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THE MUTED SHOUT OF THE GRAY TOWER

by James Gardner

CHLIDREN OF THE GRAY TOWER part 1

by

James Gardner



Children of the Gray Tower Part 1

by Jim Gardner

Just where did this man [troll?] come from? It just started talking and… It vaguely resembled The Old Man from the Gray Tower but in the manner a butter knife resembles a sword; not really the same thing at all.

 “What?” Tomlin shook his head. “That can’t be right. I’ve the deepest respect for Arch Canon Clearfalls. His letters encouraged me to take The Task instead of the written and oral tests.”

It seemed a troll and yet… “Yup, gets ‘em to the Gray Tower and let the bats and the spooks do the rest,” not quite a troll; close.

Tomlin tried to continue, “And the, The Council of Seven are walking legends. They signed. Everybody knows that the th… No! I really don’t know the council. I don’t. Where did you come from? What are you?”

The apparition smiled, “Everybody else knows they’s a pack of demon worshiping filth,” the diminutive troll-person nodded in a knowing way. “T’were a trap, young priest. My prayers be answered and here ye be. Gots the true copy of The Book as well; I see.”

“It’s out of sight. Throwby has it.” Tomlin put his hand over his mouth and thought. I shouldn’t tell it secrets. It could be a thief. What may I say to this unknown? NOTHING. Why am I speaking to it?

The apparition, person-troll-thing, walked a few steps away, smiled again, waved, and disappeared into grass a hand’s breath deep ten strides from a wood line of tall pine trees. A quick glance over the breaking up of last night’s camp showed Reade and the Lady Irene gone and Padre Throwby kneeled in the dirt, not in prayer, but furiously writing with quill and ink.

Even while staring at and walking towards his mentor to report the troll encounter, Tomlin’s thoughts boiled elsewhere. Irene took an instant dislike to Reade. She rightly considers her a rival for my attention. Reade has my heart, and she proved herself an able ally at The Gray Tower; so lovely, and so strong. Her hair, her shape, Tomlin sighed. But Irene is a child, so demanding, so self-centered. Reade is a few years older. She has woman-thoughts. Irene is a beautiful child, but a child. There are powerful magics in Reade; strengths of heart and mind. Queen-Baby Irene with a rival, and now a troll appears from thin air and congratulates me on his answered prayers. The sun is just up and we’re but a thousand paces into our trip home. Completing The Task should have made an end and a new beginning… He stopped and looked down at Padre Throwby. Not more turmoil.

“Padre Throwby, I believe I’ve experienced a vision, of a sort,” Throwby did not raise his head.

Tomlin waited open mouthed to speak again, “Padre?”

***

The pen dipped and scratched, for the priest wrote in haste. Travel to Martyr’s Cavern worried his thoughts and the activities of breaking camp swirled all about him. He paused and lifted his face to Tomlin, “Thou sayest that the fourth copy sat in the chapel of The Gray Tower. Thou and the young woman Reade Beryl battled the demon Viscana, prevailed, and the one called The Old Man gave thee the priceless treasure of an original manuscript?”

“Yes. But just now… There’s, was, is, a troll that,” Tomlin paused.

Throwby’s mind wasn’t on trolls, “The Council wasn’t even sure another true copy from the Time of the Authors existed. Why do I write here kneeling in the wood? This is not the sort of event that will soon become a dim memory,” Throwby stood and corked his ink bottle. Fresh ink glistened on the page held by his anxious finger tips, “We must leave soon. Big cats and the other things roam these lands; if the tales are even the fourth part of truth we may have to fight our way to the lake. What happened to Lady Irene? And Reade Berly, where did she wander?

Even as Throwby glanced about, his speech returned to The Book, “Religion will be rethought and retaught. The Book you brought back makes a different philosophy possible; nay, inevitable. If there is creation, there is a beginning, much changes. Distrust, unrest, and war loom. Thou must recount your adventure to many courts. Many life times of study…” Throwby sighed and frowned, “Where did those two silly young women go?”

Tomlin guessed, “The filth Reade and I encountered fighting the demon: the fouled waters, the stench, the…”

“I remember now; a bath for Reade Beryl. And Irene?” Throwby waved his parchment in the air inwardly praying for a breeze.

