So, it’s about 1 o’clock here, unless you are one of those people who live outside of my time zone. If that is the case, I will take some serious convincing to be assured that you even exist. Let us imagine, though, that you are real. Well, I just submitted a short fiction piece, which I hastily finalized after a week or so of on-again-off-again editing, to a literary journal here on campus. Dunno if it’ll get rejected or accepted or burned for warmth or whatever it is they do with the submissions. Either way, I just returned from being Cecil (from Welcome to Night Vale) for Halloween and I should be asleep, but my need to inflict the internet and human race at large with my fiction overwhelms all good sense.
SO HERE IT IS. Because this is my first time doing such a thing on my blog/a blog in general, well, we’ll just see how awkward this come out won’t we?
The coming storm had set the horses in the yard on edge. They wined and nickered whenever a rumble of thunder rolled through the air. Across the forest, the sky was almost entirely black running from north to south. The sun was swallowed up some hours ago and the countryside lingered in a state of dour twilight. William was still sighing in relief that he had not been caught outside in the storm’s wrath. The castle’s thick stone walls would certainly stave off the worst the weather could deal out, which William was eternally thankful for. He felt behind his cloak for the satchel that held the message he was tasked with delivering. His hand kept drifting to it as he alternated between watching the approaching storm and the wooden double doors on the opposite side of the hall.
The arrival of an unannounced guest at the home of a lord, even if done by another lord, was rarely looked well upon. William and Lord George of Goldstones had bonded over the course of a few campaigns against the French some years ago. Or, so the inflated ego of Lord George was telling him. William never had much of a taste for battle, only the spoils that it promised. “There’s no use in fighting for greatness when you die before you can use it,” he had once told a fellow lord.
Still, William’s worry about his intrusion at Goldstones was almost nil, all considered. He bounced on the balls of his feet, the slightest movement making echoes throughout the stone hall. Its ceilings were high and supported by four great pillars which themselves enclosed a long, bare dining table.
The double doors across the hall flew open, their hinges screaming. Lord George came bounding through, stomping like an angry bull across the echoic hall. “How do you find Goldstones?” The gruffness of the question caught William off-guard. Lord George seemed to have lost even more of his coarse black hair and his beard had been allowed to grow into a dark tangled mess.
“It lives up to its name, my lord.” William bowed in greeting and George returned it, but with noticeably less gusto. The amount of gold it must have taken to construct such a grand fortress must have been staggering.”
Indeed, William would not have rode through a pounding storm just to see one of his many passing acquaintances. The life of a minor lord in a major city had a funny way of draining his coffers. To make things worse, his fourth wife would hardly let him sleep until she was assured that the royal wedding could be put to shame by a spectacle of their own. It would never happen, of course, she was lucky to be getting married at all, let alone to someone such as Lord William, but at least some more coin would quiet her for a time. William had a bad taste in his mouth from lying and, frankly, bribing to be the man to deliver the letter in his leather satchel. Flattering he excelled in. Lies and deceit, not as much. Still, he sighed, seeing Lord George of Goldstones to be the man with bottomless pockets that he hoped he would be.
“Indeed it was,” he went to the nearest window, looking out at the yard and towers below. “I built this castle with my own intelligence and resolve and let us not speak of how, as you say, staggering, the cost in gold was. I will not tolerate anybody who presumes to take what they do not rightfully own from me.”
“A problem with thieves, my lord?”
“I presume you saw the heads above the gate as you entered?” William nodded. He thought the whole thing was a bit excessive, but if anything, it sent a clear message. “Well,” George continued,” they were the first, but will likely not be the last. I thought about hanging them, but when I look out to the forest I can only think, ‘there aren’t enough trees to accommodate them all’.” Goldstones swam in a veritable sea of trees. William suspected that George was simply being pessimistic. “Sometimes at night,” continued George, “I swear by God that I can feel their hateful little eyes, green until the point of sickness with envy, staring at me from between the trees.”
