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A Feast of Life and Death
Kieren the Fox leaned back from the high table. “In the old stories, these feasts are always the start of something.”
Durand looked down on the little knight from his spot over old Duke Abravanal’s shoulder.
“I need no such looks from you, Durand Col,” said Kieren. “How long have I known you? Man and boy, it must be twenty years. You were rolling on the rushes there like a puppy when I first saw you.
“And you may make a skeptical face, but what I say about stories is true: it’s always this feast or that feast. They were gathered for the Feast of the Ascension when.… They all start that way. You check with that minstrel friend of yours, next time you see him. Heremund?”
“I’ve not seen the skald in years.” There had been no new tales for many winters.
Sir Kieren glanced up and down the high table, winking at young Lady Almora where she sat by her ancient father a few spots down. “The hall was crowded; throughout Creation the Sons of Atthi feasted the Ascension of the Eye of Heaven over darkness and the beginning of Spring. And so half the fractious barons of Gireth and Yrlac, ten years sulkily united under Abravanal’s rule, muttered under green garlands in that black hall, their ladies in gowns of emerald while knives winked, wine sloshed, and greyhounds roiled in the rushes like fat eels.”
Almora laughed, tucking her chin a bit. She was the only cheerful thing in the hall.
“Where do all the dogs come from, anyway?” Kieren wondered. One of the brutes was nuzzling its way past their knees even now, its coat as coarse as brown oakum. Kieren slipped the dog a scrap and was lucky to keep his fingers.
“Now I’ve got lost. Ah yes. The greyhounds. All under the lowering eye of the duke’s champion, Durand Col, who stood like a black-bearded idol at the duke’s shoulder, forever watchful, forever loyal, and forever lowering at me though I’ve known him since he was a pup and I his master. You could stop lowering, Durand.”
This got another bright laugh from the girl.
It was enough to draw a cautioning frown from Almora’s lady- in-waiting, Lady Deorwen.
Sir Kieren pursed his lips behind his great mustaches, and made sure he was out of Deorwen’s earshot. “Worse than usual?”
Almora ducked her dark eyes. “The dreams again,” she said.
“Ah,” said Kieren. “You’d think she’d have laid the last of the old ghosts to rest by now.”
“They still come to her,” said Almora. “She is often abroad at night.”
“Running errands for the Lost.” He clucked his tongue. “Ten years since Radomor of Yrlac put this place under siege, and still the dead are not done with us.”
Kieren set his hand on Almora’s shoulder and she smiled, wistfully now.
Just then, something drew Durand’s attention from the girl, his old friend, and Deorwen. There’d been a word misspoken, and a shushing—too loud.
Durand Col, Champion of Gireth, scratched his beard and shot a glance down the long tables, where he spied a bald fighting man struggling with his companions.
“Let me speak, you hissing pack of fishwives!” The bald fighting man waved a boar’s rib in the air as he shrugged off his companions. He wasn’t one of the usual men who came to Abravanal’s board. The dullard had a shapeless face, a bit like a pig’s bladder.
Kieren frowned. “It’s that Euric boy, idiot brother to the Baron of Swanskin Down.”
“I only asked why the old man hasn’t married the girl off,” Sir Euric said. A ring flashed on his finger. “What harm is there in asking?”
“What did he say?” old Abravanal quavered, scarcely more than whisper.
“Nothing, Your Grace. He’s drunk, most likely,” Kieren said, but Euric had ventured onto dangerous ground.
Lady Deorwen took Almora’s elbow and shot Durand a cautioning look. The woman was half his size, but her dark eyes still nudged him off balance, though long years had passed since he’d set a finger upon her.
“In the autumn, the king’s messengers show up here in Acconel,” Euric continued. “They tell us, ‘Ride over the mountains. Get to Fellwood. Quiet that rabble down there.’ A land that’s nought to do with Gireth or Yrlac—not much to do with Errest the Old, some might say. Leave half a rebellion behind to go haring off to the Fellwood Marches. But the snows come early and the high passes are choked. And that gives us a winter here at home to settle things with the barons in Yrlac. It’s a gift from the Powers of Heaven, sure enough.
