They went to the stables first, located immediately to one side of the front gate. The rain was falling as a light mist, and most of the guests had retreated inside; a few of the guardians remained in the gardens, however, harvesting ripened fruits and clipping leaves of herbs to fill their baskets.
Shera and Gerith had been brushed down and fed, and the donkeys had been freed of their heavy burdens. The animals now stood happily dozing in their pens, warm blankets draped over their flanks. Shera cracked open one eye at his approach, then dropped her head and went back to sleep.
He scratched her neck, casting a quick peek around. Three stablehands, all dressed in practical boots and trousers, the long sleeves of their shirts rolled up around their arms; all busy doing practical stable work. One wore an upright pentagram as a pendant. Robeth didn’t see anything on the other two.
Exchanging a look with Marjin, he headed back out the door, while she struck up a conversation with the man wearing the pendant. Something about carrots.
Robeth turned and headed down the tunnel, towards the front gate. Torches braced to the walls lit his way as the warmth and illumination from the Hallowed Flame faded behind him. He should have brought his cloak. There were — curiously — two more portcullises, one at the entrance to the courtyard and another at the halfway point.
Another oddity. He had stayed at a few very old Inns, built in the chaotic years following the Hallowed Schism and the Reweaving of the World, when starvation and fear drove many to desperation, and monsters and abominations roamed the land. Those Inns had been built with multiple portcullises and other defensive measures. But that was almost five centuries ago. The Inn of the Honeyed Bear was only a few decades old, constructed after Temerares had finally named and mapped the newborn Dellith Mountains and people began to establish villages and farming communities on the steep slopes.
Lady Neis had definitely made changes to the Inn in the years since she had assumed guardianship of it. During his tenure, Lord Barrth had only managed to build the two inner tiers and part of the courtyard garden. Robeth had stayed here a few times during his ridiculous year of hunting for that seircovra, and the Inn had been barely habitable, with no great hall, narrow stairwells, and a minuscule garden.
There was no denying that Lady Neis had done more for the Inn, and its guests, than her predecessor.
Still … those voices in the steam and fire ….
Robeth slowed his steps as he approached the outer gate. The portcullis was still down, blocking the wind and cold. He could hear the howling as the storm raged outside.
The young guard was huddled on a stool beside the winch to raise and lower the gate. Her head was down, the dark blonde hair that had escaped her braid obscuring most of her face. She had tucked her chin inside her scarf, and she was shivering and munching morosely on a slab of bread stuffed with cheese and meat. Judging by how her jaw had to work, it was almost frozen solid.
“Greetings again. Teirkka, wasn’t it?”
Her head whipped up and she leapt to her feet, knocking over her stool. She almost choked on the bread and, for a moment, Robeth thought he was going to have to take her over his knee and slap her back.
But she managed to swallow and inhale. Then she choked and said, “Greetings, Lord-Captain. And, um, yes. Teirkka. Guardian Teirkka.”
What if she’s lying?
More goosebumps up and down his arms and back. He smiled. “Thank you for keeping the gate open for us. I hope that you didn’t get into too much trouble on our behalf. The other Inn guardian ….” He let his voice trail off, prompting a reply.
“Yes. Hendrikk. I hope he wasn’t too harsh with you. We likely would have frozen to death out there.”
She blushed now, shook her head, and swallowed again. “Not at all, sir. There’s a bell on the outside, next to the gate. We get guests every now and then, like yourselves, running from bad weather, and we’ve already closed up. They just ring it. The line runs here — ” she pointed to a small bell on the wall above her head “ — and to the stables.”
“Is that why you’re still out here?”
She nodded. “Never know when someone might be coming to the Inn. Specially — ” She stopped, her eyes going wide.
“Oh. Well.” She swallowed again, ducking her head so that her hair swung in front of her face. She shuffled her feet. Her head came back up and she finally answered, “It’s approaching time for the Ascension.”
Still smiling. “Ah. Of course. The honeyed bear will be ascending from her cave for the winter. That’s somewhere around here, isn’t it?”
Teirkka nodded, her expression changing to one of pride and excitement. “Right under us, actually. The entrance is just a quarter-mile east of here, but the cave itself is under the Inn. That’s why it was built here. So people can see the bear and gather up the first and best of the season’s honey.”
Keep smiling. “Well, Temerare Quil and I had planned to leave as soon as the storm abated. But I don’t think we should miss such an opportunity. Perhaps we will stay a few days longer, and collect some honey ourselves. We could make excellent use of it out in the wilderness.”
“I won’t bother you anymore. And, again, I hope that we didn’t get you into too much trouble with Guardian Hendrikk.” He noted her flinch. “Have a good evening, Guardian Teirkka.”
“And you, sir.”