“I don’t know,” said Tomlin but thought about The Book and the future of The Realm, Distrust? Unrest? War? What could be different about this copy? It was older. But surely it...  I fought a demon for it. Reade fought by my side. I? The Book? What about Irene? Her coronation?

***

“Why does anyone bathe?” Reade Beryl directed her gaze into the left eye of The Lady Irene and watched its pupil constrict to a black dot; a freckle. Hate and fear; it doesn’t take an enchantment to see that.

 “You purposely expose yourself for the contemplation of the Noble Tomlin,” Irene motioned, palm and thumb up, and pointed with the resulting four fingers as if presenting Reade for inspection.

   “I wash filth from my body in the small shallow stream in which I stand. To which; you walked over a hill; out of Tomlin’s sight; out of everybody’s sight”

“I came to, to, protect thee from wild animals, roaming black-guards, and wizards. I wish thee…” Irene made a tactical error by drawing a breath.

A nude person normally loses a bit of social force and respect along with their clothes; in Irene’s world at least. Reade lost neither. “I am Reade Beryl, last serf of the Gray Tower. Wild animals, magicians, and road bullies need protection from me,” she jerked a thumb at herself. “And I don’t let just anybody address me as ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’”

Dry leaves rustled and twigs snapped. Tomlin walked over the hill’s crest and in three strides stood between Reade and Irene, “Padre Throwby is ready to…” He stopped speaking. He gazed at Reade. Saliva oozed through the corners of his compressed lips.  

More leaves crunched. A dry dead tree limb, a switch actually, snapped from a small oak brandished about in the hand of a black robed man, “I thought something like this was a-foot. You two get back to camp,” he pointed with his switch. “And you,” he pointed again thrusting a large uneven bar of soap at Reade, “Hurry and finish before your chill bumps become tremors and muscle cramps. Some say cleanliness is next to godliness. I’m, not certain of that, but it certainly is better than stink. Tomlin, I’d tell thee to bathe as well but we only have the one creek and t’is in use.”

Irene tried, “I told thee…”

And was silenced, “Hush, Lady Irene.” Pastor Throwby, “Tsk, tsk’d,” as well and shook his head. “Lady Irene, precede us by seven Royal Strides. I must speak ‘under-the-veil’ to Priest Tomlin.

“Yes, Padre.” Irene glanced at Reade and then Tomlin and covered her mouth with a hand. Her footing slipped and she hurried away stumbling.

Irene disappeared below hill’s crest. Tomlin looked back at the bathing Reade, “Such beauty.”

“Her back and legs are scared like a rebellious, unrepentant, well beaten slave’s. Thy eye; here, now Priest Tomlin. I’ve been meaning to council, thee.” Encircling the young man’s shoulder with his arm, Throwby lowered his voice and continued speaking. He urged Tomlin on a tangent further away from both women, “Hast thou not realized that thy assault on The Gray Tower was intended to end thy life?”

“What?”

“There are those that feel, think, and demand thou art not a suitable mate for Lady Irene.”

“And I among them.” Tomlin gave a grim chuckle, “How does one join such an enlightened brotherhood?”

Throwby rolled his dark gray eyes, “Thou canst be unaware of thy father’s enemies, The Council of Seven.”

“Baron Malbothe died.”

“The six live. There will be troubles from them. They expected thee to fail The Task and be dead or humiliated by their questions in Open Forum testing.

“I know and live The Book. Their questions could not have…

“Then their swords would have. Listen, young priest. We, you and I and the Elders of our Parish back at Martyr’s Cavern, must copy, study, and spread the new content from The Book. New revelations will follow. What exciting times we will live. But we must arrive alive and in possession of our treasure, the only original complete copy of The Book.

***

Reade scooped icy water. Frigid cascades dropped from her cupped hands. She shivered, and watched the stream carry away weak suds laced with grime, “I feel thy presence, Treadlighter. Show thyself.”

A twenty-five-stone black wolf squeezed from a thicket on the far side of the stream and splashed its way to Reade’s side, “How do I address thee? Our Lord Fenre is dead.”

