Friday, December 3, 2010

Chapter 2: The Manor

        The LaDuce manor was an imposing building. Manor homes are frequently built that way, and in that sense it typified its purpose. It was large, made of stone, possessed numerous windows and a complex roof with peaks and towers, and it sat in the middle of a grand estate. Everything about its design bespoke power.
        What was unusual about it was its state of decay. Such homes were usually well-kept, but the LaDuce Manor had certainly seen better days. The other thing that might make an observer take note was the amount of noise and smoke that issued from behind the home.
        A black-laquered carriage with the insignia of the LaDuce family – a pair of waxing crescent moons with the one to the right side a bit larger than the other – shone silvery on the doors on either side. Behind the carriage came a plain wooden cargo wagon. They pulled to the front of the manor house, where a servant awaited their arrival.
        The servant was a tall man with slightly-ruffled black hair. He stooped slightly – the result of years of physical labor around the manor. He also had pale blue eyes and a distinctive hawk-like nose, which made him look serious, even when he wasn't. He was one of the two full-time servants still working at the LaDuce Estates, where dozens had worked in the past. He wore a threadbare black coat, emblazoned across the breast with the same double crescents as the carriage. He was known simply as Rikard.
        The driver stopped the carriage in front of where Rikard stood. The footman jumped down and handed Rikard several envelopes. He then turned and opened the door for the passengers, as Rikard perused the addressing on each of them.
        First out of the carriage came a very large, muscular man who looked uncomfortable in the finery he wore. Discernibly unaccustomed to the clothing of the upper classes: he was dressed in a formal shirt with a blue cravat and black jacket. His piercing blue eyes looked about him quickly, as if he expected physical violence at any moment, even here in this presumably peaceful setting. He also had the crooked nose of a man for whom this expectation had been learned through brutal experience.
        Next came a woman with flaming red hair. She was also dressed well, but seemed quite comfortably so. She wore a green and white garden dress with a matching bonnet and parasol. Her features were fine, but her nose was perhaps slightly oversized. Her eyes seemed to match those of the man who had preceded her, in that they were blue, and seemed to look for danger where none should be found. She accepted the footman's hand as she exited the carriage, but wore a small frown on her face as she did so.
        The third passenger was a shorter man with hair even blacker than Rikard's. He wore a cloak that faded from a pale blue at the bottom to to a darker blue in the middle and then black around the chest. It was embroidered with stars around the shoulders. He wore dark make-up around his grey eyes and he was very thin and pale. He looked unhealthy and in need of rest.
        The final passenger was a burly man with auburn hair and a long beard which were beginning to turn white with age. He was of average height, and wore a dark-brown traveling suit, with a proper tie. His dark brown eyes seemed to measure everything around him in a glance, and he carried himself with the upright bearing of a military officer.
        The footman turned again, and stepped towards Rikard. "Your Mistress's guests, sir."
        "Thank you," replied Rikard. He then addressed himself to the guests, bowing slightly. "Manservant Rikard, at your service. The Countess will greet you in the dining room, after you've been allowed to freshen up from your journey."
        Each of the male guests handed Rikard their card, except for the large muscular man, who handed him two cards: his own, and the lady's.
        "Thank you good sirs; ma'am." Rikard bowed to each of them. "If you'd please follow me?" He then led the small group to the top of the short stone stair where the footman, who had gone ahead, opened one of the doors for them.
        They entered a large foyer with a broad staircase that swept up from the center of the room to a balcony above. Rikard led them to the left of the stairs and down a hall, where there was another stairway which led to the upper west wing of the manor. The upper hallway was long and covered with faded floral wallpaper above a tarnished baseboard. Doors lined either side at regular intervals, with a large set of double doors at the far end, where another hall ran perpendicular to the one they were in.
        Each of the guests was shown to his or her room. Soon after, the wagon's team brought up all their trunks and other belongings.