He turned and made his way down the tunnel, towards the warmth and light of the gardens. Walking up one pathway and down another, he made his slow way among the shrubs and flowers and fruit trees. The misty rain had temporarily abated, and guests were returning outside once more. He nodded in greeting to a few, while, far overhead at the top of the walls, the cloud slowly reformed and the sky beyond grew even darker. There would be no moons and stars tonight.
Robeth paused, peering up through the branches of a plum tree.
Once, there had been three moons. Once there had been two suns. Once, there had been long warm summers and plentiful harvests and short winters with just enough snow to cover the mountain peaks and refill the lakes. Once, before the Schism, when the Hallowed Ones fell out of harmony and made war with one another.
Now there were only two moons, and a single sun, and the summers were too short and the winters too long. And there were only five Hallowed Ones, maimed, weakened. Five Hallowed Ones left to slowly — so slowly — heal the world they had nearly destroyed.
“Would you care for a plum, sir?”
Robeth started, then leaned around and squinted up. A gardener squatted in the branches off to his right, one leg looped around the trunk, holding out the dark purple plum. With his green and brown uniform, he blended into the foliage.
Still, Robeth was a Temerare. He should have known the gardener was there.
If Marjin ever learned about this, she would never let him live it down.
He nodded and took the fruit. “Yes, thank you.” He waved the plum, encompassing the entire yard. “These are beautiful gardens. Quite impressive, considering the Inn was only built a few decades ago.”
“Oh, yes.” The gardener nodded. Hands quick, he moved from fruit to fruit, leaving some where they hung, plucking others and setting them in the basket at his hip. “Even more impressive when you know that the Lady had it all ripped out and replanted.”
Robeth paused, about to take a bite from the plum. “Ripped out?”
“Yes, sir. After she became Lady, after Lord Barrth passed, the Hallowed Ones bless him. Truth be told, those were not very good gardens, and the brazier for the Hallowed Flame was rather … dull. So Lady Neis had us rip out everything, till up the soil, re-lay the pathways, transplant what could be saved, bring in daughter cuttings from trees and shrubs in the woods. Even seeded the soil with honey from the bear.” The gardener waved a hand, his voice filled with pride. “And there you see the result. Most beautiful garden in Achareth Province. One of the most beautiful of any Inn in all of Eardvall, I’d wager.”
Robeth nodded silently and bit into the plum. Juice ran down his chin. It was just the right combination of sweet and tart. Still chewing, he lifted the fruit in farewell and, careful to keep his steps unhurried, he ambled away.
Down one path, hard angle, up another, hard angle.
He could see the pattern in his head.
Marjin appeared at his side and bumped his shoulder. “Why are you wandering aimlessly?”
He kept his voice low. “I’m not wandering aimlessly. Let’s find some stairs.”
He re-entered the Inn through a wide double door, Marjin at his heels, and found himself in the great hall. Another bite of the plum. The long tables and benches were empty, and the fire in the hearth at the far end was low. More doors to either side; the one on the right must lead to the kitchens, because he could hear the clatter of pans and smell bread and stew. To the left … ah. A hallway and stairs.
Marjin followed silently, one hand resting on a dagger.
Up they went, and up again. Second level, third, fourth, fifth. There were guests on the second and third floors; he could hear faint conversations and see lights under doors. But the fourth level was silent and dark. The fifth even more so, and cold.
They came out on the top floor, the corridor extending ahead of them. Only a few feet of stone on his left separated them from the storm outside. He could hear the wind through the outer wall and the roof overhead. Flecks of ice and snow clung to the ceiling and his breath fogged.
Definitely should have brought his cloak.
Another bite as he made his way down the corridor, trying each door on his right. They were all unlocked. The first opened onto a windowless storage space. So did the second. The third door opened onto a small room with a bare bed and empty shelves. The window was narrow and barred, the single pane letting in only thin grey light.
He stepped inside, Marjin closing the door behind them. He took a last bite of the plum, saving only the seeds; by habit, he collected them and tucked them deep into an inner pocket.
“Are you going to explain now?” she whispered.
“Help me with the window.” He grunted as he worked at the latch holding the bar in place. It was cold and reluctant to move. “Lady Neis had the gardens completely rebuilt.”
Marjin wiggled the bar on the far side of the window. “And?”
The bar lifted free. He leaned it carefully against the wall and went to work on the window latches. After a moment, those, too, squeaked open. He tugged on the frame and the window swung inward. He leaned out, took a very quick look, and then leaned back inside.
“It’s a pentagram.”
Marjin scowled and pushed him out of the way so that she could peer down at the gardens, too. “So? Many Inn gardens have … oh.” She tilted her head, then leaned back inside to squint at him. “It’s the wrong way around. Just like the pins and pendants. The top point is north, not south. Up, not down.” She pursed her lips, took another quick peek, then turned to him with her arms crossed. “And it’s pointing directly at Lady Neis’ quarters.”