Two more, one smoke gray, the other colors of charred oak, followed him into the stream. They jostled each other and smirked growl-laughs, “All hail Queen Reade, Serf of The Gray Tower.”

“That title bites rock. It doesn’t make sense. A serf can’t be a queen. Try again,” said Treadlighter.

 “The water’s as cold-as-a-witch’s-heart. There’s ice chips in it.” The gray Sniffer trotted to the bank. He shook off water rocking his head, “Howler hast a new title for thee, My Lady. His nose is twitching his ‘I’ve-got-an-idea’ twitch.”

“Here goes,” said Howler. “All hail her Pinkish Blueness, Queen Furless, the animated icicle,” Howler bounded from the creek, “Treadlighter, how can you stand that water?”

Treadlighter left the steam, “What’s this pile of wet rags?” he raised his head and gazed at Reade, “Leave thy human’s form, my Lady, and shift thy shape. We can…” The wolf wrinkled his muzzle, “May Fenre stay dead; that hurts my nose. What is that smell?”

Carrying a flask of perfume, Irene came over the crest of the small hill, grabbed Reade by the hand and pulled her from the stream. In the same motion she sprinkled perfume and wrapped a blanket around her victim, “A chill such as this could kill, thou,” Irene grimaced and added, “Thou must be at thy best, my rival. I wish a fair, as well as clean, contest.”

Reade’s lips quivered, “The hate is gone from your eyes.”

“I prayed for thou.”

“No one gave you permission to call me “thou,” Reade’s teeth clicked when she spoke. She clamped her jaw shut.

“Are these dogs thine; I mean yours?”

“Dogs? Listen to her,” said Sniffer.

“Wolves,” said Howler.

“Two morons,” said Treadlighter, “and one suave genius.”

“Come, Reade of the confused titles, I have some brandy in my saddle bag. You there, chief moron! Have your minions bring Lady Beryl’s clothes.” Irene rubbed Reade’s back and urged her over the hill. “More perfume?”

“I guess thou got told who’s what,” said Sniffer.

“Ah-oooo,” laughed Howler.

“She got the minion part right. Pick up her Ladyship’s dress. And don’t drag it in the dirt,” said Treadlighter and gently bit Reade’s necklace with his teeth and carried it over the hill.

***

Tomlin splashed water on his bare chest and face. He ran his hands rapidly over his body wiping as much water as possible away and then wrapped his new black priestly robe about himself. He pulled his boots back on and then re-girded his sword and dagger, “I’ll need a new bow,” he thought out loud.

“Run!” Treadlighter’s cry froze everyone but the wolves.

Her mouth filled with brandy, Reade attempted to utter a spell and raise her arms.

Irene pinched the blanket tightly about her, “My worthy rival, cover thy, I mean yourself. You still must dress.”

Reade’s swallow hurt and burned. She choke-cried after her retreating wolves, “Who? What is it?”

“The Cat’s King, Redondo. I’ll come back if there’s anything left, my lady,” the retreating Treadlighter followed Howler and Sniffer off east into the woods.

Crunching pine cones and twigs under his velveted paws, a panther half the size of a horse appeared bounding from the direction of the stream, “There you are. I have a proposal, Serf Reade. I will enforce your inheritance. Just become my vassal and we share Fenre’s Kingdom. Defy me and…” Redondo jerked his head to his right. He froze and stared at Tomlin. Two panthers half his size collided with him from behind and sprawled under him. The Cats’ King struggled back to his feet but still stared bug-eyed

Struggling to raise her arms, Reade called out, “That man is my Champion, Redondo.”  More struggle; her blanket wound tighter about her by Irene along with every movement, but she still yelled, “He killed Fenre in the space of two hundred heart beats, Cat’s Meow.”

But Irene held her fast, “Modesty, my Rival, modesty.”

“I’d rather be naked and alive than modestly dead,” Reade screaked, “Let me go, idiot,” but Irene prevailed.

Pine straw and leaves hissed beneath Tomlin’s feet, for he ran, “Pastor Throwby, what is that thing?”

The Cat’s King watched Tomlin unsheathe his weapons. He lowered his head and crouched to spring.

 His companions scrambled and fled at the sight of the advancing warrior-priest, “Who are you?” demanded the panther.