        From around the corner at the end of the hall Jessa watched the arrival of the guests with great interest. It had been nearly ten years since they'd had guests at LaDuce Manor. That one must be Master Nandless, she thought to herself as she spied the burly man in the brown suit. Stories of his exploits, both in war and in hunting, were known far and wide. I wonder who the woman is. The sallow-looking fellow must be the Dreamer. That leaves the large one as the Lady's bodyguard, probably. He certainly doesn't look or act like a servant would.
        Jessa turned quickly and ran up the north hall to find her brother Jens. Where is that boy? She found him in the kitchen with Nansi, who was scolding him and immediately included Jessa in her reproach.
        "Where have you been, young lady?" Nansi squinted one eye at Jessa suspiciously. "Spying on the guests, I'd wager."
        Jessa lowered her head. "No I wasn't!"
        "You're lying girl, and don't think I don't know it when you do!"
        "No, I'm not! And I'm no girl. We'll be twenty-three this year. Just because Jens and I are small for our age doesn't make us children."
        Nansi arched her eyebrow at Jessa. "So you say, girl, but it's not size as makes you grown up. It's how you act. And right now you're acting like a girl. Stop your pouting and help your old Nansi. We've guests, as you well know, and I'll need a bit of help in treating them rightly."
        Jessa and Jens were small in stature, but both evinced all the traits of being adults. In just the last year Jens had grown a couple of inches. He was also more muscular, and had finally begun growing a bit of wispy blonde hair on his chin. Jessa had been late in beginning her menses – not until she was twenty, in fact – but seemed to have blossomed into full womanhood in just a year afterwards. In fact, they both appeared to be full-grown adults, but scaled down.
        Jens was only about Five feet and maybe three inches tall, where Jessa was only a hair higher than five feet. They shared most traits in common: honey-blonde hair, large green eyes, narrow and slightly pointed noses. They were also of slight build, even for their small stature.
        Nansi handed a large pitcher of water to each of them, and put some towels over their arms. "You need to get these up to our guests quickly. They'll be wanting to wash the road off of them. I expect you know where the Lady's room is, Jessa. You serve her first. Jens can go to any of the other three rooms, but you'd best both come back right quick for to serve the other two."
        Jens began, "But Nansi, we're no servants!  You can't tell us-"
        Nansi cut him off with a glare. "Servant or no, these are the guests of the Countess! Now look sharp, and no more of your tongue!"
        The pair of them hustled out of the kitchen, Jessa leading the way. She led her brother to the back hall and up the staircase. She pointed Jens to the door of the room with the Dreamer in it. Priests gave her the creeps. Let Jens deal with him! Then she went on to the Lady's room.

        At first she thought she'd knocked on the wrong door, as the large man opened it. Jessa hesitated.
        "Come in," came the woman's voice from inside. Jessa looked past the man and saw her standing near the back windows. She turned to Jessa and motioned her to come inside. "Mr. Insel may look like a beast, but I assure you he has the heart of a kitten."
        Mr. Insel gave her a smile that was missing a few teeth, and stepped aside. Jessa bowed her head briefly and entered the room. She then went to the washbasin and poured in half the contents of the pitcher. She sat the pitcher to the left of the basin, and the towels to the right side, all the while watching the two guests in the mirror in front of her.
        Jessa turned towards the woman and curtsied. "I'm Jessa. And to whom do I have the pleasure of addressing myself?"
        The woman suppressed a small smile. "My name's Elinge. Elinge Froske. And I see if you have any training it's as something other than a maid."
        Jessa blushed. "Apologies, Ma'am. I'm afraid I don't. It was wrong of me to introduce myself. Please forgive me."
        "It's quite all right. I don't expect you've received very many guests out here since the Count Passed into The Dream."
        "No, Ma'am. None that I can remember since I was ten. That was for Elinora's Passing. It seems we only have guests when something sad happens." She tilted her head to one side. "Has something sad happened again? Is that why you're here?"
        "Well, the impudence of your questioning a guest aside, I'm afraid I do not know." Elinge winked at Jessa. "My presence was requested by the Countess, but no explanation was forthcoming. Have you any ideas as to why the Countess would invite me or any of the others here?"
        "No, Miss. I have no idea. I expect she'll tell us at dinner. Did you all receive the same kind of request?"
        "Us, you say? Interesting. So you'll be dining with us, then? I suspected you were something other than a servant."
        "We usually do dine together. It's one of the rules."
        There was a knock at the door. Mr. Insel opened it to reveal Jens standing there with another pitcher of water.
        "Jessa," he began. "Nansi wants you back downstairs. Now."
        Jessa stiffened, and addressed Elinge more formally. "If you'll excuse me, Ma'am. Will there be anything else?"
        "No, Jessa. You may go."
        Jessa all but ran out of the room. Mr. Insel closed it behind her.
        "Just like you to leave me all the work, Jessa," complained Jens.
        "I'm sorry. She kept asking me questions."
        After another brief lecture by Nansi, Jess came back up with another pitcher and set of towels.  She left them in Mr. Insel's room, which was unoccupied for the moment. She then went to clean herself up for dinner.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chapter 1: The Eyes

