“No living soul dares to venture into the depths of the Hiltkeep.
“The stones of the ancient tower grasp into the very foundation of the earth, moss-ridden mortar scraping against rocky undersoil beneath for unknown miles. Centuries of decay display themselves upon the chiseled stonework with rebellious aplomb, blissfully unaware of the pains countless indentured servants have undergone over the centuries to maintain the sleek shine of the tower’s interior. Despite the extreme attention the Hiltkeep is afforded, the only floors which even half resemble their previous glory sit near the top, hundreds of feet in the air, where massive stained windows depict battles centuries-forgotten, multicolored glass shining down upon the surrounding landscape.
“So named for its distinct resemblance to a thousand-foot giant’s broadsword driven into the earth, the Hiltkeep housed (and still houses as of M.R. 984) one of the last surviving royal families of the world: the Harrows. Though many argue they’re as proud and oppressive as their tower, even the Harrows know plumbing the deeper levels of the Hiltkeep is a fool’s errand. Untold pitfalls, inexplicable curses, and even ravenous creatures of the dark wait patiently within the buried stone walls after unknowable centuries. To discover them would almost certainly mean death.
“Considered by some to be the most brutal and oppressive regime in recorded history, the Harrow family–”
Willem snapped the book shut with a scoff. He stared at the leather-bound tome sat in front of him with curled lip and furrowed brow, inwardly daring the thing to blaspheme by opening once again. When the collection of dusty pages failed to spring to life, he shoved the book off the polished table. As the tome loudly smacked against the floor, snickering rang out from various identical tables scattered around the cavernous library. Between the shelves, leaning on railings, and sat around sleek tables were numerous clusters of his siblings, schemers and lickspittles all.
Wide as an ox and twice as hot-headed, Willem Harrow was not an easily approachable man. Most who saw him in a mood as bitter as his wouldn’t think twice about flipping around to leave him with his worries. And, as if someone might need more reason to avoid him, he was quite the arrogant bastard (loathe as he was to admit it). For whatever odd reason, that day hordes of his half-siblings seemed emboldened to taunt him, even if it was with giggles and twitching half-smiles.
Through dust motes swirling tepidly between bookshelves decorated with fanciful scrimshaws, Willem could spot a number of Harrows spying on him. Some used the numerous shelves as cover to ogle the bastard freely, while others merely chanced glances at Willem from their own snickering groups whenever he looked away. Cockier half-siblings climbed sleek ladders to the grand balcony overlooking the rest of the library, often leaning over the railings to jeer at the bastard Harrow and laughing whenever he graced them with a scowl.
The various groups’ innocuous snickering set Willem on edge within moments. Ignoring them was his first thought, but in moments the bastard’s eyes glazed as malicious visions swam through his mind; plans he concocted when fueled by vindication were always steeped in cruelty. This time, perhaps overripe fruit could be “misplaced” in pillowcases, or he could slip some of his ever-bookish professor’s itching herbs into bathing basins. But speak of the Devil…
“Trouble with literature?” a soft voice behind him asked, snapping Willem out of his scheming.
Turning his chair around without lifting it, crumbling the library’s serenity in the process, Willem found himself facing his academic instructor, Amadeus Garland. The large Harrow scratched at his scruffy cheek in thought, and put on a smile sickly sweet as saccharine as he straightened his back.
“Garland. You snuck up on me.” His voice rattled from equal parts frustration and sore throat.
“One learns to traverse quietly after so many years.” Garland answered, watery blue eyes half-shut. “Though in the interest of learning… I must ask why you’ve mistreated my copy of The Royal Genealogies and Keeps of Kess. It’s one of few in existence, Willem.”
Even outside the confines of his musty office, the hunched coot held a patronizing lilt in his voice when addressing his pupil – or anyone else. Since Willem was all too aware, he refused to lose patience with the man; Garland had a penchant for winning arguments through enduring calmness paired with a xyresic tongue. The bastard of the Hiltkeep’s ire wouldn’t be outlasted as if some puny storm – he was a Harrow.
“I’ll have father reimburse you, Garland. But there’s some horrendous lies written in that book – agh.” Willem clasped at his neck ineffectually.
“Such as?” His instructor prompted.
“It – it said the Harrows were oppressive. It called us a regime.”
