Friday, February 12, 2010

The Bondsman Part 5

Title: The Bondsman Part 5
Author: Ranger

The wolf slid limply off my sword and crumpled in a grey, soggy heap at my feet. I stepped back and wiped my arm over my forehead. Then I turned and stalked back over unnecessarily wet grass towards the horses. A large crowd got in my way about half way there.
"It's a wolf." Some bright spark said intelligently, kicking over the carcass.
"That brute that's been following us from Deinsted.."
I didn't care who it was. It had been driving me mad with it's howling and panting since sunrise.
I left them to identify the body, found my horse and slung the bloodied sword point down into the earth. We were riding about nine hours ahead of the snow, I could taste it in the air, and we were still four days ride from Almeda. Sleep was something we'd do when we got there. Bendrig had left us at dawn and taken his guard with him to follow the river east to his lands, and winter was descending faster than we could move. Brandor's heavy palm impacted between my shoulders, nearly knocking me over.
"What's the matter Jai? Missing Eris already?"
I grabbed the horse for support and swore quietly. If Bran didn't tone his high spirits down shortly-
"Seriously, old man," Justus said, following Bran across to me, "If you wanted something to work your frustrations off on, you might be better with a little arms practise. Can't afford for the king to go duelling with beasts like that."
"I'm a trained bloody fighter, I can handle a wolf."
It was the captain of my own guard, with the stiff look of total outrage. "May I take the liberty of reminding his majesty he has a FULL guard in support who would be honoured to clear his path of any wildlife which happens to be inconveniencing him?"
"Thankyou." I said sharply, "But his majesty is perfectly capable of dealing with his own damn wolves. And should he require the services of the guard for anything, he'll be sure to make that very clear to them."
The guardsman bowed stiffly, informed me that it should be as his majesty pleased, and withdrew. Justus rolled his eyes at Bran.
"I'll put the word out. Whatever you do, don't go howling anywhere within Jai's earshot."
I snarled something uncivil at him and yanked my sword up out of the grass. The blade was less than immaculate and right now I cared very little. I sheathed it, pulled the horse around and mounted, turning it to see the horizon. We were going to have to pick up our pace if we were going to reach Almeda before the snows hit.
From the corner of my eye I saw Rhyl. Standing a few feet away, arms folded, saying nothing whatsoever and saying it very loudly. 
In my experience and ten years of kingship, very little is ever as my majesty pleases. Rhyl went on saying nothing- which was understandable at the pace we were moving, and over the rough terrain we were covering- but every time I looked around his eyes were on me in a way that I really didn't care for. His expression was beginning to remind me of that of the wolf's.
 Justus, Bran and I had a slight difference of opinion as we emerged from Sornsey forest at twilight, and I fully expected Rhyl to make his opinions clear as he usually didn't hesitate to do, but in the event he said nothing. Which did nothing to improve my temper. In the end we mounted up and rode on under my orders. I was aware I was pushing the remains of my small army a little faster than they wanted to go, but I knew the ground here and the weather. We were barely fifty miles now from the fields and farmland where I grew up, and once the snows began we would be trapped. Bran said goodbye to us the following day, turning his men south to follow the river home. He leaned across his saddle bow to Rhyl's crushing hug, then saluted me before he held out his hand.
"In the spring."
"Fit and ready." I gripped his hand hard. "Good winter Bran."
The pastures by the river were frosted and his men left snail trails through the whitened grass behind them. Justus escorted us further to Thaleham which we reached that evening. The market was busy even at that hour, the town square filled with people and stalls and already hanging with the solstice greenery. We could have stayed for the night, at an inn or two miles away at Justus's fort, but we were barely six miles from home and there was a good moon. We rode in silence, following the line of the river which shone, the water flat as a glass. The coolness of the air and the silence of the fields sank into me, making the memory of Deinsted unreal. Miles away we had fought a war. We had camped and travelled, planned, moved armies. And I was here beside a silent river with nothing around me but open fields.
It was a long way around to reach the gates. I took the route I had taken as a boy, pulling the horse's head around and kicking him until he scrambled directly up the steep bank and onto the stone bridge that crossed the river. His hooves clanked in the night silence, echoing over the river and jerking alert the single guard on duty.
"Halt, who goes there!"
That put the fear of God up the poor lad. The gate opened so fast he nearly fell. I ignored his muttering, ducked under the arch way and swung down to the ground, stiff and cold. Someone ran to take the horse. I stretched my aching neck and mounted the steps slowly, leaving the chaos of the dismounting, scattering guardsmen behind me. This was home. This one hall among all those I held court in had always been home. I had watched my father hold court in this hall. I had played and slept in the rushes by the hearth as a child. I had been crowned in this hall. People rushed around me, things were brought, dogs brushed past my knee and leant against me. Hands removed my cloak, reached around my waist and unbuckled my sword belt. The same hands fell on my shoulders.
"Have it brought to the chambers."
Have what brought? I tried to turn and realised who it was as the hands tightened on my shoulders.
I was propelled forward. Discreetly, but heavily enough that I had no time to resist.