Robeth was fairly certain that every guest at the Inn had gathered in the great hall for the evening meal. More than a hundred people, easily. Between their clothing and their conversation, he deduced that most of them were merchants, healers, and hallows who had traveled to the Inn to collect honey to sell, to create medications, or to distribute among the people as needed.
Most of the guardians were present, as well. Jessle sat near the kitchen, avidly listening to a merchant relate her exploits among the islands of the Inner Sea. Young Teirkka had been relieved of her gate duty, and sat forlornly on a bench near the wall, bowl of stew on the table in front of her.
Even foul-mouthed Hendrikk was present, tucked into a back corner, glowering from beneath thin eyebrows as he munched loudly on handfuls of small radishes.
Only the Lady Neis was absent.
“Could mean nothing, of course.” Marjin tore off a hunk of bread and dipped it into a small bowl of honey-butter. “Most Inn gardens have pentagrams built into them. Like that big one at the Inn of the Mad Cockatrice. Pentagrams built into other pentagrams into even more pentagrams. It’s huge. You could go as mad as that stupid cockatrice trying to follow all the different pathways.” She shoved the bread into her mouth.
“Mmm,” was all he said, spoon aimlessly stirring the thick stew.
“Or it could mean something. Though I have no idea what. None.” Marjin tore another piece of bread, dragged it through the sweet honey-butter, and popped it into her mouth. “Heard any of the other voices yet?”
Robeth shook his head, finally tasting the stew. It almost burned his tongue, and he felt its heat all the way down into his belly. Carrots, peas, some kind of bean that he didn’t recognize, potatoes, onions, spinach, radishes, corn, and just the right mix of spices. Filling and delicious.
“So who do you want?”
“Hendrikk.” He made a show of looking around the room again, spying the man from the corner of his eye. The guardian was still munching on handfuls of radishes, and still glowering at the assembled company. No one sat near him. “You?”
“Jessle first. He seems taken with exciting stories of far away places.”
“Please not the herd of inebriated salamanders.”
She just popped another hunk of buttery bread into her mouth, grinned, and ambled away.
Robeth sighed. Picking up his still half-full bowl, and what little remained of the bread and honey-butter, he stood and made his way around the tables. A few of the other guests nodded politely as he passed; a merchant with rich fur at his throat and wrists, a hallow with a completely shaved head, a healer in the dull blue robes of an apprentice. Robeth returned the gesture, slowing to a stop only when he reached Hendrikk on the far side of the great hall.
“May I join you, guardian?”
Hendrikk did not bother to turn his head. He only slid his eyes towards Robeth and continued to munch on his radishes. His eyes slid away. “If you must,” he finally said.
He wasn’t yelling this time, and his voice wasn’t echoing in a narrow, stony space.
Goosebumps lifted up and down Robeth’s arms and legs.
I will tell, I will.
So. Tell what, and to whom?
Robeth lowered himself onto the opposite bench, setting the plate with the bread and honey-butter between them. He gestured for Hendrikk to help himself, but the older man ignored him.
“I wish to apologize for our inelegant and noisy arrival.”
That got the guardian’s attention. He turned his face towards Robeth, thin eyebrows drawn together.
Hendrikk, Robeth suddenly realized, was not wearing a pentagram. No pentagram at all, neither north-pointing nor south-pointing.
He kept his voice steady. “Not my fault, of course. I should never have trusted Temerare Quil with planning our route.”
“Never leave to a semi-competent subordinate what we could twice as well ourselves, yes? Hhmm, yes. I can see that you completely understand.”
Hendrikk huffed, shifting around on the bench so that he fully faced Robeth. “She’s going to break the gate one of these days, you just see. Can’t even work a simple winch.” He shook his head in disgust.
“Pity there isn’t something less demanding that she could do. Peel potatoes, perhaps?”
The other man snorted. “Won’t happen. Neis favors her.” Another sound of bitterness, a rough huff. “Shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, her being Barrth’s daughter and all.”
Robeth managed not to choke on his stew. He thought back, rapidly digging through his memories of the Inn of the Honeyed Bear. Twelve years ago. Teirkka would likely have been … three? Four? Five at the very most. Had there been a little girl? One who was near Lord Barrth a great deal of the time?
He couldn’t remember. Truthfully, he could barely remember Lord Barrth. His days at the Inn had been brief; just sleep and supplies, and then he had gone back out again, obsessively hunting that siercovra like an idiot.
Had Attala Neis been here twelve years ago?
“The little guardian’s status as the previous Lord’s child should have little bearing — or is she the child’s mother-by-marriage?”
Hendrikk cracked a laugh. And then he laughed again. It was a not a pleasant sound. “Child? No, no child of Neis, not by marriage or blood. Not possible. No, Neis was Barrth’s aide. When he descended into the earth, she naturally assumed his position.”
Hendrikk’s bitterness was so palpable that Robeth could almost taste it.
