ZIHAEN, The Shadow of the Revenaunt, Book 2

CHAPTER 18 - Lorrevaal (Part 3)

They rode on till they saw the castle standing on the spot where the brook they’d been following flowed into a river. Lorrevaal was a square tower of four floors, built of the local gray stone. Around it was a ring wall closing off the whole island, with a long stone bridge to the shore. Flags bearing a gray fist on a field of dark red waved from all the towers.

The sound of pounding hooves came to meet them, and Ghyll saw a cavalcade of at least fifteen soldiers coming at a gallop across the bridge. In front rode a huge man in blood-red armor, with Kirogall behind him. The sorcerer’s voice came shrill on the wind. ‘That’s them, Lord Dorkel, the agitators. They were inciting your slaves.’

‘No longer, sorcerer,’ the man roared, and he took a huge ax from his back.

Before Ghyll knew it, he was fighting for his life. Dorkel was a massive man, at least a head taller than the young king, and with a longer reach. He wielded his battle-ax like a simple chopper, and it was thanks to Ulanth’s reflexes that Ghyll didn’t lose his head in the first minute.

Dorkel was fast, unexpected for someone of his bulk. Hard-pressed, Ghyll called upon Childegard, and a wild buzz filled the air, while frost colored the blade white. A cloud of snowflakes appeared when Ghyll parried an ax blow that was meant to open his head. Dorkel growled in surprise when the cold struck him and his eyes looked thoughtfully at Ghyll. The king suddenly realized that the red-armored highlord wasn’t the rash brute he seemed.

Dorkel changed his next stroke halfway, and with a move that would have broken a lesser warrior’s wrist, gave his ax another direction. Childegard pulled Ghyll’s arm as if he was planning something and the king relaxed his muscles. Immediately the sword flashed in a series of almost impossible moves. Dorkel tried to parry the sword’s attacks and ended up in a hopeless position. Humming triumphantly, the blade hit him in the same manner Ghyll had unseated the enemy archer – this time, however, with a force the young king alone could never match.

The highlord crashed to the ground as if struck by a falling tree, and everyone heard his bones crack. Dorkel however, wasn’t easily beaten. He turned in the grass and pushed himself up on his arms. He turned his head to Ghyll and a snarl escaped his throat. Then he fell back to the ground and lay still.

When the soldiers saw their lord had fallen, they looked at each other. One of them, a tall, thin man with a pockmarked face, sheathed his sword and raised his hands. Promptly the others followed his example, and the battle was over.

Ghyll looked at the pockmarked man. ‘You surrender?’

‘We are mercenaries, sir,’ the man said wryly. ‘Our captain is dead and now our client. It’s no use to fight on. The only thing we ask is a free retreat.’

‘Put down your weapons.’ Ghyll’s voice was merciless. The mercenary hesitated, then dropped his sword to the ground.

Torril looked wildly around. ‘Kirogall!’ he shouted. ‘Where is he?’

Olle grabbed him by the arm. ‘Gone,’ he said. ‘Oh no, you stay here. That bastard will get his deserts, but not now.’

The young Nhael uttered a series of curses that would have made a longshoreman blush, but Olle wouldn’t let him go before he conceded.

The guards tied the arms of the soldiers with their own belts, while Ghyll dismounted and removed his fallen opponent’s helmet. He saw a heavy face with a huge black beard. A small trickle of blood ran from the man’s mouth and his face looked pallid.

‘Uwella!’ The wikke came away from one of the wounded. She knelt at Dorkel’s side and placed her fingers on his carotid artery.

‘He’s dead,’ she said.

‘What!’ Ghyll said, bewildered. ‘But he moved just now.’

Uwella shrugged. ‘Not anymore,’ she said coolly. ‘Be happy. Now you won’t have to hang the villain yourself.’

Ghyll glanced at the dead slave lord. ‘You’re right. To Greos’s basement with the bastard! Come on, we still have a lot to do.’

The guards had already collected the disarmed mercenaries in a somber group. Everyone was waiting for him. Ghyll rubbed Ulanth’s neck. ‘Well done, boy; thanks.’ Then he hoisted himself into the saddle and rode slowly over the long stone bridge toward the castle.

In the courtyard he found a silent crowd, parting without a word to let him pass. At the doors of the keep he stopped and turned Ulanth with little dancing steps until he faced the gathered people.

‘Lord Dorkel is dead,’ he said quietly, and a sigh went through the crowd. ‘Who’s in charge here?’