The room was stuffy and stifled after the night air. I turned my back on it all and went to the window, sitting on the ledge to be as far out in the night stillness as possible. I wanted the silence and the space. The cold. The peace. Rhyl's voice was lifted, talking to someone about fires. Fires. Indoor fires. The thought was so ridiculous I almost laughed. I was home. What was I thinking of? There was no danger outside and no battles to be fought tomorrow, no reason why I shouldn't abandon this mayhem and walk outside. I swiped my cloak up as I passed the bed.
Rhyl's hand snagged on my wrist.
"Where do you think you're going?"
I looked at him blankly. "Out."
"You are not."
"Don't be ridiculous." I said dismissively. Rhyl shifted me with one hand and kicked the door closed.
"After the way you've been acting since we left Deinsted, it's about time you remembered not everyone is going to jump to every whim you shout about."
"This is-"
That polite request was accompanied by one of his sharper swats. I sat, not uninspired to keep that particular part of my anatomy out of his reach, but my temper was not in the slightest bit improved.
"WHY? There's no danger here, no reason whatsoever-"
"It's dark outside and snow's barely an hour off, apart from the fact you've been riding for four days without letting anyone stop more than an hour at a time. If you're not dead on your feet, Jai, you bloody well ought to be."
"If I'd let them stop-"
Rhyl's hand dropped on my shoulder and I looked up to find him very close, eyes very sober and with that same glint I'd been watching with reservations all week.
"I wouldn't start debating anything with me my lad. Not tonight. You're in enough trouble as it is, and you don't want to go reminding me of it now."
That meant nothing, strangely enough. It was no more than a set of words in a voice I recognised. I gently slipped his hand and wandered back to the window.
"Carisse lives barely two hour's ride from here."
Roth's widow.
His men would have found their way to her, or to her family. She would know now that he was dead and that his lands were forfeit to the crown. He'd held most of the eastern moorlands for me. An old and a trusted friend who had taken much of his reward from me in manors and titles. It would be spring before my men went to claim those lands but he left Carisse and three children, the youngest of which had been in arms last spring when we gathered in the Great Hall downstairs.
In the early days of March last year there had been nine hundred archers in the keep. Two hundred men at arms, eight of my closest friends, their wives, their lovers, their own armies camped on the hills. I remembered Carisse on the steps, her arms around the shoulders of Bendrig's fourteen year old wife as we rode out, knowing what to say to her and what to say to a husband she would not see for months. Bendrig had come back to his little girl bride, a child he treated in his pedantic way like a grandchild rather than a wife. Carisse, who had loved Roth from the first time he'd brought her to me at sixteen, had lost her husband at my hands. I had given them permission to wed and I had ordered him killed.
We left too many casualties behind us.  Carisse would take the children to sanctuary; she would have no other choice. She and Roth's disinherited sons.
"Jai." Rhyl's arms folded over me from behind, warm and hard as his chin on my shoulder.
"We should have gone there first." I said, looking at the blackness that covered the familiar valleys and fields. "Taken Justus's troops-"
"That's the first of the snow." Rhyl said as though he hadn't heard me. The first few flakes drifted past the window. I pulled in the iron boundaries of his arms.
"Faced her myself. The best chance she has now is marriage, for her and the children. Under my protection-"
Rhyl turned me away from the window and silenced me with his mouth over mine. It had been weeks since we'd had the time, the privacy or the energy to do anything other than sleep when we were alone together and my body responded hungrily without waiting for any intellectual consent. I fended him off with an almighty effort of will.
"Get dressed-"
"By morning, there is going to be half a foot of snow out there, the troops are dispersed, it's OVER." Rhyl scooped me up, not particularly gently, and I grunted as he dropped me on the bed. Rhyl got rid of his tunic and followed me, looking extremely purposeful. "Apart from which," he said, kneeling astride my hips, "You're busy."
"Doing what?" I asked, interested despite myself. Rhyl growled and stopped my mouth again.
"Affairs of state."
He was convincing. 
I struggled awake at dawn through sheer force of habit. It wasn't easy, I felt like I'd died rather than slept. Rhyl's arm was heavy over my chest and tightened reflexively as I moved.
"I want to see what the snow's like-"
"White and cold." Rhyl yanked me down without opening his eyes. "Go BACK to sleep."
I pulled his arm out of the way and got to my feet. The breeze coming through the small window was icy but fresh. Snow was still falling in the grey of morning light and the ground was carpeted as far as the eye could see, changing the familiarity of the contours before me. From the drifts, there must have been some storms last night which I'd slept through quite undisturbed. It made a change. I'd been getting by on three or four hours sleep for months, waking at the slightest sound. I heard Rhyl turn over.
"Jai get away from the window and come back to bed. Now."
I found my clothes, pulling a face at the dampness of them. Of the four outlying farms to the west of the village, three were on the edge of manors belonging to Almeda. I needed to cover the ground, make myself seen to the tenants and check on the land and the state of the manors before I began talking to the farmers.
"Did you hear me?" Rhyl said conversationally.
And see whether the ground was clear enough to make it over to Roth's manors.
"I'll be an hour at the most. It's safe ground."
Rhyl rolled to his feet, yanked the clothes out of my hands and threw them out of reach. I  didn't have the time to object before he turned me around and swatted me so hard I yelped.
"It's barely-"
