Hallowed

X. Strange Bedfellows

Deena was not happy about this new arrangement, an opinion that she made perfectly clear to Avenel over breakfast.

“I don’t like it,” she said. “They’re Ajjraean.”

“They’re harmless,” assured Avenel.

“They burned my town!”

“These three didn’t,” replied Avenel. “You can’t blame every Ajjraean for the actions of a few.”

Deena frowned. “Why are you even helping them?”

“A favor from a prince is useful.”

“What if he doesn’t honor the favor?”

“And risk my telling King Toorre about his little misadventure? I doubt it.”

Deena chewed thoughtfully on her bacon. “I guess if you think it’s safe, then it’s alright. But I still don’t like it.”

“It’s only for a few days,” said Avenel, “but if they make you feel unsafe, let me know.”

“Okay,” said Deena. “So, is Prince Garthniiel really a bastard?”

Avenel nodded. “Anyone with eyes could see that he isn’t King Toorre’s.”

“Then why is he still a prince, if he isn’t the king’s son?”

“Because Toorre refuses to admit that he’s been cuckolded—a matter of pride, I suppose. He won’t acknowledge that Garthniiel isn’t his.”

“I see,” said Deena. “He has an older brother, right?”

“Yes, Prince Greoore.”

“Is Greoore also a bastard?”

Avenel shook her head. “I’ve seen Greoore before. He looks too much like his father.”

The Ajjraeans arrived just as Deena finished her breakfast. Their apparent leader, a man with broad shoulders and nut-brown skin, waved enthusiastically at them from the door. The other two followed: the red haired man who had bumped into Deena the day before and a shorter, bald woman with a scowl.

“Good morning!” called the broad-shouldered man in a sing-song voice. “I hope you’re both ready for our journey?”

“We are,” replied Avenel. “Are you?”

“Indeed we are,” said the man. “We took a rousing trip to the morning market to acquire enough provisions for all of us. Ah, but forgive my manners.” He walked up to Deena and extended a hand. “I’m Garthniiel. A pleasure to meet you.”

Deena hesitated before taking the hand. “Um, hello. I’m Deena.”

“A charming name,” said Garthniiel. “My companions go by Flame and Frost. I’m sure you can see why, given Flame’s hair and Frost’s disposition.”

Frost scowled. Flame laughed.

“Let’s just go,” said Frost, heading back out the door. “The sooner we leave, the sooner we can get back home.”

They left through the city’s west gate. Even at this hour of the morning, the streets were filled with people, and Deena was glad to leave behind the crowds, the noise, and especially the smell. The road they took cut through an endless expanse of farmland. Tilled fields stretched out in every direction, dotted here and there with a lone mill or farmhouse. With a gentle breeze and the open sky, it formed a pastoral scene the exact opposite of Emdenshire.

Still, as Deena snacked on the last of the toffee, she couldn’t say she was sorry to have visited.

The sun was high in the sky when they stopped for a meal and to stretch their legs. Deena half-fell and half-dismounted off her horse.

“Leg cramps?” asked Flame, catching her arm to steady her.

Instinctively, Deena jerked back. “Um, yes,” she said. “Thank you.”

“I don’t bite,” said Flame, holding up his hands. “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

“N-no,” said Deena. “It’s fine.”

Avenel looked into the distance, shielding her eyes from the sun. “That farmhouse should have a well,” she said. “I’m going to refill our flasks.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Garthniiel brightly. “Flame, Frost, may I take your flasks?”

“You’re going alone?” asked Frost. “With her?”

“Of course,” said Garthniiel. “If Lord Avenel wanted to kill me, she wouldn’t have waited until now. Please have lunch laid out by the time we get back.”

Frost opened her mouth to argue some more, then closed it again, handing over her flask with a scowl.

“Fantastic,” enthused Garthniiel. “After you, Lord Avenel. Fear not; your ward will be perfectly safe. Flame is great with children, and Frost—Well, Frost usually listens to her little brother.”

Avenel gave him a look, then set off down the dirt path that lead to the farmhouse.

“You wanted to talk to me alone,” said Avenel, once they were out of earshot of the others. “Talk.”

“Was I that obvious?” asked Garthniiel. He paused for a moment, as though considering his words. “Why didn’t you kill me, when you saw me?”

“I have no reason to kill you,” said Avenel.

“I don’t mean yesterday,” said Garthniiel. “I meant when you killed Uncle Jaliin. I’ve always wondered.”

“You were twelve. I’m not in the habit of killing children.”

“Even when those children witnessed your crime? I saw you standing over Jaliin’s body. It doesn’t matter if Elyria denies it.”

“As I said, I don’t kill children.”

“But I saw you. I called the guards.”

“Your uncle Jaliin was the Ajjraean spymaster. Would he have killed a child to save his skin?”

Garthniiel frowned. “No. No, I suppose not.”

The farmhouse was small, but well cared for. A neat little flower garden lay in front, its blossoms in full bloom. The door and shutters had been painted a vibrant red, though the color had started to fade. A scruffy-looking cat peered down at them from its windowsill perch.

