The Butcher of Gadobhra - Chapter 336: The Cost of Passage
Duchess Midnight, The Graceful Lady of Silent Daggers, was roused from her brooding by a messenger. He seemed resigned to his fate as he morosely marched into the room, bowing, kneeling, and finally prostrating before her. She gestured, and barbed thorns restrained him in that position, crushing and cutting into his skin. She breathed in deeply. The combination of pain and despair was one of her favorite scents.
“State your message and hope it is enough to warrant your interruption.”
The common gate guard who had drawn the short straw began as he had been taught. “Dread Duchess of the night…
She snapped her fingers. “Quicker.”
“Lord Alwyn has approached the Western Gate from the wildlands along with a carriage bearing someone of larger import than himself.”
She was surprised. That was actually a message worth listening to. The thorns departed. “Rise and explain to me in what detail you know.”
He was grateful to be alive and made sure not to show it, so he continued. “Their horses show the wear of travel, at least three days on the road. The carriage is one belonging to the Summer Lord. His courier, Twitterberry, and his hound guard the carriage. Lord Alwyn travels lightly with only two other persons who ride a single mount. The horse is of good breeding but mundane, ridden by a mortal courier of the Emperor of the mortal lands. Behind him rides a half-breed barmaid of the town of Sedgewick, a land allied to Lord Alwyn. He seems in good spirits, claims he travels to the king’s court on urgent business and asks for passage through your lands.”
“Well done. I reward you with continued service. Organize a retinue; I shall dress casually in black silk, with horses of white and six of my guard in blackened chain armor. Pennants and other decorations can be eliminated, but have my banner along.”
She left the room, and the guard turned and hurried off to do as he was bid, leaving footprints of his blood throughout the house. This was common and the Duchess enjoyed seeing them, so the maids only washed the floors on alternate Thursdays.
The Duchess of Despair was curious. Alwyn was growing too fast. He acted like a country bumpkin, but the court saw his actions favorably. He was bringing them something new and exciting. She hated him. It was more than the general hatred she had of her peers. He was too young to gain the King’s attention, and too much of his favor came from dealing with the mortals, including his commerce with the Captain from the Smoke. For that, she hated him beyond measure. She had made contact with the Captain first, yet he had entered into an agreement with the mortal Baron and the Captain later the same night after she departed. It was unheard of! He had to know she was furious, and yet he dared to come openly and ask to cross her lands?
He was playing some strange game with deeper design than she would have guessed of him. Traveling the wildlands showed that he wished to avoid attention. And who was the greater power that he escorted? Her final thoughts were of the half-breed. It had to be the same bit of fluff that the Captain had grabbed as soon as he landed. That Alwyn would bring a barmaid, of all things, into the wildlands was interesting. Interesting enough not to turn him away at her gate. She’d even go to greet him.
Alwyn waited patiently, knowing that one did not simply show up at another Lord’s realm unannounced and simply wander through an open gate. Especially when appearing from the wilderness without so much as a banner bearer. Twitterberry took advantage of the wait to care for the still comatose Prince and then avail himself of a small nap. The hound was on guard and mounted to the top of the carriage. His two human companions took the time to stretch from the long ride, and Benjamin cared for his horse. The steed had done wonderfully, matching the elven horses in speed and endurance. He cropped the lush grass he found here, reducing the area outside the gates to a close-cut lawn during the time it took for his message to reach the Countess.
His traveling companions had posed a few questions for him, ignorant of proper Fae etiquette.
Suzette, in particular, seemed nervous. “Are there rules or things we should do or not do inside her lands? I’d rather not offend because I didn’t know to do or not do something.”
“I shall handle the negotiations. Things should not be difficult, but they will take a subtle and careful tongue. Duchess Midnight is ancient even by the standards of the King’s Court and is often in attendance there. She is an old power, and her hold on her lands runs deep. Indeed, while I have power in my realm, she IS her realm, connected to it in all ways. Your caution is good; please be careful. Hold your tongue unless she speaks. Tell no lies, and do not question what she says, as she will not lie to you. Of course, that doesn’t mean she will tell a straight truth. And I must tell you that you should cast no spells in her realms. I have seen your magic, the holy fire and bright sunlight that come from mortal gods. They will not be welcome here. The ancient Fae hold themselves separate from such things and do not allow the powers of the gods, especially the Light and the Dark, to enter their realms and contest their power. It causes them great pain, and you would be rewarded with great pain in return. Best not to mention the names of your gods, and certainly no praying or beseeching them. Hmm, try not to speak at all if you can help it.”
He paused and thought, looking at the two of them. “You both carry small magical trinkets, but every Fae from the least to the greatest has many such, which will pose no trouble. I feel no cold iron on either of you, and even the enchanted horseshoes on Benjamin’s proud steed are of enchanted alloys. You travel with me, and by the rules, if I am a guest in her realm and I name you as part of my entourage, then guest etiquette will also extend to you. Be aware that offering threats, either spoken or with brandished weapons or spells, can negate that courtesy. Even if threatened, do not react. I have known some lords to test their guests. We do love our games.”