His answer was a second swat, still harder than the first. I spun on him, annoyed beyond caring how loud he shouted.
"For Haven's sake man! This is a damn fort, it doesn't get much safer than this! I'll take a couple of guard, I'll be back within the-"
His hand closed on my arm. I was furious enough to struggle with him the entire way to the bed where he sat down and jerked me across his knees with a strength and dispatch that had me positioned before I had time to make difficulties. I tried with all my strength to wrench out of his grasp and found myself going nowhere, which did nothing to improve my temper.
"What is the MATTER with you!"
"You're not listening, Jai." Rhyl's hand rested across my bare backside, making me struggle harder. "I said no. We're out of the field here, there's no excuse you've got and no reason why I shouldn't tan you until you don't sit down for a week if you push me."
"I didn't!"
His hand landed hard enough to make me swear.
"Did you hear what I said to you?"
"Then you'd better get back into the habit of listening." Rhyl said bluntly. And after that, he refused to answer me any further. I twisted and kicked and swore while his hand fell again and again in painfully regular smacks, covering his target with far too much efficiency. I was struggling to breathe and too worn out to move by the time he finally stopped. My backside was blazing better than the hearth was. I staggered to my feet and found myself face to face with Rhyl, looking alarmingly grim.
"Bed. Now."
I hesitated, half considering it. Then saw his eyes flash, and moved. He was tired. It had been a long season, he was bound to be irascible. With luck in a day or two he would relax a little and stop being quite such a nuisance.
I muttered as he lay down behind me, pulling me close enough to prevent me slipping away once he fell asleep again. He'd left me too sore to consider sleeping. He dropped off within moments. I stared at the wall ahead of me and indulged in the rare luxury of a deep and thorough sulk. 
The field at Lucret had been terribly hot by late afternoon. The flies were already thick as I staggered down the hill, barely with the strength left to move inside the armour. It was more or less over by that point. Shouts and clashing came from the thicket some way beyond the river, there were knots of men still hard at it from there, but on the field ahead of me, squires and baggage boys and anyone else still fit enough was moving through the - mess. Men were sprawled on the grass. Some of them would cook inside the armour if they could not move themselves. The wounded were being picked up. Others…. Here and there I saw faces I knew. A stray horse cantered across the field ahead of me, trampling the men and the shields scattered on the grass. It wore Eris's colours on it's reins. Another horse struggled, screaming, on the ground some way from me. The desperation of it's sound stirred me to turn towards it, to find the strength to find a dagger and kneel, soothing and comforting while I opened the one vein that would give it peace. I was drenched in blood when the heavy head relaxed in my arms and went down to the grass. More sounds reached me then. Across acres of ground. Hundreds of men moaning. Stirring.
I dragged myself to my feet and once more picked up my sword. It was rare to find myself so alone but in the chaos of battle it was impossible to stay with anyone. The only presence that had stayed with me throughout was twenty feet to my left, kneeling over an armoured body. The colours beneath the armour gave me the name. Rob Leon. An old friend. Rhyl straightened up and the gash above his eyes opened again, sending a fresh streak of blood and making him swipe at his eye with a mailed fist. Someone had struck at him with a mace in the first hour of battle, he was lucky not to have lost the eye.
A child's voice. I looked round and found one of the squires- a boy surely too young to be with the squires here- standing trembling, blood stained and with his eyes nearly circular with shock. Grown men were staggering around me, white and dazed and stunned after four hours of noise and murder, this child looked as though he found himself in a nightmare.
"Where do I go now, sire?"
I stared at him blankly. Fair haired, grey eyed. It was Roth's eldest boy, barely ten and standing where I knew his father would have no wish for him to be.
"Jai." Rhyl's voice was commanding. Quiet. I glanced around for him, looking for his armour. Instead I found only white.
I pushed at the hand over my eyes and he caught my fingers, held my hand down. The field faded into a stone wall and his unshaven face over mine. The sweat running into and stinging my eyes was water from the white cloth he was pressing to my forehead, cold in the heat of the battle.
No battle. I looked around, reassuring myself. Lucret was leagues from here, now just a green field covering the burial pits.
Rhyl wrung out the cloth again, I heard the water trickle, then he gripped my hand as I flinched from the coldness of it.
"No, leave it alone. It's allright."
"This is Almeda." I told him. Rhyl didn't sound surprised.
"Lucret's over."
"We're at Almeda and it's winter. It's allright. Go to sleep Jai."
 I was so tired it was impossible. I turned my head, hearing the fire crackle, and saw the page again at the hearth. Still no more than ten. Still fair haired with Roth's sardonic eyes.
"Dickon?" I said, trying to raise my voice far enough. "Dickon, what do you here? Where's your mother?"
"Leave the logs and go, lad." Rhyl said quietly above me. The boy slipped out, shutting the door behind him. I fended Rhyl off, anxious and upset.
"Where's Carisse? Tell me she didn't seek sanctuary here-"
Rhyl took my wrists and held them down. "That wasn't Dickon, Jai. The snow's three feet deep. No one's come to the fort and no one'll leave, not for a week or two."
I stared at him. He said something short and exasperated that was one of Justus's favourite oaths, leaned down and scooped me into his arms. I got an arm around his neck and he took me to the window where I could look down at the ground below. A couple of the kitchen boys, no more than children, played in the bailey like puppies, hurling snow in and out of the few cold and solitary guardsmen on duty.