Avenel knocked on the door. A small girl, no older than eight, peered out cautiously from behind the door. “Papa’s not home,” she said.

“We aren’t looking for your papa,” said Avenel. “We’re just wondering if we might use your well.”

“Oh,” said the girl, relaxing. “Of course. Papa says I have to charge you money, though.”

“Here,” said Garthniiel, handing the girl a gold coin. “Is that enough?”

The girl’s eyes went wide as saucers, and she took the coin with both hands. “I don’t have change,” she said.

“Keep it,” said Garthniiel.

The girl gripped the coin more firmly in her hands. “At least let me give you something for it,” she said. “My brother made a blueberry pie this morning. There’s still a lot left; it’s really good.”

Garthniiel smiled. “Well, I never say no to dessert,” he said.

“Wait here,” said the girl, then disappeared inside. She re-emerged a few minutes later with a handkerchief-covered basket. “Here you are sir, ma’am. Thank you for the coin!”

“Thank you for the pie,” replied Garthniiel.

The well sat behind the house, between a row of tomato plants and leeks.

“If I find out that gold was fake,” said Avenel, “I may just kill you after all.”

Garthniiel laughed. “I’m a prince. Why would I carry fake gold? Besides, is it so odd to give a little extra?”

“That was more than a little,” said Avenel. “She would have charged us two coppers, at most.”

“And it costs a silver for a decent set of clothes,” said Garthniiel. “Did you see what she was wearing? Patches on patches. They could probably use the money.”

Avenel looked at him. “I’m surprised, Prince Garthniiel.”

“That I’m generous to a fault or that I care about the plight of the commonfolk?”

“That you’re aware of the cost of something other than ale.”

Garthniiel laughed. “You wound me, my lord. Just like this well, I am full of hidden depths.”

Avenel shook her head. “Metaphors aren’t one of them,” she said.

Lunch was bread, cheese, and carrots with hummus, followed by the blueberry pie. For a meal eaten on the road, it was rather good. Conversation was sparse as they ate, but the unexpected surprise of pie lifted everyone’s spirits.

“Blueberry is my favorite type of pie,” said Flame, helping himself to a fat slice. “Frost’s, too. What about you, Deena?”

Deena hesitated just a moment. “Mulberry,” she said. “But blueberry is nice too.”

“I’m rather partial to pecan,” said Garthniiel. “Lord Avenel?”

“I prefer meat pies,” said Avenel, though she didn’t turn down the blueberry either.

The pie was soon demolished, though they rested a few minutes more. Deena had pulled out her book of maps and was diligently studying their path, while Garthniiel lay in the grass humming tunelessly. Frost was tending to her horse, and Flame had carefully positioned himself so that his shadow blocked the glare on Deena’s book, though she was so absorbed that she hadn’t noticed.

Avenel stood up. “We should return the basket,” she said. “Prince Garthniiel? Are you coming?”

“Of course,” said Garthniiel, leaping to his feet.

They walked in silence to the cottage. The little girl’s eyes lit up when she saw them at the door. “Hi again,” she said with a smile.

“We’re here to return your basket,” said Avenel.

“Thank you,” said the girl, taking it. “Did you like the pie?”

“We did,” said Garthniiel. “Our compliments to the baker.”

The girl giggled. “I’ll tell my brother that,” she said. “Be careful on the road; Papa says there’ve been bandits.”

“We’ll be sure to keep our eyes open,” said Garthniiel.

They turned to walk back to the road.

“Bandits, hm?” asked Garthniiel. “If we do encounter bandits, would you save me?”

“I would have to,” said Avenel. “It would be war, if your family learned that you were killed in Elyria.”

Garthniiel scoffed. “That requires them to care. My dear royal father would be glad to be rid of me, and my mother might not even notice. The only person who would be remotely upset would be my brother.”

“Prince Greoore?” asked Avenel. “I wasn’t aware you were close.”

“He acts his father’s son in public, but he practically raised me after Jaliin died. It’s not a well known fact; if it was, he’d never have the political support of the other lords or our uncles.”

“You don’t like your uncles much, do you? Apart from Jaliin.”

“They don’t like me,” said Garthniiel. “Whether I like them doesn’t matter. I can’t say I blame them. They schemed for years to get Toorre and my mother to marry. Any threat to that marriage is a threat to their status.”

“That’s exactly why your mother had you,” said Avenel. “It was the only act of rebellion she had left.”

“You sound like you know her.”

“I don’t,” said Avenel, “but I know her type. If your uncles had actually asked her if she wanted to be queen, she would have said no.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” asked Garthniiel.

“No,” said Avenel. “What she did to you wasn’t fair, no matter her reasons.”

They continued on their journey. The endless farmlands continued for the rest of the afternoon, and by the time the sun set in the evening there was still no end in sight. There was no inn, either, nor a place to set up their tents, but there was a farmhouse with a barn. The farmer was reluctant, at first, to let them lodge in his barn, but a few pieces of silver convinced him. The barn’s usual inhabitants—a couple of cows and sheep—paid little mind to the travelers or their horses.

