Those absurd tales of a mysterious castle… Why did they flourish here?
Tristan mulled over the conflicting stories until a sharp gust knifed past his collar. He snugged his wool cloak tighter around his neck. The wind drove swarms of yellow leaves down on his small party of riders. Dark clouds billowed from the horizon, half obscuring the low sun. Rain tonight? Would they be forced to sleep outside in this?
Beside him, Cotrell lifted his head and sampled the air. “Do you smell that?”
“Never as you do,” Tristan said.
“Smoke and meat.”
“Ah, fine tidings if we may share in it. And what of the tall tales? Do you smell them, as well?”
Cotrell snorted. “Wouldn’t surprise me if they tell us that castle floats.”
They crested a long rise, and at last, a few buildings came into view. A welcome sight. Tristan raised his arm to signal the rider behind and drew rein. The horses slowed from their running-walk gait to a slow walk, but even still, the few people about town turned to stare as they ambled into the hamlet. Every town smaller than the last. Like forgotten threads, unraveled from Verenlia’s frayed border. The inn was small, too, but no matter, for the scent of roasting meat made his mouth water.
An innkeeper with a mop of unruly hair stepped out as they dismounted in the foreyard. “Good eve. How may I serve you?”
“Can you provide dinner, beds, and stable?” Tristan asked.
“Aye. We have roasted boar this eve.” The innkeeper pointed up over his shoulder. “We’ve just the one room, but no other guests tonight.” He glanced toward a well-grown lad, who dashed around the corner of the building. “Toby, take charge of the horses.” The innkeeper turned back through the doorway as the lad gaped, overwhelmed, by the look of it.
Tristan handed his reins to Cotrell, while James untied the long lead of their extra horse. “Toby,” Tristan said, “is it just you in the stable?”
If the lad’s worn shirt and short trousers were evidence, he received a pittance from stabling fees paid to the landlord. Tristan fished in his pouch for a coin, and the lad’s eyes brightened at the chink. “Then, you’ll have plenty to do with rubbing them down and all.” Tristan held out a silver coin. “Another in the morn if it’s done well.”
The lad clutched the coin. “It will be, sir!”
Cotrell uttered a faint huff. “Take those two horses, and I’ll follow you.” As Toby took the reins from James and led the pair away, Cotrell murmured to Tristan, “I don’t see why you hide your title and surname if you’re going to flash silver about.”
Tristan grinned and strode within, James following. The common room held a long table with benches down either side. Empty, for now at least. Tristan took a seat, and James settled across from him, glancing around.
Though James looked impassive, Tristan had known him too long to have any doubt what he thought of such places. Accepting, but never comfortable. Especially since he must guard his tongue. ’Twas not easy for a man of nigh fifty to drop formal habits of speech.
The innkeeper brought mugs of ale. “We’ll be serving dinner ere long.” He hurried away, touched a taper to the kindling fire on the hearth, then began lighting oil lamps.
James took a swallow and set his mug down. Even on this jaunt, he was clean-shaven, with his brown hair combed neatly back.
“Tired?” Tristan asked.
As though he would complain if he were. Tristan exchanged a nod with a couple as they entered. Cotrell followed, with saddle packs slung over his shoulders and a leather bundle that held the map tube and the swords they didn’t flaunt. The innkeeper pointed him up the side stairs. After a few thumps overhead, Cotrell returned to join them.
He took a long draw from his ale, then wiped droplets from the chestnut beard curling around his lips. “The stable will do, but we had to evict the cow.”
“Does Toby know horses?”
“Well enough. He’s anxious to please. Imagine that.”
More patrons arrived. Amid the chatter, the innkeeper carried in a board laden with a massive hunk of meat and thumped it down on the far end of the table. A red-cheeked matron in a spattered apron bustled about with bread and bowls of a stewed, orangish vegetable.
Unrecognizable food nudged Tristan’s wish for home, but it smelled good and tasted better. Wooden plates with slabs of roast boar were passed down the length of the table, and conversation lulled. There was nothing like hunger to make a simple repast delicious.
Sated bellies gave way to the appetite of curiosity. With practiced ease, Tristan parried questions, prompting the villagers to speak of themselves. It worked every time. Almost.
A local with sparse stubble on his chin watched them in silence, and finally blurted out, “Bah! Can’t fool me.” He pushed himself to his feet. “You’re here chasing those daft castle stories.” He stomped out of the inn.
