Vol.4, Ch.2, P.11
The Tallien estate.
Golden candelabra lit the great hall and its fine furnishings. An elk’s head hung proud over a princely hearth of marble, nestled in which was a warm fire, hicking and humming amidst the hush of night. Beside it stood the lord of the house himself, the flame dancing in his stare.
Heavy doors creaked open. Heel-steps clicked eloquently closer. Turning from the hearth, the viscount smiled at his visitor.
“Now here’s a fond face,” Bartt greeted. “Come, come. Well-met.”
“Sir—pardon, Your Excellency,” returned the visitor, courtesying, “glad am I see you so hale.” A blossom of a woman she was, and gifted, at that: dame surgien and Owlcrane to the Order, by her hands could be woven mighty magicks for both mending and bolstering. And though the week’s long journey to Tallien had been a weary one, her almond eyes showed it not in the least as they looked to the other woman in the room. “And the Lady Sophie, I presume? Yoná’s blessing to meet you at last,” she said. Then, with another courtesy, “I am Sheila Larsen of the 5th Order.”
“Blessing and pleasure both, Dame Sheila,” greeted Sophie, returning the gesture. “You are quite the frequent topic upon my lord father’s lips.”
Lacy laughter rang like little bells. “Am I, now?” Sheila remarked. The surgien and the viscount were old associates, sure enough. But Sheila was hardly come for cake and company; the rebel Rolf Buckmann, too, counted amongst her former colleagues, and why was she here anear the edge of Londosius but to give counsel against the very villain. “Well, my dear Viscount,” said Sheila, “how fare the 3rd?”
“To the point, are we?” said Bartt as he slowly sat himself down. “They have pitched camp upon the plains. No sight of the Nafílim as yet, but Juholt’s eyes are as an eagle’s; there ought be no surprises when the devils finally rear their wretched faces.”
“Furthermore, the good mareschal will count Sir Erik’s sword amongst his talons,” Sophie added, “one as eager as it is dread.”
“Eager, indeed, that bullish bawcock, and earnest as ever,” her father noted with a chuckle. “All the way from the 1st he’s ridden. Ah, but of course, my gratitude for you is none the lesser, my fair Sheila.”
“Gracious words for an unworthy woman,” the surgien rhythmically returned. The knight Erik Lindell had already arrived from the 1st and was presently embedded with the 3rd, acting under the command of their mareschal, the immovable Matthias Juholt. For her part, Sheila was scheduled to enter the battlefield subsequently. Surgien and associate adviser as she was, the rearguard was her expected place in this operation.
“I, too, shall join the fray, Lord Father,” said Sophie. “Would that the fighting be yet fierce when I arrive—with Nafílim necks yet warm for my blade.”
Bartt nodded. “I shouldn’t doubt the dice may fall your way, but do overdo it not, dear Daughter.”
The look between father and child told of a prior conversation—and a consent given. For in truth, though the former dame of the 2nd Order had seen her fair share of Nafílim on the battlefield, it was done so from a distance: far behind the frontlines in the support capacity, to be exact. Indeed, no blade brandished by Sophie had ever felled one such fiend, but it was all the more reason for this untested daughter of House Tallien to crave the coming battle.
“Of course, Lord Father,” she returned. “Care is ever a tenet of swordcraft. Though if I may name but one wish, it would be to cross this Rolf Buckmann, and show him how blazes a real battle.”
“Oh, Buckmann, Buckmann. A bumbling fool I’ve always fancied him. But a betraying churl besides?” Bartt snorted at the thought.
“A fly in Lord Father’s face withal. And a godless sicarius, to boot,” Sophie put in. “He would do well to hide in the hills, lest a lesson in shame be his to learn—by whose rod but mine.”
Keen and cruel was the air now about the lord’s daughter. But to Sheila’s nose, a tithe too strongly did it reek of recklessness.
“Caution, good Lady,” the surgien softly admonished the daring daughter. “The rod ill-disciplines the undaunted child; we have it on good authority that the man himself possesses some mettle… and a means to unmake magicks, as I am sure you are well-aware.”
