The Sword Of Erren-dar (Book 2) (5 page)

BOOK: The Sword Of Erren-dar (Book 2)
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  However, the familiar view of the tower was causing Bethro
some uneasiness that evening. Although he was proud of his title ‘Keeper of the
Sword’ he knew in his heart that he was neglectful of his duties. He felt that the
old tower, which he so seldom visited, was silently reproaching him and his
conscience, usually an amiable companion, was awake and inconveniently pricking
him. The truth was that he disliked visiting the tower. He disliked the silence
and the darkness and the sense of waiting. His failure was not entirely the
result of sloth, but an indefinable unease that took him the moment he forced
open the little door against its rusting hinges. For Bethro could not rid
himself of the feeling that he was being watched, and by eyes that did not wish
him well. He wondered if Keesha had really gone. Perhaps she still lurked there,
a hostile and invisible presence, resenting any intrusion into her domain. He
was supposed to visit the sword once a week to check on its safety and make
sure the blade was polished. In actual fact, the second part of his task was
superfluous, for it never dulled or tarnished, nor did it ever lose its edge –
as he had discovered to his cost in one careless moment.

 The memory caused him to turn over his hand and examine the
thin, white scar that adorned his palm. The sword was sufficient of itself. It
did not need him. It lay on its velvet cushions, beautiful, deadly and
unchanging. So Bethro’s visits became rarer and rarer as he succumbed to
cowardice, and now, casting back in his mind, he realised with a shock that it
had been six months since he had last unlocked that little pointed door and
forced back the ivy.    

 The thought elicited another sigh from him. The nagging of
conscience was becoming so acute that it was almost driving him to the point of
having to face his fear – almost, but not quite. He knew that duty demanded
that he fetch a lantern, unlock the door with the key attached to his belt by its
silver chain, and descend into that quiet, death-like blackness. But as Bethro
watched the shadows deepen and night descend, he cravenly decided that his
conscience could wait until the morning.

 A glass of  mead beside a cosy fire in his favourite tavern
would soothe his ruffled feathers and restore his normal good humour, and after
all, the sword would still be there in the morning.

Bethro’s fall from Grace

 

 

 

 

 The day was so bright and clear that it irresistibly tempted
Queen Triana to do something that she now seldom did – leave her chambers and
take a turn around the walled garden. The  air was crisp and still. Every
breath hung like mist for a moment before quickly vanishing, like a
half-finished thought. A blackbird, a little confused about the time of year,
or else just wishing to steal a march on its kindred, was casting forth his
clear call, puffing out his chest and telling the world what a handsome fellow
he was. The daffodils, responding to the sunshine, loitered in golden crowds, turning
up their faces to the light, shivering a little when touched by the cool
breeze. In fact, the only cloud in an otherwise perfect sky was the presence of
the chatty little maid, who, despite all attempts at persuading her to the
contrary, insisted on accompanying her mistress, taking her arm protectively.

 “A perfect spring day,” murmured the Queen, as they
descended the stone steps from the terrace onto the formal lawn.

 But the maid viewed nature in a purely practical light.
“Oh, it’s clear, Ma’am, but cold, very cold. Really, I think you would be so
much better by the cosy fire in your apartments.”

 “I’m tired of the cosy fire in my apartments,” Triana
replied tartly. “I want a change of scene.” She refrained from adding – ‘and a
change of company’. “You may leave me now. I’m quite all right on my own.”

 The maid was horrified. “Oh, no, Ma’am, I couldn’t do that!
If anything happened to you, the King would murder me!”

 The old woman raised her eyebrows. “And what, pray, do you
suppose will happen to me within the palace gardens? Kidnapped by brigands, no
doubt?” Fortunately for Triana, just as the maid drew breath to expostulate,
her eye fell on her granddaughter sitting by the fountain. “There is Sareth,”
she announced with the satisfaction of someone who knows they have just won an
argument. “She can protect me from the brigands.”

 The maid, unimpressed by the Queen’s humour, bobbed a
disapproving curtsey and was gone.

 Triana followed the path to the place where her granddaughter
sat staring into the waters of the fountain and sat down with a sigh beside
her. She did not fail to notice her companion’s thoughtful, indeed, rather sombre
demeanour.

 “Not quite the expression one would expect on a young
woman’s face the day after she announces her betrothal.”

 Sareth summoned up a smile. “You missed the banquet last
night, grandmother, but as usual, you know all that goes on. I kept hoping that
you would come. Somehow a celebration is not complete without you.”

 “Was it a celebration, Sareth?”

 All she got in response was a shrug. “My brother was
certainly celebrating, for in one fell swoop he got rid of me and secured
Westrin’s services for the crown.”

 “Political matchmaking?”

 “What else?”

 “And what about Vesarion?”