Tristan rubbed a hand down his short mustache and beard, fighting the urge to burst into laughter.
Another local regarded him with narrowed eyes. “Are you, then?”
“Nay,” Tristan said. “Never heard of it till a week or two past.”
“It seems to be the local sport,” Cotrell said, “to gull travelers.”
Snickers came from a group that had taken their ale to some benches by the fireplace.
“That may be,” the local said, “but there is a castle.”
“You’ve seen it, then?” Cotrell asked.
“Not I. Not fool enough to go get ripped up by those beasts down by the sea.” He swung his legs over the bench. “And I’m not saying you are either. But there is a castle, all the same.”
Tristan didn’t even try to hide his grin. “Would that be the mysterious castle that fades out of sight in all but winter?”
The local stood as he scoffed. “That’s just stories. The hills hide it, but it’s there, all solid stone.” He swung a woolen cloak around himself. “A shame that the beasts have solid fangs, as well.” Then he, too, headed out into the night.
The matron humphed and slapped a tray down on the table. “Folly! All of it.” She collected bowls and plates onto the tray. “’Tis wicked to convince young men to chase after nonsense that’ll get ’em killed. The simple few that go, never come back. And what good would a locked-up, empty castle be to anyone, even if it weren’t off in that lonely, wild forest?” She finished loading her tray and glared at them. “Tell me you’re not chasin’ off after that castle.”
Tristan smiled at her. “Worry not.”
Tristan tossed his pack to the head of a cot and dropped down beside it. The wood creaked as he stretched out, linking his hands behind his neck.
“How bad is the mattress?” James asked.
“Better than cold ground.” Tristan cocked an eyebrow toward the rattling dormer window. “Particularly tonight.”
“Indeed, my lord. ’Tis well we are out of that wind.” James grasped one of Tristan’s boots and drew it off, then the other.
A single oil lamp illuminated sparse furnishings under the sloped roof. By its light, James made quick notes in his pocket ledger, then set out morning gear beside the basin on the small table.
Cotrell came up the stairs from the silent common room. “All’s well in the stable. The lad sleeps there when paying guests stay the night. Not a frequent occurrence, it would seem.”
“By the talk round about,” Tristan said, “I’d have thought they have a steady stream of castle-hunters passing through town.”
“Not so. According to Toby, the terrible beasts keep travelers from heading west.”
“What exactly are these terrible beasts?” James asked in his precise way.
Cotrell shed his jerkin. “Wolves, bears, and cats. All the more fearsome for lack of being seen.” He hooked his jerkin on a peg. “My guess is that there are more of them in the unsettled woods. The only other towns lie to the north and south, along the crossroad. Westbound, the road ends at a mill creek not far from here.”
Trust Cotrell to already know more of their surroundings. ’Twas the reason Tristan had brought him on this mapping journey instead of his other two captains. “Have you noticed,” Tristan asked, “how different the stories are in this town?”
James looked over his shoulder. “What mean you?”
“Elsewhere, the castle is spoken of as a rather mystical structure. The stuff of children’s tales. Here, the castle’s existence is a given. Even the beasts are not described in such gargantuan terms.”
Cotrell stopped rummaging through his pack and regarded Tristan. “True enough.”
“The question then, is why?”
“Could be any number of reasons,” James said, pulling out the heavy nightshirt and cap he donned every eve. “Perhaps folk are less credulous here. What teases your interest now, when you’ve been laughing over it all along?” He turned. “If you’ll hand me your jerkin, my lord.”
Tristan sat up and shrugged the garment off into his waiting hands. “The odd specifics. Locked-up, for instance. An abandoned castle would be damaged, not sealed. Though, I suppose it makes little difference.” He loosened the tie of his trousers for comfort and shook out the woolen blanket folded at the foot of his cot. “How far do you reckon we are from the sea, Cotrell?”
“Locals claim a distance anywhere from a week’s journey to a month. All guesses, for none of them have ever been there. Besides, they don’t have decent horses here. I’ve yet to see one in a running-walk. We can cover the ground faster.”
Presently, James snuffed the lamp. Distant lightning flickered through the darkness. The glass rattled harder in its casement, accompanied by two sets of snores and pelting rain. Not that noise ever kept Tristan awake. So odd…those stories of an abandoned castle…
James poured hot water into the basin. “There’ll be a hearty breakfast soon. Whipped eggs with chopped boar meat are in the oven. They make a fine cheese here, too.”