Rhyl sat on the windowseat and pulled me back against him until my head found his shoulder. Our breath misted in the cold from the unglassed window.
"I'm sorry." I said eventually. Rhyl snorted and I felt the scrape of his chin as he kissed my forehead.
"You've done this every winter since the first campaign, its no surprise. Hulks like Bran come back from a season like that and sleep for a week, you've not got a third of his strength."
"How long have we been here?" I demanded. Rhyl grunted.
"Nigh on a week. Jai we're snowed in. There's no one within two miles but the guard and us. Nowhere to go and nothing to do. What does it matter if you sleep or wake?"
I looked towards the door. Rhyl growled above me.
"Forget Carisse. There's nothing you can do until the snows melt. She's got sense that one, she's got good family."
"Roth was a friend."
"Roth was a traitor." Rhyl said frankly. "Leave it, Jai. There was nothing else you could have done."
I shut my eyes and was instantly back at Lucret. Roth, one arm soaked in blood from a slice across his shoulder, standing in the hall at Hatton two hours after battle when my armies were taking over the city, exhausted but grinning from ear to ear with the triumph. Roth who had led the first charge and fought with all the flair and boundless energy that made his men follow him gladly into any battle. How had I lost the loyalty of a man like Roth?  It was slipping away from me. I had let him go, and I knew how much else would follow. I had cheated death at Deinsted. Or Rhyl had cheated death for me. I should have died on the bridge there in honest battle, the honourable exit for a king who's cause and crown was already lost. Eris would have me in the spring. The battle was not yet fought, but Eris had already won. 
It was perhaps another three or four days before I was in a fit enough condition to take notice of what was going on around me, little though I cared.
Almeda was always deserted at this time of the year. The guard ran their duties oblivious to us. The servants continued their work. We held no court at this time of year- my father's winter festival court had always filled the fort to capacity- but since I had come to the throne every noble and knight that was loyal had needed this time to re group and to return home after a hard summer of campaigning. And Rhyl and I had always taken this time for our own, guarded it fiercely and defended it from all intruders. 
At sixteen, at seventeen, my first years of kingship Rhyl had taken that time for us both to play. To walk in the markets of the local towns, unguarded, unrecognised, to hunt, to swim or fish, abandoning the responsibilities at Almeda. In those days he had said I needed reminding I was still a boy.
I watched the snow covered fields now and hoped the snows would melt in time to give us a few days of peace together before the spring troops began to gather and prepare for the new season's campaigns. I could raise no energy or enthusiasm for it at all. Eris was wintering with his troops somewhere in the border valleys- I hoped he was losing many of them to conditions he would be ill prepared for- but he was no mean tactician. He would be ready for me in Spring.
"Are you dressed?" Rhyl's arms wrapped around my waist from behind, one of his bearlike hugs that replaces any consideration for social graces.
"For what?" I said absently. Rhyl bit firmly at my neck.
"Arms practise. I've been sitting on my bum up here for two weeks, and you need the exercise."
"Today." Rhyl gave me a gentle push towards the door. "Or I'll have Bran at my throat wanting to know why I let you get out of condition."
We'd been fighting for our lives on a regular basis for over ten years: frankly I doubted Rhyl and I were capable of getting out of condition. Evading a knife or a sword comes pretty much instinctively once you know the basic moves. Get out of way. Lift weapon. Floor opponent. Ensure he's dead. That was pretty much committed to memory. For want of anything better to do I let Rhyl hassle me down into the buildings off the stables, where the chill of the snow was blocked by the heavy thatching and thick stone walls.
 The snow was knee deep in the bailey. Depressed looking guards barely glanced at us as we passed through the gatehouse. In my father's day, when Almeda was both home and one of the central seats of his rule, these buildings had been filled with the craftsmen that a large household demands. As a boy I had run in and out of the smithy and the leather workers, the weavers, the six armourers and their apprentices with their heavy leather aprons. The courtyard had rung to anvils and the hiss of iron and water. Now these buildings were empty and deserted. Rhyl slammed the heavy door shut behind us, blocking out the icy wind. I kicked moodily at the few pieces of straw that were all to say this had once been a smithy, so busy that the horses waited three deep in the yard outside. Rhyl's hands closed over my shoulders and rubbed.
"There's no need for the smiths to set up in here. Not yet."
No. No need at all. I eased out of his hands and drew my sword, checking it briefly. Rhyl drew his but laid it aside.
"Knives. That's what worries me most with you, that's what you need the practise on."
Fine. If it made him happy. I laid the sword aside, turned my back to him and waited until I sensed his hands about to grab. An elbow in his throat backed him away from me long enough to have my own dagger in hand and raised to throw. Rhyl picked himself up, rubbing his windpipe.
"You're stronger than you look my lad."
I sheathed the knife and stood waiting. For an hour we gripped and tussled. Mostly when we practised like this, what we did was play. Rhyl had trained me and Bran had added the polish; he and I used different styles but there was not a trick either of us knew that the other didn't. Where I lacked the strength with a sword to hack and swing in the way I should, he and Bran had taught me enough quickness and deftness to evade and to get a blade out of a man's hand. Or to slip under his guard. I was in no mood to play today however, I went through each tussle with mechanical efficiency until Rhyl was sweating and out of breath and I was as numbed as when I had started. The gatehouse bell was tolling the change of guard.