 The reply was evasive. “What about him?”

 “Look me in the eye, my child,” the Queen insisted gently.
When Sareth did not obey, she crooked her finger under her chin, and turned her
face up to the light, but the grey eyes still would not meet hers.

 “Why are you marrying him, my dear? He does not love you.
So why would you do this? What chance of happiness is there for either of you
in such a union?”

 Sareth turned her face away. “What chance of happiness is
there for me here?” she murmured. Then straightening up, she smiled suddenly, a
pale, wintry smile not yet touched by spring. “Do you remember when I was a child
I once told you I wished that I had been born a boy?”

 The Queen nodded and chuckled at the recollection. “You
certainly lived like one,” she declared. “Climbing trees, falling out of
windows, fighting with Eimer and generally getting into mischief.”

 Sareth could not restrain a laugh at the description but
there was a tinge of regret there too.

 “I was quite a tearaway, wasn’t I? But suddenly it all ended.
On my eighteenth birthday I was told to put up my hair, put on a dress and
behave like a lady.”

 “Is that so bad?”

 “It meant the end of my freedom. It meant being bored,
restrained and ordered around by fools like Enrick.”

 “My dear, I could not see you being ordered around by
anyone. You have your mother’s strength of will. Live life as you choose.”

 Sareth swung round to face the Queen, her eyes fierce. “But
what choice do I have? I have nothing, grandmother, nothing. Unlike Enrick or Eimer
I have no land, no estates, nowhere to run to. I owe everything I have, from
the roof over my head to the very clothes I stand in, to my father’s goodwill –
and these days that means Enrick’s goodwill. In return I am supposed to earn my
keep by making a marriage that is politically advantageous to Eskendria. That
is what is expected of me. That is the duty of a royal princess. Yet time after
time I have failed in my duty and foiled Enrick’s plans to marry me off. Again
and again I have managed to scare off potential suitors, until Enrick has
finally run out of patience with me, and now has informed me that if I do not
marry Westrin, he will disown me as his sister and throw me out on the street.”

 The Queen’s eyes snapped with anger. “He wouldn’t
dare!

 “Wouldn’t he? He dares anything these days. My father
constantly defers to his will. Eimer refuses to face up to his
responsibilities.Who is to stop him?”

 Triana’s eyes still blazed “If he tries anything of the
sort he will find he has me to deal with.”

 Sareth shook her head in despair. “I’m sorry, grandmother,
but he cares nothing for that. He has my father where he wants him and no one
can now gainsay him. Do you not know that in all but name he now rules
Eskendria?”

 The fire faded in the Queen’s eyes and she became
reflective. “Vesarion could stop him, if he put his mind to it. How much of
this does he know?”

 “Of Enrick’s threat to me? – nothing. As for the rest, I’m
not sure. He says little, and you know what Vesarion is like – utterly
impossible to read. I don’t know whether his reticence on the subject merely
stems from his usual closeness, or whether news of what happens here simply
never gets through to Ravenshold.”

 “Oh, he has the measure of Enrick, my dear. The question
is, what will he do about it? He is very loyal to your father, and such a high
sense of duty may very well make it incumbent upon him to be loyal to the Crown
Prince, too, no matter how much it goes against the grain. Vesarion has his
faults but he is neither a fool nor a traitor. He knows very well that if the
Barony of Westrin pits its strength against the royal house, it will plunge
Eskendria into civil war. He will not want that, for he is a man who loves
order. Revolution is not part of his make-up.”

 “This offer of marriage clearly indicates that he has
thrown in his lot with the royal house,” observed Sareth dejectedly. “Enrick,
it seems, has achieved his aim.”

 Triana sat watching her granddaughter pensively for a
while. Sareth, with the knowledge of long acquaintanceship, knew that something
important was brewing.

 Finally, the Queen clasped her hands tightly and decided to
face the issue that had been troubling her since the conversation began.

 “I think it rather unkind of you, Sareth, to try to deceive
an old woman.”

 Sareth’s eyes widened.
“Grandmother!”

 “You have not been altogether honest with me, have you?
Don’t forget, I have known you since you were a baby, and although I know that
what you have told me is true, it is not the whole story, is it? Enrick’s
threat to throw you out is not the whole reason you accepted Vesarion’s
proposal, is it?”

 Sareth dropped her head again. “No,” she whispered.

 The Queen reached forward and gently placed her hand on the
bowed head. “Tell me what troubles you, my dear?” she asked gently.

 The head shook slightly under her hand. “I can’t. Maybe
some day, but not now.”

 “You have become very reticent of late, not like the little
girl who used to tell me everything. You know you were always my favourite. I
always thought it a great pity that you had not been an only child.”

 Sareth gave a gasp, half shocked, half amused.
“Grandmother, you are truly outrageous!”