       The Patrons of the Carter's Rest Inn were in high spirits tonight, and Nodge Prayner was no exception. The music was loud, the girls were dancing and Nodge had just been paid.
        Mistress Welman and her maids were serving up drinks as fast as Jaik could pull them. It was always like this just before the start of the Changeling Festival. People were tired of working all summer and worried about the coming winter, and trying to find some time to enjoy their lives in between.
        Nodge had already had a few ales more than he normally would have, but he was determined to make the best of the night. This was going to be his last night of freedom for some time, as he'd gone down to the docks yesterday and joined the Palonian Navy. He would be assigned to a ship tomorrow, and gone the day after that: sailing the seas and seeing what the world had to offer.

        Nodge's parents, Novril and Ella Prayner, were unhappy about this decision, but he'd made up his mind. He knew was never going to be a rich man, so this was his best chance of seeing the world. Besides, the pay was good, and the opportunities to gain status were better in the military than if he stayed and worked in his father's bakery.
        Nodge tried to explain his reasons to his father, but Novril took the decision as an insult to himself and his profession. His reaction had been to become angry and shout at Nodge a lot, while Ella simply cried. 
        "Do you see what you're doin' to your mother?" His face grew redder moment by moment, as he pointed at Ella, who sat at the table weeping with her face buried in her hands. "She don't want her idiot son gettin' himself killed on account o' some bickerin' 'tween lords or somesuch! And all you'll be is the smallest pawn in their bloody games. How can you not see that?"
        "But, Dad, It's not -" Nodge tried to respond. His father was in no mood to listen, though.
        "My own dad was a baker as was my granddad. It's what's kept us fed an' with a roof over our heads. We may not be rich, but we're better off than most and you've never wanted for anything! How can you just walk away like that? How can you throw your own life and your family, and all our work away like that? You think your better'n me and your granddad, is that it? You're too good for the life we've struggled to build for you and your sister?"
        "No dad, of course not. But I -"
        "Shut your mouth, you wastrel. Spend all your time down the taverns drinkin' and whorin' and -" It was at that point that Ella's crying became a loud wailing.
        "Is that what he wants? That why he's runnin' off like this?" She was hysterical. "I thought he was a good boy! But, now I find he's runnin' off to find loose women in strange ports. Is that what this is all about?" She wailed again and fled up the stairs.
        Novril started in again. "That's it. You're killin' your ma. Get OUT!  Get out of our house and I never wanna see your ungrateful face again!" Novril all but picked Nodge up and bodily threw him out into the street.