“Thieves and robbers are the lowest kind of men,” said William, edging closer to George, “the righteous will always triumph over their scheming and treachery.”
“Certainly,” George said, tightening his fists, one of which drifted to his left hip which his sword would usually be. “A raging Frenchman has more honour than those vagrants.” The wolf’s fur on his cloak rippled slightly; the large man nearly shuddered in rage. I would fight the hundreds of them that would steal my cattle and gold and poach my land if they would but challenge me. On my own I would strike them all down.” A bolt of lightning and a rumble of thunder followed; William smirked at the poetic timing. “Is something funny?” asked George, who had turned just in time to see William’s face.
William recovered quickly. “Not at all my lord,” he said. He knew the honourifics of ‘my lord’ were unneeded when William was himself a lord and a friend of the host, but flattery solved most mistakes. “I must confess, though, that I find the idea of your wrath falling upon those scum to be… uplifting.” Now that he had said it, William found himself chuckling. It would be quite the spectacle. George’s bright blue eyes bore into William regardless. Instinctually, he went to the leather satchel behind him. “Also,” he said, now genuinely smiling, “I have something you will wish to see.”
Almost immediately, George started to focus his eyes on the parchment and not at William. “You came with a letter?” said George, still at the windowsill.
“Yes,” said William, taking the letter from his satchel and presenting it to George. “I admit my journey here was not entirely driven by our great friendship.”
“This is the royal seal,” George said. He sounded almost breathless as he said it.
“I do hope you will excuse my unexpected arrival at Goldstones, my lord. I did not trust the strength of my leather satchel to keep the message safe against the many rains of the storm.”
George looked up at William and something near a smile broke out on his face for a brief moment. Then he gingerly broke the seal with his large hairy hands and intently read. The man’s face turned into a rock as he vigorously scanned over the contents of the message. It had never occurred to William to inquire about the contents of the letter. It was entirely possible that it would only further dampen George’s mood. Instinctually, William began to gnaw at the inside of his cheek. As casually as he could, William casually drifted towards George at the window.
Truly, Goldstones was a marvel of resilience if ever there was one. Six enormous drum towers made of grey stone enclosed the keep. From each tower hung gigantic banners painstakingly made from, what William recognized as, fine silk. His head started to ache when he thought of the astronomical cost of those bits of finery. Worse yet, the guards who slogged in the muddy yard below were in fine steel plate. By the time the storm was over, they’d be wearing nothing but flakes of rust. Provided they weren’t struck by lightning or hypothermia first. It was a terrible waste of good, expensive metal.
“I must say,” said George, bringing William back into the present conversation, “this is not the news I was expecting. But I will take it as a sailor takes any port in a storm, as it were.” George chuckled at his own joke. It was not particularly funny, if at all, but William politely laughed along. The room itself seemed less gloomy when George brightened. Compared to his previous mood, William thought he looked positively blinding.
With a careful touch William thought impossible for such monstrous hands, George folded the letter and placed it in a pouch on his belt. “We can discuss the contents later,” he said. His smile was gone, but the warmth in his voice burned on like embers, “but for now your journey here must have left you famished. I will call for some food immediately.”
“Oh, I couldn’t trouble you,” William said, adding a short bow to show just how humble he was. “I only meant to deliver the letter and then be on my way.”
“And where will you be going in such a storm?” George asked. As if to accent his words yet again, a damp gale roared through the window.
William stood at the window. He leaned out, as if seriously considering departing. “Oh, back to my duties in London,” he said, putting on a solemn air.
“It’s not polite to refuse a lord’s invitation.” Lord George had built a reputation as a man who could never look the other way when “duty” was mentioned. William stopped himself from smiling. He could play the man like a minstrel played a lute.
“Very well, I concede,” said William, laughing. George moved to the head of the long table and William sat himself in the seat nearest to him.