Tristan grunted and shed the rumpled shirt he’d slept in. He wiped himself down quickly before donning a fresh one, then splashed water over his face. He had to stoop to see his reflection in that faded excuse for a mirror. His black beard still made him look like a stranger to his own eyes.
He and Cotrell left James to his shaving and went down to enjoy the matron’s skill again. She supplemented the baked eggs with a loaf of bread and a round of cheese, which he had little room for. Cotrell left the inn as James came down to break his fast.
Tristan finished his tea and rose from the table. “Buy the bread and cheese when you settle the tab.”
“Aye, my l—” James clamped his lips.
At least no one was near to hear his mistake. Wondering what else James may have let slip, Tristan strode from the inn, past a pen of chickens, and into the stable.
“And I cleaned the tack, too,” Toby said to Cotrell. The lad’s back was to the door, but when the stallion nickered, he swung around. “Good morn, sir. I did all that the horses could need, sir, save only that your stallion won’t let me bridle him.”
A laugh shook Tristan’s chest, and he clapped a friendly hand onto the lad’s shoulder. “Dauntless can be a bit stubborn.”
“Aye, but not as bad as some stallions.” Toby relaunched the list of all the tasks he’d completed.
Cotrell met Tristan’s eye above Toby’s head and gave him a quick nod, then grabbed Dauntless’s bridle.
“Well done,” Tristan said, handing the promised coin to the lad. “You can help us saddle up. Put the pack harness on the gray.”
Toby hurried to follow instructions. “Do you switch off which horse travels light?”
“You must be traveling far. Where are you heading?”
Tristan hid a smile, for the lad was even more direct than his elders. This time, he gave an answer he hadn’t shared the night before. “Northwest, toward the River Thane.”
“Ah! You are looking for the castle, then.”
Tristan shook his head. “We seek the ridge crossing. Hard to tell where that may be unless we also know the woods on this side.”
“What d’you need that for?”
“I heard from a friend who lives on the river that no one visits from the south anymore. I cannot help but wonder if something has closed the route.”
Toby paused in buckling a strap. “You’re not talking about the Lady Havella, are you?”
Tristan’s brows twitched down. “Indeed, I am. Why do you speak so?” He hadn’t meant it to, but his pitch had dropped.
Toby ducked his head and pulled on the buckle. “I meant no disrespect, sir. Just surprised.”
“Ah.” Tristan resumed his casual tone. “Why surprised?”
“Uh…guess I don’t know the particulars. Just heard she…she doesn’t let people come anymore. Not poor ones, anyway. But I don’t know much about that, so I shouldn’t speak out.”
Toby cast a sideways glance at him. “Uh, do you want to take a little feed on your journey? We could spare some oats.”
That was a stretch. Anxious to get back on Tristan’s good side, it seemed. He smiled at Toby. “Nay, but you can give them a handful now.”
Toby scooped some from a small barrel and offered it to the gray, while Cotrell raised his brows at Tristan and moved on to saddle another horse.
Dauntless snorted and stamped.
Chuckling, Tristan brought him some oats. “Your manners lack polish.”
Toby wiped his hands on his trousers. “If you’re going over the ridge…well, for one thing, be on the watch for the bears and wolves, but…” He glanced away and back again. “Why would you risk that, and not look for the castle, too?”
Tristan stepped back from the stallion’s searching nose. “Would you have me wander over every unmapped hill, hoping to find a castle beyond the next? Snow will fly before we find it.”
Toby shrugged. “Yesterday was chilly, but the wind scarce comes out of the north. There’ll be plenty of fair days yet. What if…” He swallowed and whispered, “What if you knew where to look?”
Tristan raised an eyebrow. “If I could know that, surely others could have known it before me.”
Toby shook his head and kept his voice low. “My gra’pa Burk lived there when he was a boy. He would never tell where it was. Said it wasn’t ours and stealing from nobles could end with hanging. But now…well, he mutters about them never coming back. A couple weeks ago, I heard him arguing with my ma and pa. I have good ears, better than most, anyway. My ma cried and said she’d never forgive him if I ran off searching.”
Toby looked down. “I’m their only child, you see, and well…I love our farm. I can’t go, even if I wanted to. But it seems an awful waste, that castle stands there empty.”
Tristan considered the lad. “Why tell me? A stranger. Why not one of your friends?”