"I need a drink." Rhyl said, sheathing his sword. I followed him across the yard towards the keep, chilled to the bone by the snow.
"Why don't you go to the town this afternoon? You're bored to tears trapped here, I know you."
"You won't come with me?" Rhyl said, surprised. I shook my head.
"Not in this cold. I thought I'd go up to the tower and-"
Rhyl paused on the steps and looked at me. Hard.
"You are NOT to go Seeing, Jai. You haven't the strength and this isn't the time."
"I only meant to read." I said peaceably. "It's warmer up there."
One of the most amazing- one of the most intricate- experiences possible to immerse yourself in.
As far back as I could remember, my father had drawn me into the gentle web of his Seeings- I had wandered through his mind, knew parts of it well within the walls where he allowed me. Not until Rhyl had I known what it was to walk freely through another's soul, and know every image, every thought, every fleeting desire. I had shared Rhyl's boyhood fields, knew every inch of the house he had been born in although I'd never set foot in it, shared every battle from his eyes as well as my own.
I closed my eyes and soared out over the Vanguardia plains, the terrain where Eris and I had fought this last summer out. Where we had left skeletons stretching from the mountains to the marshes of men following us blindly. I spared a brief thought for the many widows and fatherless children I had left in the villages beneath me, but flew on.
The visions don't come at my bidding. But if I open myself, if I go where I want to see, if I wait- sometimes one will hit me.
The plains rolled away beneath me, drawing me on and on, deeper and deeper across my country. I let it pull and sailed on the wind, open and ready.
It punched me so hard I fell over.
Battle. Swords and shouting, mud, blood, struggling men. Horses, the thunder of heavy horses downhill. The bellows of men in blood rages. Men dying. I struggled, turning to see where. Where. WHERE….
Rhyl. I turned on the wind, searching for the landscape.
"Jai. Listen to me."
Nothing. Just struggling bodies. Noise.
"I'm here. Hold onto me. Come on Jai."
"Tell me where!" I screamed into the wind. "Where!"
"Jai. Come here."
I turned, and turned, my heart beginning to pound with panic. I could barely hear Rhyl, never mind see him.
"Where IS this!! Where will this happen!"
"Hold on. Come ON Jai, hold on to me."
Nothing. Not a tree, not a hill that would tell me where these armies would meet. Not even enough to see the time of year.
"I can't see!" I shouted back in frustration. "I can't damn well see!"
I knew that voice.
And somehow concentrated on finding him within that mess. A hand slid into mine and I found the presence of mind to grip. Within that second I felt him slip into place beside me, his strength infusing into me, his calm overwhelming my chaos.
"It's Lucret." his voice said in my ear, calmly and firmly. "It's Lucret Jai, look at the pennants."
I looked. And my thumping heart began to ease. He was right. As I watched, Roth's men charged, a swirl of men in the bright yellow around Roth's horse, the pennant above them. I remembered the roar of response as my own men saw the reinforcements. Rhyl was beside me.
I clutched him, so weary I could hardly breathe. The wind ruffled his hair. Here we stood, armourless, invisible, as the war raged around us. I had a sudden urge to go looking for myself. At this stage in the battle I was somewhere near the river, hacking Eris's cavalry to pieces. Rhyl held tight to my hand when I turned away.
"No Jai, hold onto me. Jai HOLD ON."
I gripped again, startled. He sounded very calm and very intense.
"Good lad. Don't you let go. Now get us out of here."
I shook my head. The battle noises were fading. We were alone, left in the middle of an empty meadow, miles of unbroken grass rippling in the wind. I turned against him, trying to find the comfort of his shoulder. I was tired. Too tired to look. Too tired to think.
Too tired to breathe.
He refused to let me lean. I whimpered at his cruelty in a highly unkinglike way that I kept for when it was just the two of us alone, but he held me off relentlessly.
"No my boy. We need to get out of here."
"No. It's quiet."
I tried to pull my hand out of his and sit down on the soft grass. Lie down. His hand clenched still tighter on mine. I could feel his breath on my face, his voice so intense it found its way into my guts.
"Jai. You let go now and I swear I'll leather you until you never sit a horse again. Get us out of here. NOW."
Instinctively I looked around for the horizon. The way home. And the snapping sensation pulled us both. The yank between body and mind. 
I couldn't work out what was so grey above me.
I frowned at it for a while, then made out the individual stones. It turned out to be a wall. Aching, sick, dizzy, I dragged myself upright. Rhyl was sprawled a few feet away, panting. Out hands were still locked together and I could see the bruise marks of his fingers on mine.
He shut his eyes, hair damp with sweat. Then sat up. Slowly. Looking at me in a way that made my blood chill.
I looked back at him, taking in the expression in his eyes, the tone in his voice. All the things he'd been stifling for months.
"I only wanted to See if-"
"NOW!" Rhyl grabbed me and hauled me to my feet, oblivious to the fact I could barely balance there. His swat was so hard it made me stagger. "GET yourself down those stairs!"
I took a few uncertain steps. His roar found new depths of strength I didn't know I had: the sound shook the walls.
Tiredness be damned. I fled. I got about four steps before he grabbed my by the scruff of the neck and propelled me still faster down the stairs. 