Such was Sheila’s duly given counsel as adviser, and as well, her unminced measure of the rebel Rolf. She had long thought his sword worthy of note, to be sure. But unmagicked, it was meaningless, just the same. That is, till quite recently. The very sword was now anathema to all magicked might, able to rend asunder spells and palings alike. Indeed, what was once without meaning now demanded discretion, however begrudgingly. Not that the surgien believed either Bartt or his 2nd-disciplined daughter in any danger against the ungraced. But as a woman of faith and professionalism, she would prefer prudence over pride in this uncertain hour.
“Worry not. I am,” Sophie assured Sheila. “Be that as it may, the rebel Buckmann shall present but a poor challenge when blades are bared at last. Blanch and boast of him as you like, such truth shall never change.”
“Quite correct,” Sheila conceded. “Yet his blade is but half the worry. My Lord, might you recall his… effective counsel at the Erbelde?”
The smile on Bartt’s lip’s swiftly vanished. “…Yes. Yes, I do,” he said without warmth. “He’s demonstrated some wit for warcraft, I’ll give him that.”
Oh, with writhing rue did Bartt remember the Erbelde. Having to defer to that ungraced’s counsel for the miserable march was already a crater upon the former mareschal’s otherwise pristine pride. However, that the hound himself had not only scried the enemy’s dam upon the great river, but withal had made his way deep into hostile territory to destroy it—a feat even the lord himself thought laudable—bothered Bartt down to the depths of his belly. And that is to say naught of his own paltry part in that entire operation: the military records recall little of the viscount’s own contributions, and for a man much about “image”, just the memory of it murdered his mood.
“Make not a matter of it, Lord Father,” Sophie encouraged him. “A wisp of wit has made nary a sage out of a simpleton. He but availed you with his office of an uncouth cur, happening to bark at the right shadow at the right time.”
“Truer words never spoken,” agreed Bartt, nodding deeply at his daughter’s consolation. Vim and virtue; in these were the Talliens superior—nay, supreme. Thus there ought be naught to fear. Not the enemy, and certainly not treachers like that churl. Of this, Bartt inly assured himself. “And now is the cur blindly come barking again, too envious of his former master’s new land and lot,” the lord smirked. “A flame it is he harbours for me. And everyday it scorches him, egging him to settle the score that it might be snuffed at last. Hmph! The sad fool.”
Sophie looked at the lord with some wonder. “A score with you?” she said, before shaking her head in annoyance. “‘Sad fool’ is right.”
“And a blister on the bottom besides. The scum has cost me no meagre reugol with this recent, raucous meddling of his,” complained Bartt. “But the coming battle ought bleach for good the stain that he and his fellow houndlings are. And much solace shall we know then.”
It was the case that the viscount lamented having vouchsafed any leniency to Rolf Buckmann. Verily, what the rebel had rather deserved was damnation itself, right from his very first day at the Order. Some mercy ought wring some merit out of him, was the former mareschal’s thought at the time. Yet what was wrung out instead was rebellion. Ungraced and ungracious? Oh, the incurability of this cur!
“Truly an emptier of wallets, war,” Sheila remarked. “I suppose even a viscount’s should strain to host so huge a force as the 3rd’s, no?”
“Not to worry. It is but a fleeting debt,” Bartt said with a sure smile. “In due time shall the smallfolk refill my coffers—all the sooner when the Rolanders surrender their share.”
“Ah, the Roland Concern,” said Sheila, clapping her hands together. “They do call Tallien home, true enough. But truer still is a merchant’s love for his every coin. Will they offer theirs, I wonder?”
“They will. They shall,” the lord answered, “for the luxury of choice has long left them.”
Three days past had seen the meeting between Bartt and the Roland guildmaster, Torry. In its course was the latter given his price, one too ponderous for any sole enterprise to shoulder —let alone one with vaults as cavernous as the Concern’s. Had Bartt known of this? Why, of course he did. In fact, it was his very intention to lure Torry to the bargaining table, where the price may be skimmed in exchange for what else but the… “adoption” of the maidens Ina and Carola.
A suitor emptying his pockets to pay his paramour out of a wicked bawdy-house. Such a scene was not so seldom on the stage, nor in Londosian life. This was the viscount’s version of it, a spin seeing both the suitor swindled and the bawdy-house with not one less body. It was all fine and fair to Bartt. Showing a little money-mercy to have his women was, to him, the very definition of an honourable deal. Kidnap and ransom it was, to be sure, and blatant abuse of his authority besides. But not in the least did the lord see it so.
