shook his head. “That man… He used to be dependable. Now, he drowns himself in the vices of his church. What sort of message does that send?”
“I agree wholeheartedly, my lord.”
Selvan reached out for the documents, flipping through them with little interest.
“Send for the sentinels. And do what you must to resolve this. I have faith in you, Ansen.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
A knock on the door pulled Ansen from his work. He looked up to see a red-faced young man standing in the doorway of his office, fidgeting with a piece of paper in his hands.
“I-I have a summons for you, from Lord Morgantin.”
Ansen squinted at the man. Evening had come, casting the room in darkness, save for the candles on his desk. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Lord Steward.” He bowed, awkwardly.
“Just Steward. I’m not a lord.”
“Where am I being summoned to?”
The man looked at the note in his hand.
“The gardens, Lor-,” he paused, “Steward.”
Ansen nodded, glancing down at the pile of papers still cluttering his desk. Oh well, if the Lord of Breakwall wanted to summon him for a leisurely walk in the gardens, he couldn’t very well say no. He could probably stand to take a break, anyway.
“Tell the lord I will be there momentarily,” he said to the man, who bowed again and then disappeared down the hallway.
Ansen stood, stretching out the stiffness in his back and neck. He grabbed his coat from a rack in the corner. He’d become a bit more susceptible to the cold in his later years, and it wouldn’t do to be shivering all evening. He threw the coat over his shoulders, closed the door to his office, and went downstairs.
The castle was nearly empty, as it usually was this time of day. A lone servant carrying an empty platter scurried past as Ansen strode down the wide hall leading to the gardens. Ansen opened the thick wooden door at the end of the hall and stepped out into the cool night air. A cobblestone path meandered through a thick copse of hedges, ending at a clearing with a round gazebo in the center, typically the starting point for his walks with Lord Morgantin. The gazebo was empty, though, and he looked around, seeing no sign of anyone.
He heard some conversation in a nearby work shed, and decided to ask the gardeners if they knew where Lord Morgantin had gone to. He approached the door, turning as two dark-robed figures appeared at the edge of his vision. He began to ask the question of them, but as he discerned their appearance, he froze, seeing only the attackers from his nightmares.
No. This isn’t real.
His rational mind took hold, reminding him that he was awake, and in his own lord’s garden. He relaxed, ready to dismiss his fright as mere paranoia, nerves from his lack of sleep. But as soon as he opened his mouth to question them about their suspicious clothing, they lunged at him, knives flashing in the moonlight. He cried out as they jabbed deep into his flesh, over and over, until he fell to the ground, writhing in the throes of death.
The dark-robed attackers backed away, and a new figure emerged, standing next to Ansen’s head. A woman, with black hair and a bright red dress that somehow shined in the darkness.
“Lady…?” he croaked.
Lady Violet leaned over and ran a finger next to one of his wounds, her face devoid of emotion. She pushed on it, and for a moment he thought she might be trying to stem the flow of blood. Instead, she held up a hand stained dark red, the blood dripping from the glittering rings that lined each of her fingers. She rubbed the blood across her face, tasting it on her lips. A wicked smile greeted him as she exulted in the act.
She crouched down next to him, turning his head to face her.
“Had you been a weaker man, you may have been useful to me. But I have no place for servants of your will. Go in peace, Ansen Havarton. Your time as Steward of Breakwall is at an end.”
He tried to fight, to shout at her. But he only managed to get out one single word.
A curt laugh escaped her lips. She looked around at the garden, surveying her realm.
“Your world pleases me. What other reason could there be?”
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