There was no one anywhere in sight in the hallways and stairwells. We were alone. The skeleton crew of servants were in their hall, around the fires. The guards were in the guard rooms and stables. No one to look twice at the King being dragged down the halls of his own fortress like a recalcitrant small boy. It took too much breath keeping my feet to argue.
In our chamber he pushed me down on the bed and slammed the heavy door behind us, turning the key with a finality that made my mouth dry. Then he moved slowly to stand over me, hands coming to rest on his hips.
BIG. Muscular. Heavy. His naturally fierce face set in to hard lines.
I, who had known him before adulthood and experience hardened the features that most people saw, never saw the hardness and was never scared by it. But looking at him now I saw not my boy, but the Rhyl the young knights were so frightened of. His voice was terrifyingly soft.
"What in the seven named hells were you doing Jai? Did you hear one damned thing I said to you?"
"I j-" I began, in a pathetic attempt at the voice that calmed irate consuls. Rhyl's roar interrupted me, and the blast of it knocked me further back on the bed.
"NO! You haven't heard anything in weeks! You haven't the strength to walk a mile, never mind See. What did I tell you!"
"I knew I-"
"You don't know one damned thing! What did I tell you!"
"I wanted-"
"I had to!" I thundered back at him. "Whatever you want, what ever you think I have a DUTY that rises above YOU!"
Rhyl looked at me, hand on his hips still, jaw squared, eyes hard. Then he gave the brief, matter of fact sniff he gives when he's about to walk into battle.
I propped myself up on one elbow and my stomach involuntarily flipped as his hands went to his waist and he began to unbuckle his belt. His eyes never wavered from mine. He folded the worn leather in his hands and slapped the doubled end down across his palm.
"Get up your majesty."
"You have no right." I told him, not moving. "I am the one who fights the battles. I'm the one who has to know. It's MY choice."
"Balls." Rhyl caught my wrist and pulled me to my feet in one clean yank that brought us face to face. "You think I don't know what you're trying to do? You've been out in the field too long my boy. You've forgotten way too much. But we've got all winter."
He sat on the end of the bed and his second yank pulled me over his knees. The breath rushed out of me where I fell. I felt my breeches yanked roughly down, his arm clamping around my waist. Humiliated, angry, and bitterly aware of how ridiculous- how meaningless- all this was, I stared at the brychan on the bed and blunted myself to all feeling. He'd learn. None of this really mattered any more.
The belt fell. And fell. And fell. It burned. Somewhere I heard him breathing, a steady sound mixed in with the crack of the belt and the loudening wheeze of someone else breathing within my earshot. Someone who's breath caught and gasped at intervals, who sounded under strain. I was aware only of a distant, sore heat when I staggered to my feet, my backside scarlet and the burn nagging at the edges of my mind. I looked down at Rhyl, the belt still in his hand.
"Finished?" I said harshly. Rhyl got up to buckle his belt back on, turned me around and his hand cracked down hard over the rough throb of my rump.
"I haven't even started." 
He dragged me down to the hall, the one where the squires lived when any were in residence. The place was dusty, filled with the remains of practise swords, wooden arms and out of place benches. Once in that silent, dusty room, he let go of my neck and pushed me at the mess stacked on the table.
"You can start on that. The rack's over there."
I looked at him. Rhyl looked right back.
"Get on with it."
While he stood and watched me? Right. This man learned his concept of royalty in a pig pen somewhere over the barbarian border. 
He gripped my arm and the swat that fell was less than pleasant on top of the heat of the belting.
Involuntarily I moved towards the table.
Rhyl's eyes didn't waver.
Slowly, sullenly, I began to pick up the items and rack them.
He stood and watched throughout, directing me with rough pushes and snapped orders whenever I hesitated until I began to hate him silently under my shields of grim cynicism. The hall gradually tidied as I worked. Raked out the fireplace. Swept the dusty floor. Was grabbed by the neck and pushed through the doorway into the sleeping quarters where the cots lay askew and another fireplace lay thick with year old ash.
Were there not enough servants to be found in the kingdom?
I worked silently. More to defy him than anything else. Like a machine, without comment I worked. And got up, dusting my hands when done, staring at him. It was late now. Past time to eat. Which he was always neurotic about.
Instead he said nothing. The look on his face was just the same. He simply grabbed my neck again and propelled me through another door and out into the courtyard, heading for the stables. At this hour of the night they were deserted except for one stable boy who fled at the look Rhyl gave him. Rhyl pushed me ahead of him into the first box, pulled a pitchfork from it's position leaning against the wall and put it into my hands.
Silently, my stomach beginning to growl, my back beginning to ache, I shovelled straw. 
Three stables and total darkness came and went.
Neither of us said a word. I was grimly triumphant when he pulled the pitchfork from my hand and this time pulled me into the yard to the water trough. I washed in silence, ignoring him, taking my time until he yanked my shirt over my head and scrubbed me himself, ruthless with the cold water.
He hustled me across the courtyard with another of those blazing swats and pushed me ahead of him up the stairs to our chamber. The fire there was some comfort. He stripped me without a word in front of it, ignoring my aching shoulders and I got hurriedly into bed, not keen to invite another swat.
It was the first time in living memory I'd known him not go berserk that I had missed a meal.
He stripped himself and lay down beside me, one heavy arm pinning me to the mattress.