“But what did we do? It is Ascension time now, and some of our friends from Yrlac are hopping over the river every other night.… A winter wasted, and Yrlac still not sorted. They need a sign over there. While there is still time!”
Only then did Euric seem to notice that the eyes of the high table were upon him, and that his tirade was in the ears of his masters.
Abravanal rose unsteadily to his feet.
Euric straightened, patting the air with one greasy hand. “With respect, Your Grace. With respect. But you must show the lords of Yrlac your mind! We have lost one winter since the king’s message, but there have been ten long years since Radomor of Yrlac rebelled against the king. Ten years since we vanquished him. Ten years since you have held the traitor’s lands. Are the native lords in Yrlac free or conquered? They must know where they stand. King Ragnal has business of his own, worrying that them forest lords in Fellwood do not heed him, I suppose. And what cares he which of his lords plays duke in Yrlac? The king will send word now that Spring is here: over the mountains to Fellwood and show them they’re not forgot!”
There were lords of Yrlac in the room, shifting on their benches, but the drunkard began counting options on his fingers: “Marry the girl off to that Lord Leovere of theirs, if you must; bind his house to yours. Or, if you won’t give them the girl, crush them, and think on marrying the girl to one of your own barons here. Drop the gate on the devils in Yrlac! They must know your mind, Your Grace—you must know your mind. And it must be now!”
Duke Abravanal trembled in every limb. “Must? Must?” He could hardly choke out a syllable, so full of rage was he. “Who are you to speak this way, to tell me that I must give up my daughter?”
“Father…” Almora gave the old man a beseeching whisper, then shot a pointed look at Kieren.
Kieren the Fox, Abravanal’s Steward in Gireth, was already on his feet. “Lord Euric, for your late father’s sake, I hope you’ll spare a moment to remember where you are. You’ve a right to your own mind, but we’re in our liege lord’s hall just now.”
It was a noble attempt and had to be made, but Euric only blinked stupidly.
“That’s just it, Sir Kieren. Maybe His Grace needs a word,” Euric said. “It’s our future he’s fumbling with.” He jabbed his rib bone at his duke. “I know he’s got plenty of reason to hang on to the child with all his others dead. But locking her up in here in Acconel? The king will send us all over the mountains any day now, and Acconel will be left with hardly a fighting man to defend it. What if Lord Leovere or any of the rest of his Yrlaci friends choose to make trouble? Is Abravanal with us here in Gireth or them in Yrlac?”
A few hands in the hall shaped the Eye of Heaven to ward off evil. The man’s words were treason.
“Almora is my own affair, you stupid fucking boy,” rasped Abravanal. “As is how I govern the lands my late sons wrested from the rebel Duke of Yrlac. And my dead children. God! As if I do not remember them. As if they ever leave my mind!”
Euric looked up into the garlands crowding the soot-blackened vaults of the Painted Hall. Lady Deorwen was gathering up Almora to get her from the hall. Almora’s hair bobbed like sable as she snarled in Deorwen’s ear. She was no infant to be sheltered from harsh words; it would be something like that she was telling poor Deorwen.
And Deorwen was not quite quick enough.
“Your Grace. She’s like a dove in this black old tomb.” Euric’s hand swept expansively over the girl and the high table. “Is she fifteen now? A girl her age should be out on her own, not cooped up here with her old father. I know a great lord on the border who’s of an age to marry. That would be a message sent.” Durand wondered if the man referred to himself. “I mean … is there something amiss with the girl? Something wrong with her?”
A big hollow rage filled Durand’s head. There was not wine enough in Creation! She was a little girl.…
Almora had nearly reached the door. Deorwen had been too slow.
“What’s that you say?” the duke breathed.
“I only wondered if there might be something—” The boar’s rib dangled in silence.
Copyright © 2018 by David Keck