“Tomlin of Martyr’s Cavern. Who are you, kitty?”

Redondo glanced at Reade.  “I, I, Reade is, is my… A who? uh my… With one paw I can crush your, your…” the panther’s eyes darted about.

“Don’t you have any teeth?” Tomlin lunged for the cat. It sprang but ill timed, off balance, and to one side. A backhanded dagger slash cut off its ear and a downward sword stroke parted its tail in two. The warrior-priest’s recovery brought both weapon’s to bear straight towards Redondo’s nose, “I won’t miss three times in succession.”

“Bravo, bravo!” the lady Irene yelled and applauded. Redondo backed cautiously and then sprinted away. His half tail and ear squirmed after him. Reade ran and wrapped her arms and blanket about Tomlin.

“What are you doing?” Irene blushed. Blood rushed to her face so quickly her blonde hair seemed to redden.

Reade grimaced. Looked from Tomlin’s face to Irene’s and back, said, “I’m hmm; I’m overcome with, with emotion.” She stopped speaking and pressed her body against Tomlin. “Let’s see. If certain people had not grabbed me, I would have frozen the Cat King with a still-spell. But as it stands,” she raised her voice, “I owe THEE my life.” She lowered it, “What does Irene say? Yes,” She yelled, “Thou Noble Tomlin, Thou Noble Tomlin, I am overcome with, hmm; thankfulness induced lust and wish a kiss.” She rocked her head back and puckered her lips.

Tomlin touched his forehead to Reade’s and said, “Not in front of all these people.”

“What about last night? You, my pardon, thou, wanted a public kiss then.” She tightened her grip and kissed him. “Oops,” She kissed him again; much longer.

“That’s enough,” said Pastor Throwby.

“Reade, thou could have been hurt,” Tomlin lowered his arms, got a glance and blushed.

“That red-skin-on-the-face seems to be going around,” but Reade smiled a little bit with soft eyes, and blew Tomlin a real kiss, touching her lips with her fingers and breathing across them in a slow and lingering, manner.

“Enough! We must get over Specter’s Lake before some other monstrosity confronts us. Everybody that’s naked put on traveling clothes. Children; you’re simply a herd of yipping, mewing children,” Throwby shook his head and groped the tether line for his horse’s reigns.

Sniffer dropped Reade’s dress at her feet, “Uh, the tangle bush...”

“The berry thicket,” added Howler.

“My deepest apology, My Lady,” said Treadlighter, and laid her enchanted opal necklace at her feet. Cold black fire blazed up at her from its depths.

***

Morning sun bathed the trail. Tomlin’s party rounded a curve leading to a long sloping descent. It became a lane stretched before them blazing reflected whiteness into their faces. It widened into a road an hundred unstepped paces down the lane, beyond that on towards the lake, ice coated everything in sight. Great globs of thick ice fog roiled from the woods. Swirling mists slithered from the ice and in a moment hid everything.

The trees around them hummed and hissed. Ice laden branches snapped free with sharp echoing retorts and masses of frozen tree limbs fell in thunderous cascades to the ground here and there; in the woods and onto the road. Bits of iced living wood, twigs and their splinters, exploded up and out. Trees continued to hiss and moan from their icy loads; tree limbs continued to break as well.

“Sorcery,” said Reade.

The wolves huddled at her feet, “But who? Fenre is dead and Redondo ran away,” said Treadlighter.

Reade muttered through clenched teeth, “There are more than two demons in creation and more dark wizards than the light ones can curse to dust.”

“Really?” said Howler.

“There are at least three wolves remaining in creation; aren’t there?” said Reade.

“Do be Quiet for a moment,” Tomlin kneeled and began poking the path with the tip of his dagger. Each touch produced melt; each step as well. Then he quoted The Book, “Treasures of wickedness profit nothing: but righteousness delivers from death.” He repeated the verse and it cut his way into the fog.

“The tunnel thou make may be an enchanted trap,” Reade’s voice shook.

“What’s a little fog? We must proceed,” the Lady Irene took the lead riding beyond Tomlin and tempting the whole party to follow her into the unseen. But her horse showed better sense and refused to enter the thickest of the magic mists.