A visibly nervous group of servants in noble robes stood to one side, separated from the commoners by an almost tangible wall of fear. A few steps in front of them waited a tall man with a sharply cut face. He tugged the fur trim of his sleeves and gave Ghyll a slight bow.

‘I am Rende, Highlord Dorkel’s seneschal,’ he said haughtily. ‘And you are…?’

‘Respect for His Royal Highness Ghyllander of Rhidauna!’ Torril barked, holding the banner high.

The seneschal paled. ‘Rhidauna?’ he stammered, surprised. ‘Here?’ Then he recovered his aplomb. ‘Welcome to Lorrevaal, Royal Highness.’

Immediately, the rest of the group followed his example and almost as one, the men bowed, while the women curtsied. Ghyll heard Olle behind him give a contemptuous snort, and he had to admit his foster brother was right. The disgust at the way everyone slavishly played follow-the-leader must have shown in his face, for Rende lost some of his confidence.

Ghyll stared without speaking, until the man lowered his eyes. Then he snapped, ‘Who was that blackrobe?’

Rende looked up in surprise. ‘Kirogall, Sire? The man turned up two weeks ago. I understood he was on the run from something. It is unclear what his goals were, but Highlord Dorkel seemed to appreciate his advice. Why?’ The seneschal spread his hands apologetically. ‘I don’t know, Sire. I never spoke with the sorcerer. He was not a pleasant man, you see.’

‘Are there more of his ilk here?’

Rende shook his head. ‘None, Sire.’ He looked from under his long lashes at Ghyll. ‘What are your plans with Lorrevaal, Highness?’

‘Who is Lord Dorkel’s heir?’

The seneschal slightly shrugged. ‘No one, Sire. Highlord Dorkel’s deceased spouse never bore him any children. There are no descendants.’

‘Except the bastards,’ Kerianna said coldly.

The seneschal stiffened. ‘No… no bastards, my lady.’

‘Her Royal Highness Kerianna,’ Torril snarled.

‘Royal Highness,’ the man repeated laboriously and again everyone bowed.

‘Where are the bastards?’ Ghyll’s question caused a dead silence in the yard.

‘Killed!’ a voice shrilled. ‘Every bastard had to be slain.’

Rende now looked about to swoon. ‘There… are… no bastards,’ he whispered.

‘You shall explain that to the judges, Rende.’

The seneschal’s eyes rolled away and he sagged silently to the ground.

No one made a move to help him. All of the castle’s officials stared transfixed at the young king. Fate had so suddenly turned against them they weren’t yet able to comprehend it.

Ghyll narrowed his eyes. ‘Who is in charge of food stocks?’

A small, very nervous man stepped forward. ‘I am, Sire; Mistel is my name. I was Highlord Dorkel’s butler.’ While he said that, he bowed, wringing his hands, so nervous that his whole face contorted.

Ghyll felt no pity for his fear. ‘How large are the stocks, Mistel?’

‘Large, Sire, oh, very large; Highlord Dorkel held a respectable reserve and sold the surplus to another highlord upstream.’

‘Sold, Mistel?’

The butler bobbed eagerly. ‘Yes, Sire. Our valley is very fertile and the harvests are always abundant. Highlord Dorkel earned a nice bit of money on the yearly food sales.’

‘The harvests are plentiful… but the village starves, Mistel. The people, the children are dying!’

‘Yes, Sire,’ the man bowed up and down like a tumbler. ‘Yes, Sire, the slaves… Highlord Dorkel…’

‘Dorkel is dead, Mistel,’ Ghyll said softly but clearly audible in the silence. ‘There are no slaves, only free men and women. Open the barns, put the kitchens to work, I want to see everyone in the village fed today. For the next few days, you will ensure all the villagers receive enough corn and beans to make their own meals. And you will help those who can’t, understand?’

Mistel nodded. ‘Yes, Sire,’ he said earnestly. ‘But the castle…’

‘You all look well fed, Mistel,’ Ghyll said sharply. ‘You can fast a while! Be glad I won’t whip the meat from your bones, Mistel.’

He looked around at the castle and at the taut faces of the people, and he instinctively bared his teeth. Then he called Bo over. ‘Can you port from here?’

Bo closed his eyes for a moment. ‘No problem. Rockath is, magically speaking, a void; there’s nothing here to stop me. Where should I go?’

‘The palace. Tell Kyssander about the situation. Tell him to send a steward with balls. I can’t leave it to the lieutenant; those jackals over there will eat her alive.’

The firemage nodded and disappeared.

