Whew! I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen this year, but there it is! My NaNoWriMo is complete! (Now to just finish the book itself… I am aiming to do so by midnight tomorrow. Wish me luck?)
The only real problem now is to figure out the title. I can’t keep calling it the “Untitled Meta Thingy”. Can I?
Forsyth Turn has spent his whole life knowing he was only second best. His father, Master of Turn Hall, always favoured his older brother Kintyre, and Kintyre has grown to become a legend in his own lifetime: an honest to goodness hero, just like in the epic poems. With his enchanted sword, impressive physique, and loyal companion Bevel Dom, Kintyre
Turn can have any woman he wants, share the hearth of any king, and may possess any treasure he choses to retrieve.
Forsyth – gangly, stupid, and craven – wishes that he was half the man his brother was, and resents him for leaving Forsyth in charge of Turn Hall after their father died. Sure, Forsyth is decent with a blade, but that’s only because he has very little to do besides practice all day; sure, Forsyth has been named the Shadow Hand, the King’s secret spymaster, but that is only because Forsyth is too pathetic to have the sort of social life to get in the way; sure, the village girls flirt with him, but that’s only because he’s the Lord of the Shire, and they all know that eventually he is going to have to settle and produce an heir.
Nobody really needs Forsyth Turn. Nobody really wants him.
And then Forsyth’s spies rescue Lucy Piper while raiding the castle of a wanted criminal. A strange woman who may or may not be one of the Readers of Legend, Lucy comes crashing into Forsyth’s life like an errant comet. Before he knows it, Lucy has him convinced that he is the only hero who can join her on her quest to find a magical gateway back to her far-away home. She drags Forsyth away from the sedentary familiarity of Turn Hall and out onto the kind of adventure that only his brother could have imagined, testing his mettle and forcing Forsyth to confront his own lack of self-worth and the bullying that had characterized his childhood. Forsyth, Lucy insists, can be a better hero than his brother, and more than that, a good man to boot.
But the Viceroy, the very man that the Shadow Hand has been sworn to roust, is after Lucy Piper and her magical gateway as well. More than that, the Viceroy is desperate to learn the last and only secret that Forsyth cannot seem to prise from Lucy; a truth that threatens the stability of the whole Kingdom… Perhaps even their whole world.
Lucy might be able to convince Forsyth that he can be a hero, but is he good enough to beat the one villain that even the great Kintyre Turn has never managed to defeat?
Bootknife has flayed her very prettily.
Artistic tendrils of bloody ivy are torn into the vellum of the young woman’s flesh. I can see that he’d written spells and agony into the muscle he’d carved, into the wounds left by the strips he filleted from her back each time she lied to his master. It was detailed as any woodcarving for a stamp – some deep, some wide and shallow, some the merest scrape, only a layer or two of skin absent.
But it is not art.
It is torture.
I clench my hands into fists and jam them into the pockets of my house robe to keep from rushing forward and helping them unload the woman from the handcart – a Chipping Master does not dirty his hands in labour. I hear the invective in my father’s hateful voice in my head, and I take great pleasure in telling it to go drown itself. All the same, I stay back. I would only be in the way.
The body is wrapped in rough blankets, filthy and crusted with blood and other bodily fluids, which means it was probably the only protection against the chill spring morning that her rescuers could find. When I first saw it, I thought it was a corpse, brought to me for study and then burial. But no one handles a corpse with such care, and there are already three people lifting her with careful concern onto the front step.
As soon as they set her down, I see that the body is a woman, and that she is alive, but unconscious. It is a blessing. I can’t imagine how much the young woman must have been screaming before my men had forced the poppy milk down her throat. Well, yes, I suppose I can imagine it, I had seen quite enough of Bootknife’s handiwork to envision her pain. What I mean is that I do not want to imagine it, can’t bare the thought of the sounds that must have ripped her throat bloody. The medical woman, Mother Mouth, makes my two Men stop at the threshold and unwrap their burden. She assess the young woman’s injuries, and we both ensure that there are no Words of Tracing carved into the victim’s skin.
It would not do to give our enemies such advantageous leverage as to lead them straight to the Shadow Hand’s home base. No matter that it appears to be no more than the manor of silly, crumpled Forsayth Turn, younger brother to the great hero Kintyre and quite stodgily attached to his library. Even the slightest slip would bring the Viceroy down on my Chipping, and I will not have the people under my care endangered.
Assessment done, they take the woman inside and up to a wing of my home that I have not entered in years, and which I have had opened specifically for this use. It has been a long time since there has been a need for Lady’s Chambers in Turn Hall, and they have remained shut since my mother’s death, even though it is the most protected: by wards, architectural design and now, by the presence of my household guard. It has been even longer still since the need for a Lady’s maid. My staff are nearly all men. This is not out of preference, but because there are no women in my household that required women servants, and it made sense to leave the town’s supply of employable young missess for houses where they were more needed.
So once my Men are dismissed to write their reports, I help Mother Mouth lay the young lady on the bed myself, belly-down and face propped to the side with a feather pillow.
I am lucky that Cook’s daughter knows the way of serving and cleaning. I’d had her summoned straight away as soon as I had received the missive that had informed me of the success of my Men’s infiltration of the Viceroy’s hidey-hole and their unexpected rescue, and my Men’s actual arrival. I did not bother to ask why my Men were bringing the woman to me and not to the King; if the King had the security and ability to protect himself and those in his charge from the Viceroy, then he would never have secretly employed me as his Shadow Hand.
There is no where safer for the injured visitor to be spared from the renewed attentions of the Viceroy or Boothknife than Turn Hall. Not even Kingskeep.
With the young lady installed on the bed, I step back into a corner in order to remain out of the way. Mother Mouth begins the careful work of spreading tinctures and ointments on the rest, potions meant to neutralize spells and remove pain, and the gentle knifework of removing the meat that has rotted from neglect.
My staff moves around them both in an orchestrated dance, fetching in lamps and candles, water in an ewer, removing brooms and cleaning supplies, opening windows and laying a fire in the hearth. I do as I always do, what I am best at doing: I observe.
When Mother Mouth finally sits back, a smear of blood on her forehead where she had pushed her grey-streaked hair out of her face, I offer her a handkerchief. She takes it graciously, though she wrinkles her nose a little at the fineness of the fabric.
“We’ve had this discussion before,” she says. “Good silk should be saved for dressing wounds, and rough cotton for wiping faces and noses.”
“I agree, Mother,” I allow, a smile sitting in the corner of my mouth and trying so very hard to stretch into the rest of it. “However, there are expectations at court, and when one’s work relies on creating a good impression, the silk must be used for snot.”
“And that’s why I’ve no use for court, I don’t mind telling you, my boy.”
Mother Mouth rises and goes to the bag of medicines she had left on the bedside table. She pulls out phials and jars, each neatly labelled in her spiky hand. She is leaving behind tinctures and syrups to add to my young visitor’s wine when she wakes in pain, bandages and ointments enough to cover the whole of the vicious patterns on her back several times over, and then promises to return in the morning to assess her healing.
“And send for me at once should she turn feverish or her wounds begin to fester and reek,” she finishes.
“No stitches?” My memories of hearing the same thing many times before brings me around to them. Mother Mouth has sewn each of my men up at one point or another, myself included. There are none among the Shadow’s Men who do not bare the gratefully earned signature of her needle.
“No,” Mother Mouth agrees. “The slices are shallow. Where they are also narrow, there is no need. Where they are wide…” She shrugs. “I could not make the skin meet over the exposed muscle without tearing it. Better to cover it over with the salve and with Words and leave it to nature.”
I nod, well used to this particular medical woman’s pointed, and honest instructions – she is the best within an hour’s ride from my keep, and thus my preferred go-to physik. My men and I call her Mother Mouth because of her bluntness, her willingness to bully us verbally into obeying her commands, and always do so with a smile and to her face. She had another name, but had long since gamely resigned herself to this one.
“I will reapply both salve and spells personally when it is t-t-time,” I promise.
“Oh now,” Mother Mouth scolds playfully. “None of that. No need to be nervous, my boy. It’s just a woman and a bit of blood.”
“I’m not nervous of her,” I say.
She pats my arm. “Of course not. You’re a good boy, Master Turn.”
I pretend to bristle at the juvenile endearment, but it secretly pleases me. Mother Mouth has literally known me my entire life. She pulled both my elder brother and I from our mother. She set my broken arm as a boy when Kintyre dared me to climb orchard tree to the top. She has put her hands into my brother’s guts and held them in place until the Words of Healing could take hold. She closed my mother’s eyes after the fever took the Lady Turn away. She called my father’s corpse a silly shit while she cleaned it, the day he drank himself into a tumble down the foyer staircase and into his own grave. She has more than earned a right to call me her good boy, should she so choose. And I always do my best to live up to it.
Mother packs her small case and takes her leave. When my staff has finished ferrying ewers of both hot and cool water, wine, a modest bowl of broth, fresh candles, towels, my mother’s newly cleaned dressing robe, my mother’s slippers, and my portable writing desk into the room, I dismiss them to their suppers.
The cook’s daughter lingers at the door, freshly arrived and eager to be of help.
“Your name, miss?” I ask.
“Neris, you can read?”
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”
“Excellent. Here.” I hold out my hand – in it are a letter and a small sack of gold coins. She takes both.
“I would like you to return to your usual household with this and give both to your mistress. The envelope contains an apology letter to your employer, and enough coin to replace the wages she’s already paid you. I would have you here until you are no longer needed at Turn Hall. Is that acceptable?”
She smiles. “Oh, yes sir!”
“And you will move your things into the Hall come morning, won’t you Neris?” I ask. “I was grateful to have you today, and you will be of even better use when our guest wakes. I must have a young woman on staff for her, you see. I can pay double what your current employer offers.”
“Of course, Master Turn,” she says, dropping a courtesy, and vanishing in that lovely discreet way of lady’s maids the world over. It’s a vastly underprized skill.
And then my new guest and I are alone.
My skin prickles at the thought of being trapped in a room with a person I know so very little about – I am not used to being the one on poor footing – and I go to the window to try to relief the pressing sense of claustrophobia. It is silly; she is unconscious, and thanks to the poppy milk, will remain so for a good long while. I have nothing to fear from her.
Still. She is an unknown factor and I do not like those in the least.
There is a reason I’m the King’s Shadow Hand. Who better for a spy master than the man who becomes actually agitated when he feels ignorant?
The sky outside of the windows has turned an ashy blue. Rain is on the horizon and the breeze is picking up accordingly. I close the sash just enough to allow in the fresh wet air, but not enough for raindrops in when they finally start to fall. The puff of breeze against my chest, fluttering my shirt and robe, gives me a false sense of safety – I have an exit if I need one.
Now to take care of this silly fear; now I will observe the woman and decipher what I can of her, so that the anxiousness can finally abate and bugger off long enough for me to get some paperwork done.
The cloud cover is blocking so much of the sun that the room has become gloomy, and the details of the woman hard to catch. I make a second circuit for candles, which I light with a twig from the small fire in the hearth. Then I set the kettle that Cook had left on the mantelpiece onto the hook attached to the flume and wait for it to boil. A hot drink on grey day is always a comfort, and the air in my mother’s chambers is dry from being shut up for so long, so the steam will do us both some good.
That done, I pull one of the chairs that stand before the fireplace over to the bedside, and settle into lush padding.
Then I look.
The first thing that registers is that the woman is in pain, despite the sleep brought on by the poppy milk. It is obvious by the creases in her forehead and the set of her jaw. Her hair is matted with sweat and other fluids that I do not wish to consider too closely. Perhaps I had dismissed Neris too hastily – my guest could certainly do with a wash, if only for her own comfort. But I am uncertain that it would not have caused her more pain, so perhaps it is best to wait until the young woman is awake and aware and able to help the maid. Beyond that, I have no concept of who she is or where she may be from.
Any clues that might have come from her clothing were lost when Bootknife cut them off of her. Her ears are pierced but there are no jewels from which to read her origins or history, no rings, no signets, no torques. Infuriating!
Her features resemble those of no family I know, which is impressive as I have a very good head for faces. Her mouth is a small moue of pain, her cheeks full and sprinkled with sun spots, her nose adorably cute in a way that many women curse for being too childish looking. I can tell by the curve of her exposed back, where it swells into her hips at the bottom and to the sides of her breasts that she’s never starved before, never seen a rough harvest or overlong winter. She must be a well-off merchant’s daughter, and quite possibly yet another merchant’s wife. I would say a nobleman’s, but she cannot be the child of any nobleman I know from court, legitimate or not.
She could be from another, distant kingdom, but I have met much nobility from distant lands, and she does not bare the trademarks of other houses; her skin is either too light or too dark, her eyes too round or not round enough, her nose too snubbed or too high.
In short, the collection of her features does not come together to spell out her parentage.
And fantastic. I am intrigued, instantly. How long as it been since I have been gifted with such a mystery? And that she was imprisoned by the Viceroy for so long without my knowing that he had kidnapped anyone, was holding anyone at all. The Viceroy had been raiding magical archives and libraries the world over, and when I had put together the picture of that the sorts of tomes he was stealing painted, I had ordered my Men to raid and retrieve. That they had also found her was sheer coincidence.
At least, I believe it is. I cannot imagine any person would allow such agony to befall them for the sake of gaining my pity and entrance to my Hall. Spies usually do not bleed.
I cannot recall the last time something like that happened accidentally in my work, and my heart flutters against my ribs.
The entire situation is completely astounding. Magnetic. Incredible. And so impotently frustrating that I cannot know more, cannot have my curiosity slaked immediately. I wish she were awake to answer my many questions.
It is especially frustrating to admit that the only thing I can know for sure is that the Viceroy wanted something from her, and she refused to give it to him. I cannot guess what it might have been, for he has the power to take anything he wants – even her, had he so chosen. Mother Mouth had not said anything about signs of a violation, but perhaps she wanted to be delicate while my staff were in the room and she means to discuss it with me in the morning. The woman in my mother’s bed is pretty enough; the Viceroy likes the pretty ones. I recall he has a sickeningly obsessive fascination with Sir Bevel, who is plain but has eyes such a dark blue that they are an anomaly. The Viceroy often threatens to pluck them out and have them resined for jewels.
To resist the Viceroy for as long as this woman did, to keep her secrets for so many days that the pattern on her back had the time to grow so complex, must have taken real strength of spirit. As much as she must have been screaming, she had never told him what it was that he sought to learn.
I admire her greatly all of a sudden. There are very few who can keep secrets behind their teeth when Bootknife’s art is in their flesh.
That makes her beautiful to me. It does not matter how her features are arranged; her will is strong and her morals true. I allow myself to follow the soft curve of her pain-paled cheek with my eyes, the delicate protrusion of the tendons in her neck, the place where her breast presses into the blankets and is hidden under her body. I am struck with a sudden swelling of attraction and I stomp it back viciously.
No. A woman as remarkable as this, unexpectedly arriving at Turn Hall? There is only one explanation – she is for Kintyre. Women like this are always for Kintyre. He is a hero.
The kettle boils with a hiss, bringing me back to gloomy reality, and I make myself a pot of tea. Then I settle back into my chair, my portable desk on my lap and an afternoon’s worth of tedious paperwork stacked on its surface.
The only sounds that break the silence are the sputtering of the candles arrayed around the room, the slow tap of the rain just beginning to fall against the roof of the manor, and the pained, almost inaudible whimpers that my guest exhales with each laboured breath.
I dip my quill into my ink pot, and add the scratch of parchment to the quiet symphony of pain.