Tomlin walked past parting the fog with more word from The Book, “The tongue of the just is as choice silver: the heart of the wicked is little worth.”

Pastor Throwby’s voice shook, “I can see the Arch Canon of Clearfalls. Look. He is so close.”

Reade grabbed Tomlin’s upper arm. Moist breath and even spittle accompanied her whispered question into his ear, “What’s an Arched Can and where is Clearfalls? Whatever else he is, whatever his office, that man is a dark wizard. This ice is his.”

Tomlin crushed soft brown curls with his forehead and whispered into Reade’s ear, “Clearfalls is an hundred leagues beyond Martyrs’ Cavern over a mountain range. He is the ‘Learned One’ of the Council of Seven; hence Canon.”

The Arch Canon’s countenance betrayed wide eyed stark surprise. He whipped his staff behind him. But the result boiled ice fog from around-behind his head; out of his ears it seemed, but its creation slowed rather quickly at Tomlin’s advance. Reade followed. Clearfalls towered over her but Tomlin stood eye to eye with the Arch Canon.

“Wizard of Ice, do you give defiance?” Reade clutched her necklace with one hand and a dagger with the other. “Fair Tomlin, do I err?”           

He kissed her forehead and smiled glancing to her left ear and then to her right by moving his head. Tomlin said, “Yes. Are you weak of eye, Bold One? Indeed; words are but airborne and spit laden boast. Are they not? Save a few, that act as Love. ”

“I remember. Thou speaketh my first words to thee. I remember: thy healing presence, thy courage; but what does this fool wizard desire?” Reade touched her champion’s lips with hers.

“Bad form, my rival, turn and show respect for canon Clearfalls. Uncle, so good to see you. Tomlin passed Ordeal. He bested the Gray Tower. We have freed the captive fourth copy of The Book. Oh, and a, a refugee followed him home,” Irene dismounted near the Arch Canon and gave him a hug and a polite peck-kiss on his cheek. The sudden physical interaction caused him to drop his staff.

Treadlighter grasped the still-emitting-ice-fog, enchanted, walking stick in his mouth, ran, and dropped the smoking tool at Reade’s feet. She stepped on it quoting The Book, “The words of the wise are as nails, yea as steel spikes driven home by a hammer of iron; fashioned by the hand of a master smith.”

“And wielded by Love.” When Tomlin stepped on the Arch Canon’s staff, it sighed and stilled its vapors, “Good morn, Lord Clearfalls; You, ah; bless us with your presence if not your wand.”

Lady Irene’s voice took the timbre of a troubled school mistress with an unruly pupil, “Noble Tomlin that is the Scepter of Grace. And the presence of Canon Clearfalls is always a blessing.” Her words changed tone, “Remove thy foot,” she pleaded.

“Grace?” Reade questioned under her breath and added through clenched teeth, “The Nether’s vapors.”

Pastor Throwby too muttered under his breath, “Ah, the fantasy of flattery.” Then spoke aloud, “Lord Clearfalls, what brings this plag… er ah, this honor… of course this honor, of your presence to us?”

“Tomlin’s alive? You passed ordeal? Oh yes, congratulations to you, Tomlin. Irene, yes Irene and her answered prayers, said you would succeed,” Clearfalls showed teeth; a smile. It seemed a smile; almost. “We are almost, that is most, pleased. That is. We are all; most pleased. We, The Council of Seven, expected such and look for a seventh to join us soon; Tomlin? Throwby? Wathburn?” Clearfalls mind seemed to struggle.

The bearded Wathburn managed to close his mouth before he chanced a reply, “The Cavern of the Martyrs stands apart, if not aloof, t’is not usually done. Never before; it would seem.” Wathburn rubbed his beard a bit. Sensing a conversational gap he continued, “Let us proceed hence post haste; being the near part of The Realm is over the lake. A holy place that no doubt would rejoice at Tomlin’s successes.”

“Successes?” The Arch Canon of Clearfalls regained his composure, if not his control of the conversation.

“I ain’t going to Dirty Waters with a Dark One like that. Clear or foul we’ll take The Troll’s Trickle for a drink,” Howler made his presence felt further by punctuating his slur with a moon-call; a howl fit to accompany any curse.