        Nodge shuddered at the memory, and took another huge gulp from his mug of ale. It was their eyes that had disturbed him most. His mother's had flowed freely, puffy and red. His father's had gleamed like hardened steel – full of anger and betrayal. He never wanted to see eyes like that again.
        What do they know, anyway? They've never been anywhere or done anything but bake loaves and sweets all day. That was fine, as far as it went, and maybe someday he'd settle down to a steady business like that himself. But before that day came, Nodge wanted to explore – to see what opportunities lay over the horizon ... and if he fell into the arms of a comely lass or two along the way, what was the harm in that?
        As it happened there was a lovely girl, dark of hair and eye, who'd been giving him quick smiles all night. Perhaps it was time to introduce himself. Besides, if things didn't go well, it's not like he'd be in Ayrst much longer anyway. He drained the last bit of courage from his mug, and strolled confidently – or as confidently as a young man who drew his courage from a cup could – up to the woman sitting in the corner.
        "Hello, ma'am," he began as he bowed. "My name's Nodge, and I couldn't help but notice – even from across the room – that you have the most lovely and mysterious eyes." She offered her hand, and he took it, bowing. "Would you be so kind as to allow me a dance?"
        She blushed slightly and stood. She gave him a small curtsy. "Gladly," was all she said, and then they were dancing.
        She moved gracefully, and she wasn't shy about holding him close. They danced through two numbers before she asked him for a drink.
        He waved at the nearest serving girl and motioned for two fresh mugs of ale. They sat together on a bench against the back wall of the common room, beneath the loft above, where shadows danced darkly in the light of the fireplace.
        "Thank you for the dance," Nodge said. He was slightly out of breath. "Where did you learn to dance so well?"
        "Oh, here and there," she replied. "I've had a little practice. You dance rather well yourself." She gave him a warm smile.
        Nodge blushed. "Oh, but nothing like you, umm ... miss?"
        "Please forgive me," she said. "I'm Lily." She once again offered her hand.
        "I'm very pleased to finally meet you, Lily. A lovely name for a lovely girl."
        The serving girl returned with their mugs and hurried on. Nodge took a sip of his.
        "Oh, I'm so sorry," began Lily. "I had hoped for some red wine." She looked at Nodge with a hopeful expression.
        "Anything for you, m'lady. I'll take this back."
        "No, no. Just keep it for later, after we dance some more, you're going to be thirsty." She winked at him.
        Nodge stood and bowed to her. "I'll be right back with your wine. Then I'll join you for a drink and another dance."
        "I'll guard these with my life." She laughed as she motioned to the two mugs of ale that sat on the bench.
        A few moments later, Nodge returned with a pair of full wine glasses. "If I'm to drink two more mugs of ale, surely you'll be thirsty enough for another glass of wine."
        Lily stood, took the two glasses from him, drained one in a single gulp, and sat both of them next to his two mugs. She took his hand and pulled him back onto the dance floor. She pulled him closer and looked up at him. He could get lost in those dark eyes ... her smile ... her smell. They danced for what seemed like eternity. 
        Finally, he had to beg off for a moment's rest. The inn wasn't as crowded as it had been, so their seats were still available, and their mugs and glasses stood undisturbed. Nodge sat and took a big gulp, while Lily put her arms around his neck and sat in his lap. She nuzzled against his neck, giggling.
        "Aren't you tired?" He asked Lily.
        "Maybe a bit. What about you?"
        "Yes, but with you around, I think I could stay up 'til morning."
        She gave him a mischievous grin, and pulled herself a little closer. She whispered in his ear ... and the next thing he knew he was using the last of his coin to rent them a room upstairs for the night.

        Nodge couldn't believe his luck. Where had this girl been all his life? And why did he have to meet her tonight, right before he was to leave Ayrst for gods knew how long? He was determined to make the most of this night with her, at least.
        After the serving girl left them alone, Lily leaned against the door. She sat her still-undrunk glass of wine on the mirrored dressing-stand. Then she went to the window and opened it. The night air was cool but pleasant, as the curtains billowed in the breeze.
        "Put out the lamp," she said. "Then sit on the bed." Nodge didn't hesitate. 
        He could just make out her shape in the light of the moon as she unlaced her corset. She still danced in a strange way ... so fluidly. She seemed to bend in places a body shouldn't bend. Maybe it's just the drink, he thought to himself. I have had quite a bit.
        "Now close your eyes, and I'll give you a surprise."
        He did as he was told, and realized he could barely sit up. Did I really drink that much? He was suddenly afraid he would pass out. He fell backwards on the bed.
        Nodge heard a noise at the window. He opened his eyes, but all he could see was the ceiling spinning above him in the pale light reflected off the mirror. He struggled to sit up before he heard Lily's voice in his ear.
        "Be still my sweet. It will all be over soon." That seemed a strange thing to say. Wait. Who's voice was that?
        "Lillleee ..." He could barely slur out her name. "Wha'sh happening? Ish shomeone in here wit' ush?"
        He finally managed to sit up. From the window approached a bulky figure. It was something inhuman – unlike anything he'd ever seen before – a nightmare made shadowy reality. He could barely make out anything in the darkness, but it had a large, bulbous head with a long snout ringed with small sharp teeth that glistened in the moonlight.
        But it was at the eyes that he couldn't stop staring: or rather, it was where the eyes should have been. In their place were a pair of long tentacles, reaching out towards his own face. What in all the hells is that?
        The voice continued, "Don't be frightened. You'll be in a better place soon." He could almost feel the lips against his ear, but he couldn't turn his head. He couldn't look away from the monstrosity before him. 
        The creature moved closer and leaned over him. Nodge felt hands on his shoulders, pushing him back down onto the bed. Then he felt his arms being pulled over his head, and a tightness around his wrists. He was powerless to resist. The creature was on him ... he could feel its weight, holding him down while the world was spinning. I'm going to be sick, he thought.
        "No," came yet another voice, seemingly from inside his own head. "You're going to die."
        He could hear screaming from somewhere. That's me. I'm the one screaming. Why does it sound so far away?
        Screaming, however distant, was the last thing Nodge Prayner ever heard.