 Triana gave a saucy smile, as if it pleased her still to be
able to shock. “Really? Do you not think I know that my elder grandson calls me
an old witch and that reprobate of a younger grandson announces to all and
sundry that he is terrified of me and would rather face a whole army of Turog?
Ha! He only says that because he has never had to face one, and very likely never
will. I have given up any hope I had of him growing up, accepting his
responsibilities and putting a brake on Enrick’s ambitions. Is it not enough for
Enrick that he will be king one day? Can he not wait for death to deliver what
he wants? The only one who could do anything is Vesarion, and I will confess to
you Sareth, that lately I find I no longer understand him. He has grown distant
from me in that eagle’s nest of his, shunning the court and its intrigues. When
he speaks now I can no longer see behind the words into his mind. It’s not that
I think he is deceitful, like Enrick, saying one thing and thinking another,
it’s just that he is a closed book.” She looked off across the garden, her gaze
distant. “Or perhaps it is just that I am getting old. It’s too late for me to
fight such battles anymore. I must leave such things to a younger generation,
and with Eimer being what he is, that means you and Vesarion.” She sighed
regretfully. “If only it had been a love match, I would be very well content to
leave you in his care, and depart in peace, but as it is, I fear he will only
break your heart.”

 It was Sareth’s turn to gaze into the distance. “Perhaps my
heart is not so fragile.”

 “Then you do not know yourself, my dear. I know for certain
that whatever his reasons for making this proposal, love does not number
amongst them. That spells only misery.”

 A rather set face was turned to her. “I have to do this,
grandmother, I
have
to. You do not know the full extent of Enrick’s
plans. This is the only way I can protect Vesarion, for as you have just said,
without him we are lost.”

 Triana’s brows met together. “Protect him? What exactly is Enrick
up to?”

 “I….I can’t tell you. I can’t. But believe me, I will do
whatever I can to keep Vesarion safe – the irony is that he will never know
it.”

 “I will not press you to tell me more if you do not wish
to, but tell me one thing – are you sure you know what you are doing? Westrin
has many excellent qualities but he is both proud and stubborn. You have
scarcely set eyes on him in the last few years, so any preconceived ideas you
might have about him should be discarded. You were very young when he left to
rule Westrin and perhaps you have constructed in your mind a fairy tale figure
that bears little resemblance to reality. He, on the other hand, has some
six-and-thirty years under his belt and has ruled Westrin for the best part of
twenty of them. He has acquired the habit of command and is not likely at this
late stage to change his ways. He is not about to suffer any check on his will,
least of all from a girl almost ten years his junior.”

 To her surprise, Sareth smiled. “You make him sound
tyrannical.”

 The old woman’s serious expression softened. “No, at least,
not intentionally. He may not think it, but he has still much to learn about
himself. Before he broached the matter to you, I told him that he should only
marry for love, but he didn’t heed me. You see, he had made up his mind what he
was going to do, and once he has done that, it is about as easy to deflect him
as it is to hold back the tide. So once again, I ask you, are you certain that
you know what you are doing?”

 Sareth stared out across the bare garden to the ivy-covered
palace walls. “I am doing what must be done. You see, grandmother,” she added with
a wan smile, “I can be every bit as stubborn as he is.”

 

 The boy had the strangest amber-coloured eyes that the
landlord of the inn had ever seen. They were not the more common dog-like
brown, nor yet were they hazel, shot through with green or blue, but were
instead the colour of a deep mountain pool when the sun plumbs its depths,
turning everything to the colour of mead.

 The youth stood in the dim corridor at the back of the inn
that lead from the stable yard to the taproom. His hands were clasped lightly behind
his back and while he waited for his host to appear, he studied with strange
intensity, a roughly-done sketch hanging on the wall. The sound of the
landlord’s footsteps caused him to turn from his study and with a nonchalance
that was just a little too perfect to be natural, he said: “I trust your
stable-lad informed you that I require one of your best rooms, landlord. I am
uncertain as to the duration of my stay but probably about a week – possibly
two.”

 His interlocutor, with the well-practiced speed of his
species, was rapidly assessing his new customer - principally with regard to
his ability to pay.

 He was forced to admit that the boy who stood before him,
regarding him with those strange amber eyes, was hard to categorise. He was
slightly built, with a mop of glossy black hair, but was too fair skinned to
come from the south, from the arid regions that bordered the Great Desert. His
style of clothes was obviously foreign, as was his accent, but his attire was
of good quality. It was difficult to say what age he was, because although he
had the self-possession of someone older, his smooth face and fine features
suggested youth. The landlord guessed he might be as young as fifteen,
certainly too young to be travelling alone.

BOOK: The Sword Of Erren-dar (Book 2)
9.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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