“Pa says nobody in town will be anyone’s friend if they all go mad after the castle.” He shrugged. “I guess it used to be trouble, even back when my pa was little. But you don’t live here. You’re rich, and I heard the other one call you ‘lord,’ so you must be a noble.”
Behind Toby, Cotrell shook his head.
Tristan kept a still face as Toby rambled on. “My gra’pa says the town was bigger and people had fine things when the nobles used the castle. There was even a school here. Maybe it will help the whole town if nobles lived there again.” He paused and looked hopefully up at Tristan. “It won’t do to tell anyone where you’re bound, but our farm lies north of the mill. Just follow the lane along this side of the creek. I can run ahead crosswise through the woods and meet you there. Tell my gra’pa about you.”
Tristan opened his mouth, but Toby startled and hissed, “Someone’s coming.”
Toby grabbed one of the saddled horses and led it out of the stable. Sure enough, the innkeeper and James were crossing the yard toward them.
Tristan led the gray out and handed the reins to James. “Just bring them around front, and we’ll load up.”
In the foreyard, James stared at him as Tristan inspected the provisions, then sent the innkeeper for more cheese and dried meat. Indeed, ’twas hard to move this slow, but the lad, loping off beyond a broken-down cottage, needed a head start. A cup of strong tea added a few more minutes, then they mounted and left town.
“What was all that about?” James asked.
Tristan smiled down at him, for the bay mare made him seem even shorter than he was. “The lad Toby, or perhaps his grandfather, seems to know a few more things about the castle than most.”
“What is that to us?”
Tristan’s lips twitched. “Haven’t you always chided me for excessive curiosity?”
James closed his eyes and released a breath.
Laughter crept into Tristan’s voice. “As it happens, Toby is arranging for us to visit his grandfather. ’Twould be rude to ignore the invitation now.”
From behind, Cotrell asked, “What do you suppose he meant about the Lady Havella?”
“That was odd.” Tristan’s frown deepened. “I can’t imagine her turning anyone away. Certainly, no one from Moorelin. It makes no sense that she’d treat folk different on this side of the river.”
James demanded an explanation, and Cotrell told him of the conversation while they followed the poorly kept road. At least the sun was drying the mud.
“Strange,” James said when Cotrell finished, “but there have always been rumors. ’Tis bound to happen with a lady such as she. More so, considering the waters of Fountain Isle. But why tell Toby we’re looking for a route over the ridge?”
“I just wanted to keep him talking about the lay of the westward land,” Tristan said. “’Twas only a passing comment from the lady that I made use of.”
“How long ago did she tell you that?” Cotrell asked.
Tristan shrugged. “I haven’t been to Fountain Isle in three years. May have even been the time before that.”
They found the lane as they descended a hill toward a gurgling steam. Nothing more than a rutted cart track, forcing them to ride single file. Branches clacked overhead, the storm having stripped most of the fading leaves. Beyond a curve, Toby awaited them outside a tiny cottage. A larger cottage and barn were visible through the trees.
“I told my gra’pa about you,” Toby said as they dismounted. He looked worried. “’Tis not one of his better days, but he said the lord could come in.”
Tristan followed Toby, ducking his head to pass through the low doorway. The reek of wild tobacco stung his nose. A fire burned on the stone hearth, and a man sat beside it, only his bald head visible above the blanket that wrapped him. Furnishings were few but looked to be well crafted.
Tristan moved around to face him, for Toby was already saying, “Gra’pa Burk, this is the nobleman I told you of.”
Watery eyes looked up at him, from amidst countless wrinkles in sallow skin.
“I am Lord Tristan,” he said, omitting his family name. He bowed slightly to the man’s advanced age.
Burk wheezed as he stared. “You’re not one of them. They were fair.”
What did that mean? Did his mind wander? This could be difficult. Tristan lowered himself to the chair opposite the old man. “Of whom do you speak?”
“The master and mistress!” he snarled, as though that were a fool’s question.
“Of the castle,” Toby added, as his grandfather burst into coughing.
“Ah. Certain, I could not look like them. My family has never held land here. We dwell north of the River Thane.”
Burk’s brown-spotted hand pulled the blanket tighter. “At least ye don’t come with lies.” He heaved a wheezy sigh, head sagging forward. “All lost. Such beauty…given over to those foul beasts.”