“This is slumming it a bit, isn’t it, your lordship?” asked Garthniiel, as they climbed up the ladder to the loft.

“Are your royal sensibilities offended?” asked Avenel.

“Not at all,” said Garthniiel, making himself comfortable in a pile of hay. “I’ve slept in worse.”

“As have I,” said Avenel, “though I suspect for largely different reasons.”

“Really? What do you think my reasons were?”

“I would guess that you were drunk and passed out beneath a bridge.”

Garthniiel laughed. “As a matter of fact, I have passed out beneath a bridge. Karhold, if I recall. There was a grotesque little gargoyle on the bridge; scared me half to death when I woke the next morning.”

“If it’s the same bridge I’m thinking of,” said Avenel, “I’ve also spent a night there.”

“What were you doing in Karhold?” asked Flame.

“I was killing the magistrate.”

Garthniiel sat bolt upright, flinging hay everywhere. “That was you?” he asked. He laughed. “Good riddance; I hated old Gibb. Do you remember what he said about you, Frost?”

“I’ve heard worse,” said Frost. She threw a horse blanket at him. “Cover up. Greoore will kill me if you catch pneumonia again.”

“Again?” asked Deena.

“King Toorre made him kneel outside all night during a thunderstorm,” said Flame, “after Garth got in a fight with Lord Hiikov’s favorite son.”

“He impugned my honor!” protested Garthniiel.

“You broke his nose,” said Flame. “You’re lucky you weren’t whipped.”

“Yes, well, I thought he would be better at fighting,” said Garthniiel. He laid back down. “What about you, Lord Avenel? You must have stories of fights when you were young?”

“I don’t,” said Avenel.

“No stories at all?” asked Garthniiel. “Surely when you were still training—”

“I have a story,” interrupted Frost. “Once upon a time, there were five people in a barn, and they all went to sleep because they have to get up early tomorrow.”

“That’s a terrible story,” sighed Garth, “but I suppose you have a point.”

But Garthniiel didn’t sleep. He tried, but his mind refused. He listened as one by one, his companions’ breathing assumed the slow rhythm of sleep.

The sounds of the night were loud: there were the crickets outside, the snorts of the animals below, and Frost’s familiar little snores to his right. Overhead, he could see the glow of the moon through a crack in the roof of the barn.

Garthniiel turned onto his side. His gaze met Avenel’s.

“You’re not asleep,” he mouthed.

She shook her head, then gestured at the barn door.

He followed her out into the night.

“You’re not asleep,” he said again, out loud this time.

“I don’t sleep well,” said Avenel, “particularly when travelling.”

“I see,” said Garthniiel. He looked up at the moon. It was very bright tonight. “Why did you want to know about Taunsgrove? I thought you abdicated.”

“That’s my business,” said Avenel. “Did you know of the attack?”

Garthniiel shook his head. “No one bothers to keep me apprised of things, military or otherwise, and I don’t ask.” He paused. “I’m happier that way, usually.”

“Happier?” asked Avenel.

Garthniiel shrugged. “The less I know, the less it can bother me. But I will keep my end of the bargain. Believe me.” He turned to look at her. “I’ve thought a lot about you, you know, over the years. Particularly when you abdicated.”

“Oh?”

He nodded. “There was a lot of speculation, people wondering why you left. I’d only ever thought of you as the woman who killed Uncle Jaliin, never even considered who you are outside of that, but when everyone else started to wonder, it made me wonder too.”

“And?”

“And…” he paused, thinking. “And I wondered if you left governance for the same reason I refused to join.”

“I thought you simply preferred to spend your time on leisure.”

“Yes, that’s what I say,” said Garthniiel. “It’s a convenient explanation, isn’t it? It’s so easy to believe that the bastard prince is also a dissolute hedonist.”

“And you aren’t?” asked Avenel.

“Not always. There was a time when I did have ambitions, you know. I wanted to prove myself: to the king, to the court, to everyone. But then… I saw my first battle. It wasn’t even a large one, but it was enough. I asked Greoore why we still fought, why we didn’t do more to end the war, and to his credit, he told me the truth. He made it sound justified, that we were preventing some greater evil from happening, but all I could see were the dead and dying on that battlefield.” He shook his head. “I couldn’t be a part of that.”

High above, the moon shone among the stars. Wisps of cloud drifted across the sky so that now and again the moon was obscured, then revealed again, a dancer with a veil.

It was Avenel who broke the silence. “Jaliin worked for the war, too, you know.”

“He wasn’t perfect, but he raised me.”

“Do you hate me for killing him?”

“Did you kill him, then?” asked Garthniiel.

“You said you saw me.”

“I saw you standing over his body. I saw Aunt Welsiica telling you to leave. I didn’t see you kill him.”

Avenel didn’t answer. After a while, she turned to go back into the barn. “It’s getting late,” she said. “Goodnight, Prince Garthniiel.”