A cool, salty wind from the North entered The City like a searching, penetrating fog. Caravels and barges littered the harbor like pebbles tossed into a pond by a child. The full moon hung low over the distant sea, the waters reflecting the moon’s light like a shattered mirror.
The citizens of The City stirred in their beds as the breeze outside pressed against their pale windows, reminding them of how fragile their protection against the elements really was. A brittle window, and the false security of blankets didn’t seem enough to feel safe tonight.
From the lowliest kitchen scullion in the seaside part of town to the lords of The City in their large castle estates rimming the cliffs around The Valley of Life, all their thoughts were as one. Everyone lay awake in their respective homes, searching the darkness in their lives for answers. The bright light of the moon was not enough to illuminate their uncertain future. The road they faced was a long and lonely one, where only the strongest had a chance to see where that road would end. There was a fork up ahead somewhere, but to take the less traveled one was to lie down and die.
Castle Bonemeyer stood silent watching over them all. The castle stood right on the edge of the rim of The Valley of Life, hanging over the cliffs of the valley, straight to the canyon’s floor. The castle had a thousand rooms and hundreds of floors. A small city of cooks, servants, and gardeners lived within its walls. It was a fortress of stone and rock, and it was as unassailable and impenetrable as the people who lived within it were unreachable to the common folk.
The castle was all darkness tonight. Empty windows stared back at the city like eyeless sockets, and hundreds of balconies made its grin, as the face of authority always presided over its people.
It is here that Wolfgang Neverfolt’s eyes seemed to wonder every few steps he took in the darkened street. The castle stood watch over him, his shady intent giving the fortress the personification of a silent guardsmen looking on, reading his thoughts even from this distance. And who knew? he thought.
With The Guardian keeping vigilance, no one knew who was safe from the witch’s scrying eyes. The thought sent a shiver down the older man’s spine. It was all he could do to keep from pulling his cowl over his lupine ears. He smiled in spite of himself. It would take more than a few magic tricks to instill fear in him. He was Wolfgang Neverfolt, Lord of the Watchers. He was owner of the first seat on The Council, and he was owner of Wolvenshire, the most coveted piece of land in The City. He responded to no one, except to the King himself, and that was rare these days.
The King was in a catatonic state nowadays, and he had remained this way for several months. Everyone in the kingdom known as The Valley of Life knew he would not recover. The throne would be left to an inexperienced ruler still in her teens, and for the first time, to a woman. No, he reminded himself, to a girl!
It was not the first time this night that he had given himself to such seething thoughts. How could he, Wolfgang Neverfolt, ever take commands and orders from a woman? That she was young and untested did not sit well with him. The fact that she was already proving resistant to manipulation had him in rages most of the time. With The Guardian at her side constantly, it was proving more difficult than he ever imagined getting her alone, to poison her mind with sound, useless advice.
He passed over one of the many bridges that crossed The City and was thankful for the rushing river beneath his feet. It helped mask his footsteps at this time of night. Men who walked alone in the middle of the street in the deep of the night were surely to bring attention to themselves, especially to old housewives with nothing better to do. The river splashed and roared behind him as he made his way to The Dark Rose.
The tavern was a long way from home, but he was assured it would provide him with the privacy he required. At first he feared the establishment was closed. But as he approached, a shadowy figure stepped out of the darkness, silent as a cat and quick as death. Before Wolfgang could even think to draw his sword, the figure opened the door to the tavern.
The soft light of torches spilled out into the street as he stepped through. The door closed behind him and he found himself standing in the middle of an empty tavern. The Dark Rose. He was quickly reminded why he had struggled to close the place down, to have the place condemned, and all these people of the streets evicted back into them. This was the kind of place where revolutions began and ended.
A hearth burned in the corner across from him and tables dotted the floor of the tavern. The walls were wet with moisture due to improper insulation and the smell of spilled beer was overpowered by the stench of old, dried-up urine. He would have been tentative to take another step forward if not for the hooded figure at the end of the bar. He took note of the fact that the firelight from the hearth did not seem to reach the figure’s clothes, much less reflect any light.
“I have been here for over two hours, my lord,” said the figure.
He took a stool for himself and sat next to the cloaked figure. His hand strayed to his sword for reassurance. No one could ever be too sure. “Must you always speak in that voice, my lady?”
Marguer Losom uncovered herself to reveal long white hair and soft skin. Long slender fingers unclasped her cloak and unbuttoned the top buttons of her silky blouse. “I have to take all precautions with my identity. As you know what I speak of.”
He laughed quietly as he took in her large blue eyes. “It is no wonder you have the most connections in my eyes and ears network. Any man would believe every word you say, much less think you a spy for me or anyone else.”
There was no mirth in her eyes. “I am the best that you have because I make my living as a representative to the people. My work is sincere and it comes from the heart. It only happens that I agree with some of the things you have been circulating through the underground.”
Wolfgang Neverfolt leaned in a little. “So you agree that she cannot be made queen of The Valley of Life?”
Marguer Losom was quick to interject. “What you speak of is treason against the kingdom and the king. He is still alive, and such words could bring ire upon us.”
He felt his throat tighten a bit. He quickly raised his hand to stop her from speaking. “I am not speaking of overthrowing the king’s daughter. I only wish to create a better solution. The prospect of crowning a young queen is terrifying for me. Especially in light of this prophecy.”
It was her turn to chuckle. He was trying to keep control over the conversation. He would have better luck cupping water in his hands.
“Relax, my lord. Just because I am wary of committing treason does not mean I do not agree with you. Can’t you feel it all around you? This city does not sleep. I can feel its citizens up at night, awake, and pensive of their future. Already, I hear common people calling her the dead queen. She is walking on borrowed time. Doomed to lead us into a war we cannot win, she will die trying to save us all. ‘And die she will,’ they all say. They respect her because they respect the prophecy. It is as if The Guardian has placed a spell over the city and she has everyone in awe of the queen.”
The thought of The Guardian placing a spell over all of them made his flesh crawl. He would not have been surprised. “She has already sent out the army to patrol the shores of the lake.”
“The Prophet of Dreams states the enemy will come after the death of the king. He must be close to passing,” she reasoned. “She has left us with only the home guard to protect us, then.”
“That was a decision made by the Lord-General. Remy would never have left the city so defenseless,” was all he could muster to say.
He grimaced, and not because of the warm sour drink they had brought him. “You don’t believe all those prophecies will really come true, do you? It is all nonsense. The Prophet of Dreams was an insane wretch of a man, and the king’s desire to give him a position of advisor was only to keep the raving lunatic close at hand.”
“A powerful lunatic,” she said into the silence that followed.
As if in response to her words, a gust of wind blew open the door to the Dark Rose, revealing all its dirty secrets to the world beyond. The shadowy figure in the corner struggled for a moment to close the door shut again. His face was revealed and his dark face was scrunched up in frustration. He lost his footing once and almost slipped a second time when the door closed shut on his fingers. The scream he let out was muffled by the wind’s own voice.
After the howling of the man and wind had ended, Wolfgang Neverfolt and Marguer Losom were left to wonder what exactly had just happened. The Lake of Dead Men howled with rage in the distant shores and high above, the moon struggled to cower behind the horizon.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler III