tagSci-Fi & FantasyDarkFyre Ch. 05

DarkFyre Ch. 05


Silmaria was on her hands and knees in the drawing room on the west side of the Manor, scrubbing at the wooden floor with a soapy rag. She was not particularly in the best of moods; some idiot had tracked dirt into the room, which was made all the worse by the fact that no one ought to really have been in here in the first place. Of course, given how downhill the upkeep of IronWing Manor was these days, it wasn't even noticed or addressed until several days later, when she got to be the lucky one to clean it. By then, the dirt had plenty of time to get good and ingrained into the wood.

The Gnari sat back on her haunches, knees drawn up to her chest as she crouched there balanced on the balls of her feet. She was exhausted. In addition to her usual duties, Silmaria was awake late into the night last night helping Lirena tend to Taleesha, whose fever had returned with a vengeance. Silmaria wasn't particularly good friends with Taleesha, but she didn't want the woman to suffer, either. The Gnari girl wasn't a healer really, but she had capable and steady hands and was familiar with the remedies Lirena liked to use. Taleesha had been delirious and blazing hot with fever through most of the night, but the fever finally settled into a low burn just before sun up. One of the other servants came to relieve Silmaria, staying with Lirena and Taleesha while Silmaria snatched an hour of sleep before rising to face the day.

A yawn overtook her and she stifled it with the back of a soapy hand, then plopped her rag into the small bucket beside her. She took a dry, much used towel and began to wipe the soapy water from the floor. All she wanted to do was get through her chores and duties and fall onto her pallet and sleep. She'd even skip dinner to go to bed early. She was lucky she wasn't falling asleep face down in this puddle right now, really...

Her sleepy musings were interrupted by a loud, booming thud bursting through the house, and she leapt to her feet and very nearly fell on her ass. She froze, waiting for more commotion, then after a few moments of silence she at last remembered to start breathing again.

"Get a grip, Sil," the Gnari girl muttered under her breath, trying to collect herself and make her heart slow. It was probably just the big, heavy doors at the foyer of the Manor being thrown open with a bit too much vigor.

She heard footsteps cutting through the dining hall adjoining to the drawing room and the foyer. Muffled voices darted back and forth in hurried conversation. At least four or five people were making their way toward the front of the Manor. Silmaria's sensitive ears twitched forward attentively, but the voices were already too far down the hall for even her to make out what they were saying. Whatever they were about, they were about it in a hurry.

Since she was finished with her cleaning anyway, Silmaria decided to let her curiosity get the best of her. She gathered her supplies and slipped quietly out the drawing room, through the dining hall, and to the foyer. More than likely it was yet more of Steward Jonor's trinkets and gaudy fineries. Deliveries didn't usually come through the foyer, but it wouldn't be the first time someone got turned around and made a mistake.

The foyer was a spacious room fit to properly welcome visitors to the wealthy and Noble house IronWing. The ceilings were vaulted, reaching high overhead. The walls were finely made oak wood trimmed in mahogany, which itself was etched and hand carved in regal, ornate designs. Great wall tapestries were spaced regularly along the walls in House Ironwing's colors of blue edged in silvered. A grand imperial staircase swept upward on the far side of the foyer to the left and the right, the steps, balusters, and rails were also a rich, dark mahogany wood. A length of carpet ran from between the feet of the either stairs forward to the front of the foyer, also in the house colors. The foyer let out into the front lawn to the south through a great pair of heavy ornate, lacquered oak doors, and continued under and past the imperial staircase and into the formal dining hall to the north. The west wall of the foyer housed a large window looking out over the western gardens, and on the east wall hung a large painting of Master Edwin's departed wife. House IronWing's coat of arms, a fierce silver Dragon with wings spread wide open on a navy blue field, hung in the middle of the balcony where the imperial stairs swept upward to meet.

A small crowd of servants had already gathered in a little knot of people in the foyer. Silmaria hung back, her ears tilted forward and her eyes studying, but as she generally disliked crowds and saw no one in this one that she was particularly fond of, she stuck to the shadows under the stairs, removed but curious what the fuss was about.

The fuss seemed to be about a stranger who'd come to the Manor. Silmaria's slitted eyes rested on the man standing in front of the small crowd and took him in. He was hard not to notice, big as he was. Silmaria guessed he was close to six and a half feet tall, and his body had the breadth and build to match. Even bundled under a thick winter traveling cloak, the Gnari girl could tell the man was solidly built, hard and muscled with broad shoulders and long, thick arms.

The man drew down the deep hood of his cloak. He was handsome, very much so, if in a road worn way. Long hair the color of burnished copper was held back in a warrior's braid grown wild and shaggy from days on the road. Even under a few layers of trail dust his skin was fair white in the way of Dale men. A thick growth of beard as brightly coppered as his head covered the man's jaw, partially hiding a solemn, watchful face.

All this Silmaria noted, yet his eyes were what held her attention fixed. Even across the room, the man's eyes were impossible to miss. They were strange and bright, an almost ethereal silver. They were intense eyes, sharp and intelligent. Unforgettable eyes.

And forget them she had not, for Silmaria knew she'd seen those eyes before. When last she saw them she was a girl, and he a growing youth just five years her elder. She remembered a scraggly boy, more legs than anything, with the short cropped hair of a squire. He had been home for a visit from court, where he had been apprenticed to the Royal Knight Brotherhood to eventually become one of their own. He was a serious boy, so serious he had frightened her a little bit. Though he had never said or done anything unkind to her, he had a quiet, brooding way about him. She'd been glad, then, that she was just a servant girl and had been able to avoid his notice.

But for all that, she had never forgotten the young Lordling's strange, beautiful eyes.

And there he was, standing there in the foyer, a man grown and the rightful Lord and Master of her home, returned at last. Silmaria stared at him, watched him, and her jaw set in stubborn anger.

She hated him. Bad enough that the Noble had left his home, his birthright, and his people in the hands of an incompetent, power grabbing, lazy oaf like Steward Jonor. Bad enough he had let House IronWing fall into neglect and disorder, let his servants and people who depended on him turn into overworked, overwrought, half-starved shadows of themselves. Bad enough that he'd never in over a year since his father's death come home to check on his holdings or his folk or shown even a hint of interest in the rights and responsibilities tied to his family inheritance.

All these paled, to her, compared to his worst crimes. Never once as Master Edwin went to his sick bed, falling more and more ill until he withered away and died, did Lord Rael choose to visit. Not even after Master Edwin died did he come. Master Edwin was a good man, a kind and honorable man worthy of love. He had been her friend, her lover, and her guiding strength. And his son didn't even have the decency to come see him buried or visit his resting place after they put him in the ground.

Silmaria blinked away angry tears, took a deep breath, and pushed her anger and hate down where it could fester and seethe. She was smart enough even in her anger to know that exploding in the man's face as he so rightly deserved would probably earn her nothing but a swift boot in the ass out of her home. She would be forced to scavenge through the cold, bleak days and nights in the empty countryside, caught in the approaching winter. Or as bad, she would have to fend for herself in the capitol city just a few miles to the west. Trelling's Rest was a hard city, especially for disgraced servants living on the streets. The winter was as harsh behind the city's old walls as it was in the exposed open country side, and she was as likely to survive winter in one as the other. Which was to say, not likely at all.

So, she wouldn't waltz up to the young Lord and spit in his face. But neither would she simper and grovel and fawn at him. She would serve, but she would be damned if she'd do it with a smile.

As she turned to retreat from the room and go find someplace quiet and secluded and far away from him, Cook jostled her elbow from behind. Silmaria was startled enough to jump, and that caused her to outright scowl then. She was deep in her head indeed, for Silmaria, with her keen ears and sense of surroundings, was usually not an easy person to sneak up on. And Cook was not precisely the quietest of people, for that matter.

Cook took no notice of her friend's sour mood, though, gawping at the tall Nobleman in the foyer as she grabbed excitedly at the Gnari girl's arm. "Look, look, that's him! Master Rael! Eldeen's balls but the man is big! Where's the scrawny lad I used to have to give extra servings to, and who is this fine specimen of a man taken his place!"

"You're drooling, Cook," Silmaria said dryly, turning her gaze back to the man in question.

"In more ways than one, Sil my girl, in more ways than...what's this, though?" Cook leaned forward, her plain face screwing up in a squint, as the woman didn't have the best of eyes anymore. "Is that a walking stick? Something's the matter with him."

Indeed, now that Cook mentioned it, Silmaria noted the way the tall man leaned heavily on a long, sturdy walking stick with his weight resting on it. When he stepped, he stepped with a limp, as if one of his legs were lame.

"He must have injured it in the war," Cook said aloud what Silmaria was thinking, only she said it in a stricken, worried tone that made the Gnari want to vomit.

"Rightly deserved, I'm sure," Silmaria muttered bitterly.

Cook rounded on her, wagging a plump finger in her face as she hissed at her not-so-quietly, "What've I told you time and again about that pretty little mouth?"

"That I've got something unsightly on it again?" Silmaria quipped, reaching up to wipe her lips.

"Don't start with me," Cook grumbled, though Silmaria could tell she was fighting not to laugh at her jest. "You know damned well if comments like that are overheard you'll be thrown out to starve, and that only if you're lucky! What's the matter with you? You've more sense than that, making snide remarks about your betters."

"That would require that man to be my better, for starters," Silmaria replied, then held up her hands as Cook's mouth went wide. "Fine, fine, I'll leave off, Cookie, don't look at me like that. You look like you're about to have an attack."

"And it'll be all your fault, if you keep on," Cook snapped, then looked at her friend curiously, shaking her head. "Really, though. Why are you being such a wretch? You should be happy. All of us ought be. Maybe now that Master Rael's returned, things'll be better."

Silmaria looked at the handsome young Lord doubtfully. Her tail whipped about behind her restlessly. "I don't think so, Cook. If he gave a damn about his House, or any of us for that matter, he would've shown it a long time ago."

"He ain't been here. He didn't know," Cook persisted.

"That's exactly my point."

"Don't you think he had more important things going on, out on the front and all?"

Silmaria shrugged her graceful shoulders and crossed her arms stubbornly beneath her breasts. "I think if he had more important things to worry about than his dying father and the state of his inheritance, that right there tells me all I need to know."

Cook harrumphed and shook her head, her patience with her friend growing thin. "Get off it, girl. And come on. Look, Steward Jonor's come out finally to talk to Lord IronWing. Come on, let's have a listen!"

With a sigh, Silmaria let Cook drag her out of the shadows under the stairs and into the small throng of servants and workers who crowded before the Nobleman.

Indeed, someone must have run to fetch the Steward and let him know that Lord Rael had arrived. The fat old man came waddling down to the main foyer as quickly as he could. He was sweating despite the cool morning temperature, fat beads rolling down his wide forehead and glinting in the thin ruins of hair on his largely balding pate. The tunic and breeches he wore were brightly colored silk in shades of burgundy and dark crimsons edged in thread-of-gold, and more costly by far than anything Silmaria had ever seen Master Edwin wear. Rings glinted on every one of the Steward's thick, blunt fingers. A pair of soft soled slippers fit his feet in colors matching his clothes. The man's small chin beard was heavily oiled and twisted into a point. He smelled of costly oils and perfumes that mingled unpleasantly with his nervous sweat. Jonor looked unsettled and tense as he clutched a silk handkerchief in a pudgy hand and wiped the sweat from his brow.

"Lord Rael! What an unexpected surprise! Welcome home!" Jonor said. His smile was exaggerated and, to Silmaria, desperate.

"You are...Jonor, yes?" The big Nobleman said after a moment. His strange eyes were studying the portly Steward closely, his silvery gaze intense and focused and not looking terribly pleased as he took in Jonor's opulent clothes.

"I am, I am!" Jonor said hastily. "We've had no report of your return, my Lord, or a feast would already be prepared! I fear you've caught me quite unaware! Oh, what a blessing to have you home after so long, my Lord! These louts must look so poorly, with no proper welcome for our Noble Lord ready to receive you. Atrocious! Inexcusable!"

"No report came because I did not send one," Lord Rael interrupted as Jonor began to glare about accusingly at the small cluster of serving folk around them. "Nor do I need a feast, or a welcome."

"Uh...very well, my Lord, of course, of course" Jonor stuttered uncertainly, his overly-enthusiastic false smile plastered to his face. He glanced around, his sweating brow suddenly furrowing. "And where would my Lord's retainers be...?"

"I've brought none," Lord Rael replied, leaning on his walking stick heavily. That was unusual, Silmaria thought; a Nobleman of Rael's rank and station, not to mention him being a Knight Captain, usually traveled with a respectable retinue of squires, personal servants, retainers and servants to see to their needs and their personal effects. For a Noble to travel alone, especially with an apparent injury, was near unheard of.

"What I need is a trencher of whatever is hot and fresh in the kitchens, and to have my things brought up to my old room," Rael said.

"My Lord's old room? Surely my Lord means to say the Master Suite," Steward Jonor asked.

Rael's piecing gaze didn't waver. "I meant what I said. My old room."

"Y-yes. Very good, Sir."

"I want the household gathered in the main dining hall. All of the serving folk and staff. I will see them when I've finished my meal."

"My Lord," Jonor said, his voice growing even more tight, though his false smile remained.

His orders given, Lord Rael made his way, limping, between the sweeping imperial stairs and under the balcony, through the archway leading into the dining hall. Cook tugged at Silmaria's sleeve and the two serving women made their way down the halls toward the kitchens.

"Well he's a serious young man, isn't he?" Cook chattered as they arrived at the kitchen. Cook set immediately to making up a plate of food for Lord Rael. Though she was less than thrilled at doing anything for the man, Silmaria nonetheless helped her friend gather up the freshest loaf of bread and a plate of roast mutton. It wasn't fine or fancy and the Gnari was sure the Lord wouldn't find it up to his standards, but it was warm and fresh and that was the best they could do right now.

"I hadn't noticed," Silmaria replied glibly. "All I noticed was Jonor sweating his fat ass off, which is about the only good thing I've seen out of all this."

"You're right about that one," Cook grinned saucily. "He looked ready to soil his silks! The crow's come to roost and that one knows it!"

"I wouldn't be so sure," the Gnari woman countered. "Sure, Jonor is going to have to watch himself from now on, but you know him. He'll slick-talk his way out of whatever comes his way. And who's to say anything's coming his way to begin with? Lord Knightly there hasn't even been here since he was a boy. He probably doesn't even remember what this place looks like when it's in proper order, so how could he recognize how bad things have gotten? And even if he does, who says he cares? I haven't seen any sign that he does."

Cook eyeballed her sternly as she vented and complained, voice growing more bitter and petulant by the word. When Silmaria finished, the older Human woman grabbed up a ladle from where it hung from a hook overhead, which was not particularly clean, and smacked the Gnari girl atop the head with it.

"Ow! Cook, what in the nine hells!"

"Mind your tongue, you stupid little girl, before you end up getting it cut out, and mine with it for being here with you! S'the matter with you, honestly."

Silmaria scowled at her friend and rubbed the tender spot atop her head. "For someone who seems to think so highly of Lord Rael, you seem awful afraid of him."

"It's not him I'm worried about, you twit," Cook replied. She brandished her ladle threateningly once again.

Silmaria hopped back out of reach, not one to be caught unawares twice. She crouched down, grinning a Cheshire grin. "Who, then?"

"Jonor, course," Cook hissed. She placed a few thick carrots onto the plate and leaned forward to speak to Silmaria in subtle tones.

Well, subtle for Cook.

"You said it yourself. Jonor is gonna slick talk his way out of whatever troubles come his way, or do his best leastwise. But I say, he's gonna face a reckoning. The young Master's no fool, mark my words, Sil. And Jonor'll take as many of us down along the way as he can in hopes of getting away clean with the things he done that he shouldn't and ain't done that he should. And you flapping your fool tongue, saying nonsense about him or Master Rael, is gonna get you the wrong kind of attention when he's needing someone to take a fall!"

Silmaria stared at the older woman for a long moment with stubborn defiance lighting her eyes. Finally, she relented, her ears drooping in resignation. "Fine, fine, you're right. Damn you."

"Damn right I am," Cook nodded matter-of-factly, as if there'd never been any doubt. "Now come along and let's get this meal delivered so we can have this meeting with the young Lord done with."

Really, it was just Cook delivering the food. Already a small gathering of servants milled about, restless and nervous in the dining hall. Silmaria positioned herself at the back of the crowd, keeping them between her and the Nobleman and standing close to the group to be as inconspicuous as possible. It earned her some odd looks from her fellows, who were used to the Gnari keeping a pretty wide distance, but everyone was too distracted by the Lord's presence to pay much mind.

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