I awaken laying by the embers of a fire, with warm leather under my bare backside and a bearskin fur covering me. Something’s missing.
The line of my right leg disturbs the drape of the fur. The line of my left does not.
My throat’s raw and my hands weak, but a pitcher of water waits on the table next to me. I sit to pour myself a glass and almost fall – weary, unbalanced, light-headed. I’ve been sweating and my lips are dry.
Elen will be angry. He won’t berate me but he’s often said that should I crash and harm myself, he would not push my wheelchair. He’s meant it as a playful encouragement not to crash, but I’ve always answered that a crash is inevitable, to which he replies with a playful twinkle in his eye: “If you’re too broken to hold me, don’t bother returning home.”
That day will come. The other Kite Orphans are long gone. Little Mary Winder, with the small hands and the eyes that always tried to swallow me, crashed in the Eiffel when a downdraft swept her suddenly into a tree-top. I remember her truncated cry. The younger Salizar was caught by grape-shot as he scouted the Roman navy. The older never returned from an evening patrol. MacLorry crashed on a routine courier flight. I picked up his commission and so had to search his body for the parcel he was to deliver. I couldn’t figure out what had happened; the sky was clear and he knew the route. He just crashed. Those were my close friends. There are others, a constant parade. I still try to learn their names, but kite fliers don’t last long. Except for me. At twenty, I’m the oldest I’ve ever known.
I think Elen knew our marriage wouldn’t be permanent, at least for him. He can do better than me and he will when I’m gone.
Tears drip from my chin. Perhaps it’s unseemly, but there’s no-one here to see.
I finish the glass of water. They did not leave me a crutch. I’m sure Doctor Grimwerd expects me to rest.
The room still stinks of alcohol, especially the stump of my leg. A chest in the corner holds linen shirts and I take one. It’s long enough to reach my knees. This must have been Gurstwalt’s room; the chancellor’s champion is the only man so tall who lived in the castle.
In the corner a broken spear-shaft half-hides behind a tapestry of hunting. I practice with it as a crutch. It stabs my armpit, and it’s hard to balance on, but after a few falls I find the confidence to go out, and set off down the hall.
They put me in Gurstwalt’s room instead of the Kite’s quarters. It’s strange to wake up in the area reserved for the upper table, but nothing about the castle has changed since I left it for Octane’s keep.
A servant in white linen enters the hall from a side way. He stops when he sees me and fails to hide his surprise. A young boy: dark haired, tall and thin as a pike. The freckles under his eyes spread as he blinks at me.
“Lady? May I assist you?” His voice breaks.
“You look like Teren Baker,” I tell him, studying his face.
“Um… yes?” he says. “Teren is my mother, M’lady. Though her name is Butler now.”
“Butler?” Even woozy, the idea strikes me as odd. “She married old Skornwurt?”
“No M’lady,” he says the honorific with increasing suspicion that it may not be appropriate. “Skornwurt Butler died of a sudden and my father, that would be Hesten, was named Butler.”
“I don’t remember Hesten,” I try to say, but a bit of turbulence in my head tries to knock me over.
His hands hover before him. He hesitates, afraid to touch my person.
“Grab a loop, lad. This line needs all hands.”
“B-begging your pardon, Sir,” he stutters, as he ducks under my arm.
“No pardon necessary. Thanks.”
“Shouldn’t m’lady be, perhaps, resting?”
“But m’lady has lost a leg.”
“An inconvenience to be sure. I need to get to the Kite’s quarters for some proper clothing, and then there’s a knight I must visit, a Lady Knight.”
“The Warden, Sir.”
“Yes, the doctor called her that. The Warden. So she’s been named warden of the city? What is her land, her family?”
“Sir, perhaps you might sit while I fetch the clothes you require?”
“What’s the matter, afraid to talk about the new lords?”
“N-no sir. But- s-sorry sir.”
The hall ends in a colonnade whose arches open into the great hall. There the chancellor’s table runs forty paces and forty chairs beside a row of hearths and barrels of ale. The seats are all empty now, and the hearths cold. The high thrones are covered with black velvet and the table’s bare. The skin of my legs goosebumps in the chill. Odd. I’m getting goosebumps on a leg I don’t have.
A chandlery maid, caught in the act of replacing a candle in a wall sconce, glances over her shoulder at the sound of our voices echoing in the big room. She studies us a second, then goes back to her work.
“Will the Flight Master let you walk out with a kite-riders raiment?”
“If he would give it to you then he’ll give it to me in your name,m’lady.” The honorific is becoming more of an afterthought. He might be a little impatient.
“Fine then,” I tell the boy. “But I’ll not sit at that table. On the chest there. Give me a ball of wax and I’ll make my mark to show him.”
He scurries away, my mark in hand.
The servants remain though the keep has fallen. A change in colors, but life goes on. No occupying warriors drink the chancellor’s ale. The halls are silent but for the echoes of the staff murmuring to each-other. Even they sound quieter than usual. The guards wore black and gold instead of the chancellor’s purple, but they may well have been the same people as before.
Perhaps they were. I flew by too fast to tell.
“You there, chandlery maid.” My voice startles her, and she freezes in the midst of scraping wax from the bottom of a candle-bowl. “What’s your name?”
“Serai, m’lady,” she lowers the scraping spoon and turns to give me a curtsy.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Yes, Sir,” she drifts closer, with the long table between us. “You’re the flyer the Warden caught. We all watched from the windows.”
Of course they did. It must have been quite a sight.
“I am Sir Castor of the Western Malta.”
“Oh!” She gasps and her eyes widen. “I’ve heard of you sir!”
“I expected you might have. I was once of Heart-Home.”
“They say you were an orphan of the kite m’lady. Is it true?”
“Yes, that is true.”