Treadlighter laughed, “The Canine’s bit words to fit the occasion.”

“Werewolf,” began Clearfalls.

“Iceman, we all saw your magic,” Countered Treadlighter. “And neither were nor was; I am a wolf. Fenre now, there was and ‘were’ a werewolf, a demon, and quite unpleasant too: stink, bit, hit; he.. ”

“That’s enough,” Pastor Throwby’s words silenced the wolves who slunk behind Reade and peeked around her wrinkled faded green skirt.

“Our transport is bound; by nature it seems,” Clearfalls motioned to a schooner coated with ice as substantial as a rock wall.

Tomlin interlaced Reade’s fingers with his own and stepped towards the lake, “Come let us melt…”

Irene grasped Tomlin’s free hand and stepped out dragging the other two along, “Yes, Noble Tomlin, what now? What can we do?”

Reade freed herself, “This.”

She knelt and selected: three small water smoothed stones: quartz, granite and shale; three small blossoms: lavender, yellow, and white; three pinches of soil: sand, clay, and loam. She spit three times into the mix crushing, melting and molding between her hands.

When she finished her kneading, Reade Beryl said a prayer over her creation:

 

Soft, silvered sliver of light

Turned, Tuned-toned by might

All about, all around, all alright,

Revolving, returning, removing

Darkness and Night

 

Soar, shine, shape.

Tip, tumble, take.

All about, all around; alright,

Remaking, rebounding, make right

Darkness and Night

 

Reade stood, “Soar! Give her freedom,” The tiny star left the outstretched hand of his maker. Smoking he burst into flame. Climbing he flew above the Schooner and became a point of light that circled and swooped, flying about the vessel and her rigging.

In moments the ice shattered higgledy-piggledy and drooped, dripped, and dropped after the same manner. It splashed into the lake but the bits and pieces that fell onto the deck melted quickly. The ship was loosed. It smoked dry giving off sun’s steam.

“Give back My Champion,” Reade pulled Tomlin away from the startled Irene. She snatched the dark jewel and its chain from about own her neck, touched her warrior-priest on his forehead with the iron trapped black opal, and dropped the totality of her talisman over his head; about the young man’s neck. The result touched the warm pink of The Rose Crux already hanging there, and burned a soft mingled fire, bright white and bruised maroon.

“Do I have any say in this?”

“No! MINE!” she gripped his arm with one hand and intertwined fingers with the other. Strong brown eyes gazed at Tomlin from a pale face encircled with roiled brown hair. “mine,” a tear stood in her eye but didn’t fall.

“By the power of The Word and The Book?” asked Tomlin.

“By the power of The Word and The Book,” shouted Reade in agreement.

The point of light retreated from the dry ship and entered the opal dangling on Tomlin’s chest. A momentary glow; the talismans were still.

“Quite a show,” said Clearfalls. “You are without doubt a skilled sorceress; not at all a fit companion for…,” He glanced at Irene. “Warrior-Priest of The Book.”

Irene smiled.

Clearfalls corrected himself and frowned, “That is, warrior-priests of The Book should turn witches, uh dark sorceresses, to the light when opportunities arise.”

Irene frowned.

“Who asked you?” Reade knelt and grasped a handful of soil from lake’s edge. No magic; she flung the mud ball at Clearfalls who did not move but dripped in sore displeasure. The wolves growled.

Irene’s mouth fair drooped open, “My rival is a little girl; without manners.”

A raven lit momentarily on Clearfalls shoulder. Receiving a smoky quartz crystal the size of a peach pit, she flew away.

 

***

 

On Clearfalls Point twin alabaster towers reach into the sky. Gray granite walls laced the two keeps together, weaving strength among their battlements. To the North no higher ground appeared all the way to the horizon, but a half-league south pooled The Lake of the Sky boiling from the inner parts of the ridge.  The Finger of God, a single quartz crystal ten royal strides high, jutted upwards. In the center of the roiling waters its milky whiteness caught the sun and threw the result in all directions. A constant stream with a continual mist fell from the west end down the side of the ridge becoming Clearfalls itself.