More rambling. “Can you tell me the names of the master and mistress?” Tristan asked.
“Names? Nay. I was but a lad, not half Toby’s age.” His gaze grew distant. “Oh, but she was a fine lady. Golden locks coiled around her head. A smile bright as the sun.”
“What was the master like?”
“Well enough, I suppose, though he didn’t smile unless his lady was near.” Burk brought his gaze back to Tristan. “Why think ye that I would know much of them? Our place was beside the stable.”
This meandering didn’t seem to suit Toby. “But, Gra’pa, you know more about the castle than anyone, for your papa was caretaker. First in and last out. You could tell of that.”
“Aye, he was. My papa loaded us all up in the spring…so we could get the castle ready for the family. And when they left, we’d pack once more. Mama’d lead the donkey out so Papa could close up the gates.” He sagged again. “Until they didn’t come. We waited and waited. The castle’s mournful silent without the family.” He shook his head. “But such a din all night. Mama couldn’t bear the howls. They’d gotten so fierce we could barely sleep, so we left after mid-summer night.”
A rugged cough interrupted. Burk wiped his lips on the blanket. “Mama feared to come back the next spring. Papa said we’d wait for the family to come through town…and journey with them. But they never did. Papa even went alone to check the castle…in case they’d taken the low route that spring. But it stood empty.”
“Did they send word?”
Burk shook his head. “Don’t think they could’ve. My papa kept hoping and worrying both. Afraid someone would rob the castle, which he was bound to keep. He’d locked up the gates, and none but he knew the hidden way. But still he fretted.” Burk cleared his throat. “Told us we couldn’t speak of the castle at all. Except the beasts. He talked about them, and Mama did, too. Dreadful scared, she was, and glad to stay near town. Believed the beasts had gotten the family, she did. Mayhap she was right, but Papa didn’t believe it.”
“Don’t know. Can’t see what else it could’ve been. Those vixicat yowls still sound in my dreams. Fiercest beasts there ever was! No one dared leave the castle at night, nor go down the western valley, even in daylight.”
Vixicat? Never had Tristan heard of such a creature. “What does a vixicat look like?”
Burk sneered. “No one lives to tell.” He glowered a moment. “I used to walk the castle walls with my papa that last summer…but we never caught sight of one in the dusk. The castle sits atop a cliff on the sunset side. My papa would lift me up to look over the parapet, but I could see naught but the treetops.”
Finally, a reference to the land. “How far from here to the cliff?”
“Never counted the days bouncing along in that cart.”
“You camped in the woods along the way, then?”
“Aye. My papa standing by the fire with his bow when I slept…my mama bearing it when I woke.”
Tristan questioned further, discovered where the road left town, but not the route, save that the ridge could be seen along the first part of the trek.
“Can you not see the ridge from the castle?” Tristan asked.
“Nay, the hills get in the way. And the ravine, though that stretches a long way down toward the sea. Vixicat land, Papa said.” Burk faded off again, the mournful look returning. “Terrible sad to think of those beasts tearing up that fine lady.” A long wheeze escaped him. “At least there’s someone else to remember them now. Lifts a burden, it does.”
Tristan stood. “I’m glad of that. Thank you for sharing your memories with me.”
Another coughing fit overwhelmed Burk’s answer.
Tristan left the cottage quietly.
Toby followed, looking downcast. “I’m sorry, sir. I thought he’d know more than that.”
Tristan put a hand on his shoulder. “That’s not your fault. How old is your grandfather?”
“Some ways past seventy. He doesn’t like us to count his years.”
“Memories can fade in seventy years.”
Toby broke a dead branch sticking out from a nearby tree trunk and snapped it in half. “I don’t see why people keep secrets. If they’re so important, they shouldn’t be lost. But that’s what happens.”
There was more to Toby then met the eye. “You have a good point.”
They stopped by the horses, and Toby looked up at him. “Why do you keep secrets? Why don’t you tell that you’re a lord?”
Young enough to be naive, but old enough to ask serious questions. “Because folk make too much of titles in these parts. I’m the youngest son, so I cannot pass my title on. I am who I am, whether anyone calls me lord.”
“Do you want me to keep it secret, too?”
“You needn’t speak of it without cause, but don’t think I am asking you to lie if the question arises.” Toby looked relieved, and Tristan mounted Dauntless. “You’ll make a fine man, Toby Burk. Thank you for bringing me to meet your grandfather.”