I lay for a while, staring at the ceiling. It was only a token try to slip out from under his grip; an attempt to get to the window and see the night, taste the fresh air. To try and find some semblance of sleep.
He grabbed me instantly. I'd thought he was asleep.
Before I had time to object I found myself face down and his heavy hand once more laid into my backside, quickly reigniting the burn there. I gritted my teeth, turned my face into the mattress and shut him away with some difficulty, but when he let me go, this time I lay still. 
I heard the cocks begin to crow outside at first light. Rhyl appeared to have slept no better than I did. I glanced at him as he turned over, but there was no word, no kiss of greeting. Instead he propelled me to my feet and pushed clothes into my hands.
If he thought he would win this way he was much mistaken. I dressed in silence.
I never realised we had so many stables.
I was digging my way through the fourth when my back began to ache beyond my ability to ignore. Rhyl growled as I straightened up.
"Get on with it."
"I can't. I've been doing this for hours." I said flatly. Rhyl grunted.
"And you'll do it until I bloody well say otherwise. Get on."
I flung the pitchfork down at his feet.
Ten minutes later I was digging again, my backside burning once more under my breeches and despite myself, my eyes were stinging.
Five stables. Six.
"RHYL." I protested as he dragged me into the seventh. "I'm tired, I'm starving-"
"I don't care." Rhyl said flatly. I glared at him, angry and bewildered.
"Aren't you tired of standing there and watching me sweat? Haven't you got revenge enough yet?"
"I'll tell you when to stop." Rhyl pushed me towards the straw. "Get on."
I dug, my eyes stinging again with rage.
When I finished that stable, he took the pitchfork from me and grabbed my neck again, steering me out of the stables. I stumbled to keep pace with him, relieved at least that was over.
My stomach turned over with sheer disbelief and my eyes stung again as he delivered me to a large pile of logs in the yard and yanked the axe out of the block, handing it to me.
That was all I said. It was quite enough.
Thank God there were no witnesses. He grabbed me without a second thought, yanked my breeches clear once more and sat on the chopping block to turn me over his knee, laying into my backside without hesitation. And it bloody hurt.
"You're mad!" I accused him, several times, "What the hell do you WANT!"
Rhyl put me back on my feet and jerked my breeches back into place.
"I want those logs split."
I split logs. Someone brought bread and cheese and ale. I stood to eat, watching him with growing hatred. He jerked the mug from my hand as I finished and turned me back towards the chopping block.
I threw the axe into the pile of logs.
Five minutes later, I retrieved it from where it had fallen, my rump on fire, my eyes blurred and my breath catching in my throat. I would have cheerfully split HIM, save for he had that expression on his face and his arms were still folded and I knew one foot wrong would mean him jerking me back across his knee, still with that look of awful calm.
He was mad. There was no other reason.
I split logs. And hated him. And split more logs.
Each log was his head. Each log was his folded arms and glower. I obliterated him most of the afternoon.
We ran out of logs at twilight, by which time I was so exhausted it was hard to lift the axe at all. With relief I trailed him where he steered me, back towards our chamber. I wanted only to wash and to sleep.
I stared in disbelief at the pile of my armour on the bed. Rhy pushed me at it, indicating the bucket of oil and rags.
"I want all that shining and rust free before you sleep."
Allright, that was it. I turned on him, about to drive my fist into his face.
I didn't get the words out of my mouth.
Ten minutes later, this time bare from the waist down and with tears running down my face, I cleaned armour, radiating hatred at the man still standing over me.
Three times I stopped. Told him I couldn't. Told him I was hungry. Tired. My hands hurt. My back hurt.
Each time his answer was silent and harsh and renewed the tears now streaming down my face and the heat and soreness of my backside. I was so sore now that the thought of encouraging one more swat from his calloused hand made me pause for serious thought.
I finished polishing long after the guards outside had shouted two o clock. Staggering to my feet I began to throw down the cloth, then looked at him and thought twice.
"I'm finished." I said hesitantly. Rhyl turned a piece of the armour over.
"Nowhere near. Do it again."
I stared at him in shock.
"It's CLEAN."
"Not enough."
"I said do it again!"
The thunder alone made me jump, my eyes filling once more. Hastily I grabbed for a cloth and the hated armour, bewildered, tired, aching and very very confused. He continued to stand, arms folded, my sentry run mad.
It was three o clock and I was tired past seeing the breast plate I was polishing when I tried to hand it to him, my voice rising into a wail I didn't recognise.
"It's clean! Rhyl it's clean! Look!"
"I said do it again." Rhyl said without looking at it.
"What do you want?" I begged. "Tell me! Please- tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it!"
Arms folded, face grim, his tone didn't alter.
"Do it again."
Aching from head to foot, starving until my stomach ached, knowing if I said another word that right hand would once more add to the fire ignited behind me, I stared at the cloth and the armour. Lost. In total despair.  No point in saying I couldn't, I knew. But I couldn't move any more. I couldn't do any more.
I knew what was coming the minute his hand closed on my arm. He sat on the edge of the bed and I moved helplessly in his grip, knowing there was no use in resisting. He turned me over his knee and I was already weeping with despair and the helplessness of a child. There was nothing I could do that was right, nothing I could do that would stop him, nothing I could do that would restore any kind of sanity to him. I had no idea any more what to do to make him stop.