Avelore stared at the spot where he had stood. ‘How did he do that?’ she asked. ‘Without a portal?’

Ghyll smiled grimly. ‘Our Bo is a very versatile mage. You’ll be surprised at what he can do.’

Automatically, the girl cradled her kitten and stroked the creature until it started to purr.

The young king looked around. A guard had brought the fallen seneschal to his senses with a bucket of ice-cold river water and now the man huddled among his colleagues, soaked and chattering.

‘You will all continue with your normal activities,’ Ghyll said loudly. ‘Only no one may cross the bridge without permission, on pain of death. You will show me around, Rende; I want to inspect the castle and the lands.’

That evening, just before sunset, a silent shadow slipped over the land of the Lorre and a skyboat stopped over the meadow opposite the castle. A crane on deck swung a large wooden platform out and landed a group of riders and their horses. At their head rode a powerfully built man of about thirty, dressed in a sober dark robe. Ghyll was inspecting the guard posts with the lieutenant and they met the newcomers at the bridge.

‘Jehaun thu Baslier, Sire, at your service. His Excellency the Chancellor has sent me to take temporary charge here. I have my own staff with me, seeing there are problems with the previous seneschal and his people.’

‘You’re welcome, Squire. You are from Domains?’

‘Yes and no,’ Baslier said with a smile. ‘Duke Kyssander is seeking candidates for the post of deputy head of the bureau. He has two choices, as I understand. I’m one of them.’

‘Then the chancellor has found a nice challenge for you.’

‘Excellent! May I ask, Sire, what is the trouble?’

Quickly Ghyll filled him in about the slaves, the mercenaries, and his distrust of Dorkel’s followers.

‘From the air I saw a collection of mud huts.’ Baslier looked grim when he said that.

‘That’s the village.’ Ghyll bit his lip. ‘A place of filth, full of diseases, malnutrition and death,’ he said. ‘I hate slavery, it’s inhuman and degrading. Please interrogate the castle staff about their roles in all this. I am sure that Lorrevaal has beautiful dungeons to house the culprits in style. Father Dennarias of the Judges is at Derivall; he’ll be happy to assist you.’

The squire bowed. ‘Certainly, Sire. The lieutenant and I will work together to ensure that this becomes an exemplary estate, you can count on that!’ He glanced at the lieutenant, and the young woman nodded gravely.

‘Then I will leave it in your hands, Squire.’ Feeling satisfied with Duke Kyssander’s choice, Ghyll turned around and rode with Torril, Olle and Zino across the bridge.

The bodies of the fallen mercenaries were gone and before Ghyll could comment, Torril grinned.

‘I asked the lieutenant to have them removed. It looked so untidy at the front door.’

‘Rhidaunan castles always have clean doorsteps,’ Zino said with a straight face. ‘I had already noticed that.’

‘Rhidaunan castles? We’re in Rockath, remember,’ Ghyll said.

‘As if you weren’t planning to keep the place.’ Zino tapped his bandaged hand to his head. ‘Don’t be silly! I’m just wondering how you intend to annex it without having Stiphet screaming bloody murder. This is their neighbor too, after all.’

Ghyll sighed. ‘Would they do that?’

‘What would you say if the reverse happened?’

‘I would scream bloody murder.’ Then his face brightened. ‘Wait here, I’ll be right back.’ He turned and galloped back to the castle.

Olle and Zino looked at each other.

‘He has a plan,’ Olle said. ‘I know those sudden fits of his.’

‘Sometimes he’s quite brilliant,’ Zino said.

Olle grimaced. ‘Sometimes. Usually he is just as dumb as the rest of us, but once in a while he gets these ideas. Perhaps Baron Jadron’s spirit whispers them into his ear – I don’t know. He is impulsive, emotional, and he finds the responsibility of kingship scary, but he does it all as if he’s worn that crown for years.’

‘The problem is solved,’ Ghyll said as he came back. He smiled, seeing the questions on their faces. ‘Come on, to the village.’ He spurred Ulanth on and the battle horse lunged forward.

Olle laughed and did the same. The three of them galloped along the stony path, until they came to the turf huts.

The healer sat with her assistants and supplies on a field in front of the huts. The village seemed deserted, but Ghyll knew that the women and children were watching their every move.

‘We have food ready, but I’m afraid they are scared, Sire,’ the priestess said worriedly. ‘The men aren’t back yet, you see.’

Ghyll turned toward the village. ‘Jarv!’

A moment later, the old man came shuffling out. With his half-blind eyes, he blinked at Ghyll. ‘Here I am, lord.’

‘Dorkel is dead,’ Ghyll said.

‘Yes, lord,’ Jarv said carefully. ‘And what will you do?’

‘Lorrevaal is now under the protection of Rhidauna, Jarv. You know what that means?’

‘No, lord,’ the old man said simply.

‘Rhidauna knows no slavery. From now on, you are all free men.’

Jarv looked confused. ‘Free? Do we have to leave?’

‘No,’ Ghyll said softly. Raising his voice so that everyone could hear him, he continued. ‘We will build a new village for you. A real village with houses and a temple. You’ll serve the castle, but the castle will also serve you. Everyone who works for us will be paid.’

He pointed to the healer and her assistants. ‘These are priestesses of Kathauna. If you or your children are sick, the healers shall make them better. You need not be afraid; Dorkel is dead, and his followers are locked up in the dungeons, awaiting trial. Anyone who has complaints can go to the new steward and he will be heard.

First, here is fresh bread for you. Don’t be afraid; let everyone who is hungry go to the priestess.’

Nothing stirred. Then a thin boy of some eight years, with a rib cage like a washboard appeared from one of the huts. ‘Eat?’

Ghyll dismounted and took him by the hand. ‘Come, we’ll get you some.’ Together they walked to the camp of the healers. ‘This boy wants something to eat.’

One of the lay sisters looked at the child and then broke a long loaf into pieces.

‘Look,’ Ghyll said, while he handed the boy a hunk of bread. ‘This is all for you. There’s more for your family.’

When the other children saw that there really was food to be had, they rushed out, reluctantly followed by their mothers.

Ghyll suppressed an urge to wipe his hands on his trousers after having held the dirty child. He walked back to Jarv, waiting patiently with Olle and Zino. ‘Where are the men?’

The old man peered at the sky, as if gauging the time of the day. ‘They are still at work, lord. They only come home when the sun is fully down.’

‘Another two hours,’ Olle said.

Ghyll nodded. ‘When the men return, Jarv, tell them to stay home tomorrow. Sometime in the morning, we’ll sound the castle bell, calling everyone to the castle. No need for panic, new and better times have come for you all.’

Jarv folded his hands and bowed. ‘Thank you, lord. I will tell everyone.’

When they arrived back at the castle, they found Belme and his family there.

‘Did you send for them?’ Olle said, and Ghyll grinned.

‘That skyboat was still here, so I asked Damion to pick them up, no need to have them trudge back the whole way. Besides, they are the solution to the problem!’

He nodded to Belme. ‘Welcome. Lorrevaal is free from Dorkel and his men as I promised. Now I have need of you.’

Belme bowed and said, ‘Our lives are yours.’

Ghyll watched the eldest daughter with the newborn in a wrap on her belly. ‘You are Asleen, are you not?’ he said gently.

The girl nodded wordlessly.

‘And your little one is the bastard son of the late Lord Dorkel?’

Again she nodded, with a color like a fire blossom.

‘You need not be ashamed,’ Ghyll said. ‘It’s not your fault! Belme, I understand Dorkel had no heirs, and according to Rende there are no other bastards alive apart from your grandson.’

Unexpectedly, the man cursed. ‘Rende! He knows all about those bastards. He had each of them murdered at birth. Dorkel still hoped that his wife would give him a successor. But when she died this spring, he was left empty-handed.’

‘Rende’s awaiting trial; he will not get away with murder. Asleen, what’s the little one’s name?’

‘He’s called Enmer, lord,’ she whispered.

‘Enmer. A beautiful name, a good, strong name. Listen, Belme, according to the law your little one is the heir of Lorrevaal.’

Belme stared incredulously at Ghyll. ‘Enmer? But he’s a bastard!’

‘The laws of Rhidauna say that bastards inherit if there are no legitimate offspring. Lorrevaal is under Rhidaunan protection, so our laws apply here; Enmer is the new lord. It would be best if you have a cottage near the castle. There are rooms available for Enmer and his mother, but we’ll arrange for a nurse to help Asleen. Rhidauna ensures the protection of the castle and our steward will take care of the daily management until Enmer’s twentieth birthday. Can you agree to that?’

‘You ask my agreement?’ Belme said, baffled. ‘Now I really believe things will be better. Yes, lord, if you think it is better for the little one then I’ll agree. It’s all right, girl,’ he said reassuringly to his daughter, who stood pressing the infant with both arms against her chest. The girl stared at her father and back at Ghyll, and slowly she relaxed. Enmer yawned and tried to put his fist in his mouth.

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.