The sound of horns and the pounding of hooves announced the arrival of the party approaching the gate. Three pure white elven steeds with knights in black armor escorted the Duchess, casually dressed in a black silk and lace hunting outfit. Ben was nearly entranced as she rode up, staring at her perfectly pale face, red lips, and flowing black hair. Luckily, he had Suzette beside him to painfully trod on his instep, and the pain cleared his senses.
Alwyn bowed slightly, acknowledging her higher rank. Twitterberry bowed low, with Ben and Suzette doing the same. The hound feigned not to notice, nature not having given him a proper waist to bow with. The Duchess snapper her fingers, and the tall gates opened. She walked to the edge of her domain and acknowledged Alwyn.
“Greetings, Lord Alwyn of Summer. I see you at my gate and would speak further of the reason for your presence. I note a carriage carrying one of royal lineage but see no pennants nor entourage of their own.”
“Greetings, Lady of the Silent Daggers. I travel in haste with Prince Leporidon, who, for his own reasons, chooses to remain silent for this journey until we arrive at court. I cannot speak for his actions, but note that he traveled to the mortal lands where, as is his want, he accomplished great deeds and slew many fell creatures. It is a curious tale, of which these mortals play a part, but one that is not mine or theirs to tell without the Prince’s leave.”
The Duchess laughed, sending chills down everyone’s spine. Alwyn thought that was a good sign; at least the gates were still open.
“You grow strong, Summer Lord, but keep the quick way with words that those of the far provinces enjoy. Travel quickly? Coupled with finding you at my gate makes me wonder if you wish passage across my lands. A prince of the Beast Lords is no minor personage to play escort to, and part of your strange entourage is explained, for they have always traveled light. But rarely in secret and without a squire or mount. You are known to me, Alwyn, but I owe you no favors to trade for your passage.”
Alwyn inclined his head, acknowledging the lack of debt and the need for passage, but she had asked no questions, so he offered no answers, and she continued.
“Your fine hound and brave Twitterberry are known to me. Prince Leporidon is, of course, welcome. But you have two mortals with you. Do you vouch for them, and are they under your protection?”
Alwyn gestured to them and was thankful the two mortals took the hint, bowing again. “They are. Benjamin and Suzette are retainers of a mortal ally, the Baron of Gadobhra, with whom I have dealings. For this journey, they travel with me.”
She sighed theatrically. “I do wish this were not such a hasty journey that you are making. It would be wonderful to keep you here for a time and entertain you. But if the Prince wishes for haste, I can put aside my desire for you and him to stay for a few weeks of feasting. Therefore I will do you a favor, Alwyn, and allow your party to pass through my lands unharmed. I offer yourself, Prince Leporidon, and your entourage the privileges of guests and offer free passage to you, the prince, your retainers, and mortal companions to leave my realm when you wish freely.”
She waited, and Alwyn bowed low. “I acknowledge the favor owed.”
“Then enter, and let me escort you to the front gates. Please ride with me, Alwyn, and my soldiers will ride three in front of your entourage and three behind. The mists are thick today in my realms, and it would be easy to get lost. Should you fall from the path, it could delay your journey.”
As soon as they crossed into her lands, it was as if the sun was setting, with long shadows everywhere and thick mist rising from the ground. Their vision was cut to a short distance ahead. The six soldiers rode with one ahead of Ben and Suzette’s mounts and one to either side. The white horses glowed in the gloom that enveloped them. Three more rode similarly, surrounding the carriage and ensuring it stayed in the center of the path. Alwyn rode with the Duchess, thrilled to be treated as almost-an-equal, keeping his horse two steps behind hers and to the right, as protocol demanded. Ben was very happy to have the bright, white horses guiding them as they rode. The mists rose thick, and the road wound between tall patches of black briar bushes with sharp thorns. At one point, roars of anger and pain erupted near them, and the outlines of huge creatures could be briefly seen in the mists.
The Duchess smiled and laughed, “Oh, you are in luck, Alwyn. The dire beasts are mating! It’s always such a thrilling sigh! I shall have to hurry back to enjoy the sight.”
Alwyn smiled as best he could and hoped the mists stayed thick and hid the sight. To his great relief, they rode on. The land rose, leaving behind the Vale of Thorns and its amorous denizens, and they made good time to the front gates. Unlike the gates to the wildlands, these reflected the current whims of the High Court, being made of living oak, heavy with mistletoe and acorns.
“It has been an enjoyable if brief, time spent with you, Summer Lord. I look to seeing you at my gates again soon. I give free passage to yourself, Prince Leporidon, mortals, couriers, and hounds. Safe travels to you.”
Alwyn bowed low. An invitation to return boded well for future alliances. “I look forward to seeing you again, either at court or in your realm.” He rode quickly away, followed by the rest of his entourage, anxious to get to the court of the High King. The gates of Duchess Midnight’s realm slammed shut behind them. With only a few leagues of neutral land to travel, they made good time. When they had traveled seven miles and seven steps, Suzette stopped. The carriage stopped behind her, swerving to the side. Alwyn rode back to her, and Ben turned Mudhead around.
“Is something wrong?”
To Ben’s horror, her clothes and skin fell away, and before him was a creature made of black briars with red flowers for hair. The creature turned the bottomless black pits that served it upon the Summer Lord.
“Duchess Midnight has given me a message for your ears, Lord Alwyn.”