He smiled further. That sicarius and his devilkin comrades—on Bartt’s own soil would they be slain, a pricey effort to be levied from the livelihoods of each and every Talliener, be they wealthy or without wallet. And amongst the battle’s booty would be the twin beauties of the Concern, ripe for the viscount’s taking.
…”Soil”? Bartt snapped his fingers. An epiphany was upon him. Why not use this opportunity to plant some roots in Rolander “soil” altogether? Offer a more charitable treatment of the two, and in exchange, allow into the Concern’s echelons fellows a mite more “sympathetic” to the lord’s interests?
Ah, indeed. Indeed! Everything was coming together, right into this prince’s palm. How utterly glad he was to have snatched the mareschal’s mantle like he had. All the scheming, all the manoeuvring, just for moments like these. A former mareschal, full-decorated, and now a steward of Londosian soil—he could have his way, and not a word could be whispered against him.
Amidst the grand delusions, Bartt turned his thoughts to the comely maidens. At present were they imprisoned in the manor premises. Bargaining chips as they were, not yet could he lay a hand on them. To be sure, their “gaol” was but a bedchamber, locked and guarded. But come the battle’s curtain-call and the settling of its expenses, no longer would the lord leash his loins. Nay—not too fiercely, now. He pitied the two princesses of Roland. Tragedy cold and cruel had once struck them. They deserved warmth; a swaddling, manful warmth beyond their imagining.
They were yet unreceptive, all told. Still, Bartt was confident. Once the foes are dealt with, rebel and all, the two would know what a mighty man the former mareschal is, and to him unfurl their womanly flowers soon enough. In thinking such, and of every seam and span of their splendid bodies, Bartt broke a beaming smile.
There they were, Ina and Carola, sat together beneath a grand and baldacchin’d bed, lost upon a sea of satin sheets. Afore them was the door, fast shut. Not a window was to be seen.
They had been taken. The act was suspicious from the beginning: Bartt’s men, stopping and encircling their carriage, all to bring them afore their lord, that he might “enquire” them of the Albeck incident. Refusal was never an option. Not whilst swords were girt at the men’s sides.
Hardly a seldom scene in Tallien. Bartt was a known debauchee, after all, slaking himself with a steady supply of courtiers and concubines. Far from few of them were got by force. Far from few again were those disenchanted by the lord’s true nature, choosing instead a knife to the neck than another night with the narcissist.
Ina felt herself shivering asudden. Seeing this, Carola drew in close.
“Are you unwell?” she asked.
“…Nay,” answered Ina. “Just a mite afraid, but…. thank you.”
From their youngest years were these two fast friends, though to each other, they were sooner sisters. For her part, Carola was capable in tradescraft and oft a helping hand for Ina at the Roland offices. And like the latter, Carola was but a normal maiden, her heart not anymore immovable than the next. Still, even in such circumstance as they were, she yet found the strength to worry for her dear friend.
Perhaps it was by instinct. A year older than Ina, not seldom was Carola stirred to act the elder sister. And through such sisterly eyes could she see now that the younger of them was unyieldingly enduring this dire plight—a far cry from their prior kidnapping, whereupon Ina had wept and sobbed without cease.
Truly a turnabout, this current Ina. For it was all she had suffered then that had forged her anew, with strength enough to strive against grimness and misery. Strength that shored her up to this moment, even as her very body trembled in fear. None of this escaped Carola’s ken, for she felt very much the same.
“Have faith, dear Ina,” Carola said unsteadily. “The lord but fancies us pawns in his precious deal with your father. He’ll not lay a finger on us, I’m sure. Not for a while longer yet, at least.”
“You’re right,” Ina nodded. “…Keep the faith… Fight the fear… together…”
The sisters then embraced, tearful against the tides of terror. Yet, strongly they held. For all would be well. They had learnt it not long ago. That fear could be fought.
Yes. All will be well. All will be right. Their hearts shall not shatter. Their wills shall not wither.
Such the sisters whispered to themselves, as on and on they huddled close.
Chapter 2 ─ End