As Willem had been hoping, anger seemed to flare in the aged figure’s eyes – but it quickly gave way to the coot’s typical, banal expression of near-disinterest. “Royal Genealogies, for our purposes, is simply a historical record of royal family trees, as well as scholarly examinations of each family’s keep. Any other information is secondary – you needn’t consider it factual. If it bothers you so, you needn’t consider it at all.”
“…I guess not.” Willem frowned; for a brief moment, he was almost satisfied. “But why allow such lies to be written in the first place? It tarnishes our honor; maybe you needn’t mind such things, professor, but I don’t share the luxury.”
One of his siblings studying at a nearby table muttered, “You don’t share anything…” Willem was nearly too embroiled in arguing his mind to hear it, but hear it he did; moments before he spoke, however, his instructor beat him to it.
“This is a private conversation, Barth – do please treat it as such.” The Harrow who was likely some distant cousin to Willem scowled and opened his mouth to respond, but Garland continued, “Or would you prefer we discuss the details of your last ‘scholarly inquiry?’ ”
By the time Barth’s face finished draining of blood, the elderly man had already lifted a neighboring stool to set by Willem. Instructor Garland sat with the sort of patience earned from countless years of life. For his part, Willem tapped his fingers on the table unevenly, and scratched the back of his neck ‘til it burned. The lies written in the book dominated his thoughts – he’d like nothing more than to toss the tome into a furnace that very night.
“Lies or no, it is a rather informative – and valuable – collection of knowledge.” The patronizing tone returned. “You aren’t to harm the book, Willem. Your father would agree.”
Willem’s eyes narrowed as he failed to suppress a cruel smirk. “Agree, would he? Why don’t I go ask him, then?”
“Do whatever pleases you, Willem Harrow. Do as you’ve always done.” The wrinkled, pockmarked eyelids of his pallid instructor slid shut firmly, as if great eroded boulders shielding his wet eyes from the evils of the world.
“You don’t think I’ll do it.” The tome’s heresy was swiftly fleeting his mind.
“To visit the Harrowlord without appointment means hefty punishment – I was sure I taught you that...” The man’s tone only served to infuriate the bastard further – even more than his wrinkled eyelids.
“That Harrowlord happens to be my father, old man. Or have you forgotten?” Sneering, Willem couldn’t help but chuckle at his instructor’s ignorance – the Harrowlord was often busy, yes, but for a matter such as this? Bastard or no, Willem would be heard, he had no doubt. “He’ll pardon me for a matter important as this.”
As his eyelids finally opened in response, Garland simply lifted a weathered eyebrow – a gesture he’d perfected with years of incredulity – though a soul more perceptive than Willem would’ve noticed the faint flicker of a bruised ego hiding in the green speckles of his eyes. “As you say.”
Willem chuckled as he shook his head, his false smile replaced with a sneer; Garland really could be an old fool at times. He was lucky Willem was fond of outwitting him, or he would’ve plotted his execution long ago.
“I’ll return soon.” The bastard huffed as he pushed his stool out from the polished oaken table, sending himself into a coughing fit in the process.
“As you say.”
“I do say–” Raspy coughing racked the walls of the ornate library. “–old man.”
“Is my age truly relevant?”
“Enough, Willem.” The exasperation in his voice was thick as honey. “I’m sure your father is eagerly awaiting your arrival.”
With a final roll of his eyes, Willem pushed past Garland and strolled out of the Hiltkeep’s spacious library, giving the blasphemous tome on the floor a deserved kick with his good foot as he left; the brief pain in his step was a small price for the satisfaction. The coot really was losing it if he thought the Harrowlord was expecting an unscheduled visit. Luckily, Willem had his wits about him.
Glaring at the brusque guardsman beside the door, the bastard of the Hiltkeep shouldered past a small Harrow in his path and threw open the door to the stairs. The young girl’s inane chattering, which had distracted her enough to waylay Willem in the first place, immediately turned to shrill demands for an apology. Ignoring the sibling who was a stranger to him, Willem hurried up the spiral stairwell, each step taking him closer to the throne room of the massive stone tower. Perched at the top of the ancient stonework would be his father residing over his court, likely doling out judgments to impudent vassals mid-day.
Willem gulped as he reached the top of the stairwell. For an affront such as the one he had discovered in the tome, his father would make time for him. The unwanted bastard licked his lips and nodded to himself. Surely he’d be received without incident.