George pounded on the table with his fist three times, and then turned to his guest. “I do hope you enjoy your wine mulled, William. It will put some warmth back into you.” William was about to respond when the double doors opened with a creak and a boy whose disheveled appearance was contrasted by his fine silk and wool clothing. No matter how well-cleaned the boy might have been, his face screamed of a low birth. William dismissed him as a common serving wench. A wench of the wrong sex. He found himself fairly amused at the idea.
The boy moved quickly and quietly with an unexpected level of grace. Two silver goblets were set down, one in front of each of the men, The gaze was more intensely watchful to the point where George never noticed that he was being examined by William. The boy moved almost rhythmically around the table, the heels on his shoes making a kind of melody with the rain outside. He poured the wine from a large copper jug with a leather-wrapped handle. His task completed, he bowed and then stood statue-still behind George’s seat.
A flicker of a smile appeared on the lord’s face and he patted the lad’s head. With that, the boy departed, never abandoning his decorum for a moment, though William could see that he was damn near glowing,
The grizzled lord’s expression loosened, like a coil of rope coming undone. He stayed silent as he watched the boy disappear and William saw something in his eyes that he had never thought of living to see. There was compassion and kindness there. Lord George’s experience of crushing, stabbing, and disemboweling countless men, as well as having three childless marriages had largely turned him into a stony man, save his most trusted friends. The day was just becoming more and more interesting. Perhaps, William thought, I should just become a minstrel. I could make more gold than I could ever use with a tale like this.
George must have noticed William’s expression of curiosity, as he turned to him and made the same brief flash of a smile that he made before. “Call me craven,” he said, taking a sip of his wine, “but I still have a heart in me somewhere.”
“Craven?” Most of what William knew about Lord George was second-hand, information usually coming off of a soiled battlefield. Craven seemed like a particularly damaging thing to call such a mighty lord, so William’s reaction was particularly inflected. “My lord, I will not say that love towards a man’s own children is a thing to make him craven. Particularly if he is your first. I recall when my first wife gave to me my son, Henry. I felt as though God himself had turned fate to favour me. I felt as though sorrow would never again touch my life.”
“Then craven I may still be,” he said, ignoring the overblown nature of William’s story. The storminess of George’s voice surprised William. What he saw between George and that boy was indeed the fatherly love he had experienced himself. “The boy is not of my own seed.”
Before William could breathe the word bastard, George, thankfully, continued.
“I took that boy squealing away from his thief of a father. After I removed the man’s head, of course. I will never have a son of my very own, William and I have lost the desire to try. All the same, the sins of the father should never haunt the son. Perhaps he will be a squire or a knight one day. Perhaps he will steal gold from my vaults as I sleep and then slit my throat as vengeance.” George settled back into his chair, his mind clearly awash in emotion.
William found that he was unable to say the words he had traveled all this way for. It was nothing more than a loan request or trade agreement, just business, he had told himself, not some fool attempt at a “friendship.” William relaxed into the high-backed chair. While he couldn’t quite tell what brought on this change, he knew it would pass and it would come down to business soon enough. Lord George’s stance on those who presume to steal his possessions was the most likely culprit. Though, William had to admit, the bond between the large Lord and his tiny son was rather quaint. Now wouldn’t be the best time to interrupt George’s good mood.
George took another sip of wine and unfolded the letter again and spread it on the table. William saw that the rain was still torrential outside, but he had become deaf to the sound of it. George regarded his guest and said, “but this day is telling me that even unexpected events can be for the best.”
William’s curiosity already had the better of him as George was still speaking. He was veraciously eating up the contents of the mysterious royal letter, his smile hidden by a silver goblet of warm wine.
So, I might devote some more time to this later on to refine and reflect on it. Possibly on here. Or not. Depends if the editors have tried to kill me with torches yet. See the note below to understand their justification.
(End Note: Upon re-examining the file that I called this work and emailed it in with, I noticed that I spelled “fiction” as “ficting.” This is probably some kind of omen.)