She grins and a light shines in her brown eyes. The candle-spoon hangs forgotten in her hand, with wax clinging to its surface like peeling skin.
“Is it true you flew to Athens in one night and they knighted you for it and you went off to Malta and married a prince?”
“Is that what they say?”
“Yes M’lord. That and other things.”
“Well it’s not quite true but close. I was knighted at the battle of west-gate for bringing word of a Sultanate flanking force to Octane of Malta. It was at night and there were other difficulties, but it wasn’t quite so far as Athens.”
“And your husband, m’lady? Forgive my asking.” She clutches the spoon in both hands and wrings it like a wet rag.
“Lord Octane requested my hand for the Lord Elen Orleans, a ward of his court. I was honored to accept and he honors me now with a place in the court of West Malta.”
“It is said he saw you flying and fell for you, and that you love him very much.” The maid’s eyes search my face with an earnest excitement.
“Well I suppose that’s true.” I clear my throat to warn off any lingering tears, but none come. “Serai, what can you tell me about the invasion?”
The light goes out of her eyes to be replaced by cold nerves. She looks over her shoulder.
“You have nothing to fear,” I coax. “This place was my home. I want to know what’s happened here. What became of Chancellor Torrus? He was always kind.”
She bites her lip and looks at the table where the wringing of her spoon has dropped spots of wax.
“The Chancellor’s gone off to Prague with all the other lords. Them that survived.”
Of course. Those that didn’t escape into the hills will have been made to surrender. In Prague they’ll either swear to the Holy Roman Emperor or be held for ransom. It surprises me to hear the Chancellor’s still alive.
“What of his daughter Mereg?” I almost don’t dare to ask.
“She’s well, m’lady. She went to Prague as well.”
“Also to Prague, sir.”
“Who fell in the battle?”
“Sir Fencworth, Sir Tallow, Sir Jestings, um, sorry m’lady I don’t know them all. There were two dozen and one, and about a hundred of the town guard.”
“A hundred- so few? Did the Chamberlain surrender?”
The city streets were clean, the gates proud, the towers tall, the river was unblemished by dam and the stairs uncluttered with refuse of battle. Yet they had called for aid. Yet they had surrendered.
“That’s not for me to say, m’lady.” Her weight shifts from foot to foot, and she glances at the door she came in by.
“The occupying army… did it leave? Which direction?”
“The army. Where is it?”
“Army? Oh, there was no army, m’lady.”
“Then who killed twenty-five knights and a hundred armsmen?” Exasperation loudens my voice.
Her eyes widen, though she still stares down. “The warden killed them.” She manages a whisper. “It happened at night, sir. It was confusing. We thought there must be an army. There were gonnes in the keep, the thunder… I was very scared, sir. But it was all her. It was just her.”
“Thank you Serai,” I pity the fear in her face. “I won’t make you relive it anymore.”
But the gates are open.
“I was hiding during, but after we had to clean up. Sir Tallow, by the front gate, his arms had come off and his body was behind them, all the way over by the well, all – all jumbled. And Sir Fencworth – we couldn’t find his head at all.” She fixes me with a desperate stare. “What is she sir? What could do that? Do- do you know?”
Her last syllable drains from the echoing hall leaving it empty of answers.
I’ve seen men’s heads torn from their bodies by cannon fire or by a runaway horse. I’ve seen mangled bodies littering battlefields ridden with bullets. While delivering a missive to a Spanish Cardinal, I watched the legendary Celtaen air-ship fleet rain fire on Barcelona. Their lighter-than-air ships made me feel like a butterfly below a flight of hawks. I’ve been as far east as Lennai, where the spindle towers catch the moon and the magi make wings out of carpets, and as far south as the Sinai, where ghosts of wind and fire carry red-eyed warriors across oceans of sand.
But I’ve never heard of a lone knight sacking an entire city.
The silence grows too heavy. This young girl needs an assurance. I speak my thoughts as they come to me.
“In Espania, I was charged to deliver a missive to Cardinal Delgado during the Celtean rebuke of Barcelona. You may remember that the Duke of Barcelona had been remiss in his tithe. I watched from the Cardinal’s balcony, about a mile from the city and under the Vatican banner – far enough we weren’t at risk, but close enough to see the bodies in the streets. The Celtaen fleet opened fire on the city. It was as terrifying as the rumors say; great ships the size of buildings floating high in the air, their guns thundering like the Almighty at Gomorrah. Like rain, but each drop a cannonshot. Men died by the dozen, ran for cover, hid in basements only to have buildings come down on top of them. No soul staid still. But in all that chaos, one stood out like a mountain in a stormy sky. I saw a knight, dressed with a red dragon on a field azure. He leapt a tall building at a single bound and walked along the wide street as though the fire and thunder of the bombardment were as comfortable as his cloak. I remember thinking: The cannon weren’t necessary. That Knight could have rebuked the city alone. I learned his name was Sir Gwenywaid, and he was a Knight Round.”
“Knight Round!” The maid gasps, and the walls echo her voice.
“Perhaps this warden was once one of those knights,” I finish but the story’s already had its intended effect. The fear disappears from her eyes, replaced by a glimmer of wonder breathed to life by a thousand too many tales. Her mouth falls open.
“Do you think?” She wrings her spoon. “But they’re from Celtea, and they were so long ago!”
“Celtea, yes. They serve the Celtean Empress, but their order is not extinct-“
“Why, it’s no wonder she’s been so kind! The Chancellor should have surrendered right away!” She blinks, surprised by her own outburst.
“You should get back to your work.” I smile.
She nods, her eyes shining. “Yes, yes thank you!”
She curtsies and backs away, leaving me to dark thoughts.
“Knights Round! Here!” She disappears out the door, leaving her whisper’s echo and one candle sconce empty.