His hand fell for the umpteenth time that day, hard and heavy, swatting curves of mine already so well swatted I had serious doubt whether I'd ever be comfortable again. It hurt. And as soon as he stopped, I'd be returned to that bloody armour, with no way or pleasing him. No way of knowing whether after this he'd let me sleep or eat, or how many more impossible tasks he'd put in front of me and demand I completed. Totally lost I collapsed over his knees and felt the despair rush over me, taking the last of my dignity. I sobbed like a child, helpless and abandoned, with nothing left to plead except his name. Over and over again as if there was some way of reaching the man I remembered as being my lover, who did actually care if I died of exhaustion or starvation or despair. As if there was some way of making him hear and rescue me from this madman.
I sobbed still harder when he pulled me upright, but there was no reprieve. He pushed me back down onto my knees and put the cloth back in my hand.
"Do it."
There was nothing else in the universe except that sheet of armour, that harsh voice, him and me. Sobbing, I knelt on the floor and polished as my life depended on it. Twice more he made me clean that breast plate, every inch of it, swatting me without hesitation for every corner skimped, every mark missed. Then he took the cloth out of my hands and threw it into the corner of the room. I knelt where I was and watched him, waiting for the next order, the next task. Instead he sat where he was on the side of the bed and his arms held out to me. It took about three seconds for that message to sink in, then I flung myself at him, clinging and trying to wrap myself around him.
And this time it was him. Rhyl.
His arms folded tightly around me and he rocked, fighting me down until my head was under his chin and I was against his familiar chest, feeling his familiar breathing, aware of his familiar arms locked around me, making me feel rescued. I clung to him in relief and sobbed, hard, drenching him and myself in tears. And waited for further instructions, safe where I was.
He sent me to bed while he stacked the now gleaming armour in the corner of the room by the fire. I lay, still crying, and watched him, hating him being out of reach but that bark had told me to stay and I knew better than to move an inch. I lay and waited, needing him desperately until he reached the bed and I scrambled across to cling to him. He lay flat, stroking my hair, smoothing the strands out one by one at the nape of my neck with his heavy hand.
I slept when he told me to, still clinging to him. 
The bark in his voice got me out of bed in a hurry at dawn, got me into clothes and I ate bread and cheese again while he took me up to the tower. Dust and debris littered the place, and even as I ate, I knew what I'd spend the morning doing. But I was close to him. He sat on the windowseat and I pushed against him until he moved and let me into his lap, allowing me to curl up as I hadn't done for months. A king cannot be caught on anyone's lap. I leaned against his chest, aware of nothing but the need to feel him there, the immediate anxiety that flooded me at the slightest frown or sharpening of his voice, my entire concentration on him. I have no idea how long we sat there. Later, we cleaned the tower together. 
Bran arrived four weeks later, as always ridiculously hearty for the early spring, trailed by his small company of guardsmen who would fill the empty halls. I heard the hooves from our chamber shortly after dawn and leapt for the window, watching the horses stream in at the gate.
The campaign began here. We would be out in the field again in a month. Now we would plan. Train. Prepare. The armies would gather here. My commanders would assemble here. In a month this deserted fort would be alive with a thousand men prepared and ready. Rhyl and I had talked for hours by the firelight, night after night while we wintered and laid our strategies. The Kingdom was ours, and we would hold it.
I glanced around at my lover's voice and moved to his outstretched hand as he reached for me. Rhyl sat up on the bed, waiting until I came into reach.
"Come back to bed, they don't need you yet."
No. I was the King. And one of the privileges of rank was that they waited for me. I lay down in his arms and he kissed me, slowly and thoroughly.
"Let him do his shouting and barracking down there for a while, he'll manage."
He would. The shouting didn't matter. We knew what to do, we knew what lay ahead and we were ready.
I curled back into Rhyl's arms, the one place in the world where I truly fit, and shut my eyes to concentrate for just one hour more on feeling his hand move on my hair, smoothing, soothing. The one person I needed. The one place I belonged. The one who could find me where ever I wandered.
There was no need to rush down to Bran. No need for haste or anxiety. I was rooted here and the world would go on while we campaigned. I had Rhyl, and while I had him, I was safe. 

~The End~

Copyright Ranger 2010


Swetz said...

You are controlling the readers through your stories. They are so powerful that its difficult to breadth until it's done read.

You really are one of a kind Ranger, so feels like a privilege to read your works.

Thank you.

Ranger said...

Thank you Swetz, it's always so nice to hear someone's reading and enjoying the older stories! I'm delighted you enjoyed this, this series was one of the first I ever wrote.

jen vieira pinto said...

Rhyl is a bloody bastard and I really don't understand how Jai could just jump back into his arms after he'd been so cruel and Jai was hating him all that time. Jai has got to be the weakest king I have ever seen. If anyone had ever abused me like that I would either leave or hurt them back in a serious way. What Rhyl did was abuse not discipline.

That aside, the story was well written as always and the world building was as brilliant as usual. You were able to bring everything to life and make it so vivid I could see it clearly as if I was watching a movie.

Thanks! ^_^

Most of the artwork on the blog is by Canadian artist Steve Walker.

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