He scraped his spoon around the inside of the bowl, collecting the last of the stew. In the very corner of his eye, he could see Marjin smile and laugh. She patted Jessle on the shoulder, stood, and moved out of Robeth’s sight. He licked the spoon clean.
“Likely he wrote a letter of recommendation to the Grandesse before his descent. And, without other named candidates, the Grandesse would have simply acceded to his wishes.”
Hendrikk’s eyes narrowed.
“Not that I agree with the Grandesse’s decision,” Robeth hastened to add, but Hendrikk was already leaning away, his attention shifting elsewhere. “It’s just a pity that Lord Barrth did not recognize your competency and offer your name, as well. Surely than the Grandesse would have ruled in your favor.”
But no. The conversation, such as it was, was over. Hendrikk shoveled another handful of radishes into his mouth, shoved back the bench loudly, and stalked away.
Robeth sighed, gathered up the empty bowl and plate and utensils, and headed towards the kitchen. A small table had been set to the side of the door, with a bin for the dirty wares. He added his to the pile, and wandered in a wide circle towards the entrance to the inner hallway. Other guests followed suit, heading back out into the gardens or upstairs to their suites.
He tucked himself around behind the curve of the stairwell, and waited.
Shadows passed back and forth, up and down the hallway, up and down the stairs. Guardians, kitchen staff, the merchant with the rich fur at his wrists and throat, a group of healers in robes of varied colors. At the soft swish of a cloak, he dared to peer around the stairs and spied Lady Neis herself, moving slowly down the steps and out into the gardens.
A finger poked his shoulder, hard.
“Ow,” he deadpanned.
“You did not know I was there,” Marjin whispered, her voice barely audible.
“Absolutely did. Tierkka is Lord Barrth’s daughter. And Lady Neis has been here —”
“Thirty years. Probably longer.”
Robeth felt his eyebrows jump.
Marjin sidled closer, dropping her voice even lower. “Old Lord Barrth found her, out in the woods. Or she was living here in a hut. Maybe even before he laid the foundation stones for the Inn, maybe after. No one’s quite sure. About how long she’s really been here, about where she really came from, about how old she is. It’s all very vague. And you know what else?”
“No one seems overly concerned by that vagueness?” Robeth crossed his arms, leaning back against the cool stones.
“Not a bit. Think she’s a hexess? And maybe the Hallowed Ones were warning you about her?”
“ … Possibly. Hendrikk was one of the voices in the fire. I will tell, I will.”
“That’s it? Nothing else? You are terrible at this.”
“Information gathering. Getting people to tell you things. You were just as bad ferreting out the conspirators trying to kill your mother. This is why you’re a Temerare and not an Inquirer.”
“I did find the conspirators trying to kill my mother.”
“Well, not because you’re good at asking ques —”
It echoed down the stairs, down the stone passageway. The few people still in the great hall seemed to freeze, their eyes wide, heads turned towards the sound. Through the wide open door to the garden, he could see more of the staff and guests; those who were close enough to hear the scream had paled and stilled in their tasks.
Marjin was already running around him. He bolted after her, feet taking the stairs two, three steps at a time. The stone was hard beneath his feet.
Around the curve of the stairs, past the second landing, up to the third, up to the fourth. He caught a glimpse of guests peering through their doors on the second level, and a few on the third.
Finally up to the fourth floor. Tierkka stood nearly out of sight, just where the walls and floor began to curve away. Her hands were pressed to the sides of her head, and she was half-crouched, as if she was about to fall.
She turned when she heard them. Her eyes were wide with shock and her mouth worked, but no sound emerged.
She lowered a shaking hand and pointed further down the hallway.
Robeth moved up beside Marjin. A jerk of his head, a nod, and she turned to face the rush of guests and guardians who were piling up behind them. Robeth moved forward slowly, dagger in his hand, while Marjin spoke.
“Calm. Calm, please. Remain here.”
He reached Tierkka. She was facing forward again, around the curve of the walls. Her whole body was shaking. He pressed a hand, carefully, against her shoulder and steered her towards the wall. He tightened his grip when she hit the stone too hard and started to slide down. He lowered her to the floor, paused to make sure that she wasn’t going to vomit or faint, and then turned towards —
He lay sprawled across the floor, arms stretched over his head, eyes open in surprise. Blood splatters decorated the walls and guest doors on his right, and more blood pooled under his head and throat. In the dark and the cold of the hallway, it had thickened quickly, like puddles of tar.
A pentagram jutted from his neck. The flesh was torn in a ragged gash, the point sunk deep into the muscle. Its silvery sheen was lost beneath the reddish-black of his blood.
Hendrikk had not died well, or quickly.
No. He had not died well, at all.
[End Part Two. Part Three will appear in the June 2022 issue of ev0ke: witchcraft*paganism*lifestyle.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]