Peckmoore, the raven sent by one Arch Canon, ice wizard, and even Scholar of the Book, landed at a window’s sill; the Lair of The Seven. “Cawkle, news of Tom, ‘he lives.’

“What do you mean, ‘He lives? Who lives?” Robes rustled and five faces frowned.

 “Try the pebble’s tale.” Quivering hands took a quartz fragment, once broken from The Finger of God, now retrieved from the raven’s sky-pouch and quickly placed on a tiny pedestal amidst wizard’s fire. After a quick incantation, the green flame’s heat produced a blue bubble inflated from the stone. The image within quivered and moved. Ten eager eyes watched; news from Wizard Clearfalls.

 

***

“I don’t like boats,” Howler hung his head over ship’s rail and coughed long, dry, heaves.

Reade sat in Tomlin’s lap with her head upon his shoulder, “They hate me, my wolves; my very breath. Tell me what each one is to thee. Thus I may discern: friend, and foe; wizard and priest; felon, and artisan. Any you love more than me, those I will not touch even to my death. I love you. There t’is said. My heart is at thy mercy.”

She kissed him on his cheek, “I have refrained from cursing Irene. Art thou pleased? Should I henceforth prepare thy meals? Wash thy clothes?”

“And I thought Irene talked a lot.”

“Don’t compare me to her. If thou lovest her most, slay me now. I give thee permission and my wolves will still protect thee,” said Reade.

“Not that I don’t appreciate it but they do seem a bit “put off. The whole adventure wears on them. Will they share a landsman’s fate? Yes; it seems.”

Treadlighter and Sniffer joined Howler at the rail. The trio sounded a discomforted cacophony and moaned; retching mercifully downwind.

“I have a talk-less thought,” Tomlin kissed Reade’s mouth, held her about the waist and petted her hair. “Thou art a pleasant sight and an accomplished accomplice.”

Reade smiled, then returned his kiss.

***

At the stern near his cabin’s door, Clearfalls turned Irene by the shoulder and pointed, “See! He has chosen. The council does not approve of a marriage between thee and Priest Tomlin. He can go his way and thou mayst serve The Council of Seven.”

Once facing Tomlin and Reade, Irene neither looked back, nor spoke. She pulled free from Clearfalls’ grasp, and walked towards the kissing couple.

***

Tomlin stood up holding Reade above the deck with one arm wrapped about her waist, “Good day, Lady Irene. She who rises early will find Wisdom waiting for her at the gate.”

Irene touched Tomlin’s face, “I too, love thee, noble Tomlin.” She gently forced him back. He sat on the rail still holding Reade with one arm. Irene crowded in, onto his lap, placed an arm around his shoulders and kissed him full, long, and hard on his lips.

“Reade grabbed her by the hand and pulled her to standing on the deck, “You’ve had everything you’ve ever wanted. I can see it in your eyes and hear it in your manner. The only time I ever got what I wanted is freedom from Viscana. And Tomlin fought to give it me.

Irene said calmly, “Tomlin is mine, trollop.”

The words quivered from Tomlin, “Irene is Heiress. The Realm’s queen to be.”

Reade's faced reddened and her voice shook. She bent at the waist and extended her face towards Tomlin. “Do you wish to share her throne?”

Tomlin spoke, “No, Fair Love, I desire thee to call me ‘thou;’ as before.”

Reade softened, but turned about and with crossed arms confronted Irene, “Well?”

“I love him too,” said Irene.

“Land Ho,” the call from the crow’s nest. The lookout at mast’s head startled everyone.

“Land! We’re going to live,” said Howler.

Sniffer retched again but Treadlighter said, “When we have to fight give me solid earth under my paws every time.”

“Reade can handle the white headed one,” Retched Sniffer. “I need for the world to get still again. I’ll fight... I’ll bite…” but his words faded into productive regurgitation.

***

The schooner eased to her berth. Lines flew uncoiling into waiting hands. Tomlin made the dock with a single broad step and continued a brisk walk towards a long towering stair that led to a small red stone castle. Reade scrambled, gained a handhold, a foothold, and stood on the sturdy oak planking of the dock. But in glancing back she grabbed and saved Irene a nasty fall between wharf and ship.

“Why did you save me?” said Irene.

Reade stared at her, “You seem worth the effort.”

“But I am your only opposition for the affections of Tomlin. And you are after all a worker of dark magic; an amoral rival.”

Reade stared after Tomlin, “Amoral? You think me the mother of the abominations of the earth? You have not seen evil if you think Reade Beryl amoral.

“Why did I save you? You seem worth the effort and more than that; capable of love. The Book says, ‘Love covers a multitude of sins.’

“Atone for foolishness with love. Atone for lack of judgment with kindness. Dark arts and hate make for rot and stink. There is a vast difference between me and The Darkness,” Reade nodded to The Lady Irene, and turned to follow Tomlin to the long stark stairway in the distance well beyond the end of the pier. 

Treadlighter jumped to the dock and followed his Lady. Sniffer jumped in an attempt to follow, but Howler jumped too and both fell into the lake. When they finally gained the shore it ended a long swim around two other schooners and a dingy.

***

“He can’t enter,” the hunched over gate watcher stood looking down on Reade, and pointed at Treadlighter, “I says ‘e won’t come in.” the man spat and brandished a long knarred stick.

Reade touched the man’s stomach and he bent further and further until he bowed as to a king, “Stale fish heads and cold white rice? It may be a while before you can straighten. Think twice before you eat that meal again.” She walked past him into the courtyard.

“Be thankful she didn’t turn you into a tailor’s worm. At least you will be able to straighten soon,” said Treadlighter.

But the wolf growled his way past when the gate keeper hollered, “I’ll eat as I pleases and straighten when I… Cap-pin of the Guard, trouble at Lake’s Gate.” But he talked to the tops of his boots.

Several soldiers wearing light well-oiled chain mail with the Red Castle’s image painted on the front ran from all corners and abruptly encircled Reade and her wolf. “Halt witch.”

Reade kneeled and grasped two handfuls of earth. Standing she spun once about tossing the content of her fists into the air; shouting, “Rust!” Not a soldier could raise his arms.

Irene ran through the gate hollering, “Tomlin.” Then she mumbled meekly to Reade, “What did you do to these men? They’re stuck.”

“What is all this?” Lord Clearfalls received a shrug from Irene.

Reade drizzled dust from one hand to the other and then again, “They accosted me. There is another dose possible;” she paused and glanced about. “If any care for;” she paused again, “for seconds, or perhaps pentas, or plethoras?” Joint freeze perhaps?”  

“Ice-wizard?” She threw her dirt at Clearfalls and he was hit by a snowball,

***

Tomlin, recalled by the turmoil, grasped Reade by the hand and pulled her away from the group. She stumbled along with him like a naughty child apprehended by her father. “In a few more steps thou will meet two people. They are Baron Brightmoor and his Lady Celistity. Do be at least somewhat controlled. We need an ally against Clearfalls and The Six. Irene is too closely related to him to act quickly or mortally against any of The Six. Smile.”

A familiar panting approached, “Oh ho, welcome Treadlighter, but only speak if spoken to. Otherwise keep your bone-breaker shut,” said Tomlin.

The wolf’s voice strained through his nose, “Yes my lord.”

The three ran a short distance, then up a steep rise around the corner of the keep itself and onto a tile pavement, an outdoor venue for the lord of the manor’s court, “Baron…” Tomlin bowed.

Reade curtsied. Her wolf extended a foot and inclined his head. With a mild smile she arose and Treadlighter stood at her heel. Tomlin glanced at his woman and her animal.

Reade pulled swirls of curls away from her lips and said, “Forsake the foolish, and live.”

“And go in the way of understanding,” returned Brightmoor tugging his short brown beard.

“Ah yes, The Book,” said Lady Celisity. She extended a hand to Reade.

Clearfalls huffed his way into their midst, “Watch it. She might break your fingers.” He bent at the waist, placed his fists on his knees, and breathed like a smith’s forge.

His pause gave opportunity, “You honor me,” Reade grasped and uttered a blessing into Celistity’s palm, “The hand that tends the cradle in love builds kingdoms.” She scribed a cross upon it with her little finger and smiled.

“How did you know?”

“Your face shows a with-child blush.’”


{C}

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