Crofton Fief was nowhere near a site where people could be found in the most ubiquitous manner.
It seemed like winter all the time. The sky was bleak and bland - there was no way to know when it was day or night. A murder of crows screeched and rested on dead black skeletons of trees that must have lived and died before the Iron Age. The air was stale, silent, still… the party, all of whom were riding towards the town, shivered with both and eerie discomfort and chilliness.
Chance wrapped himself in his worn out cloak that he depended on for two years. It had since lost its ability to warm him, but he still clung onto it. It was like a bridge from the life he had that he didn’t remember and his life now. It was a strand of hope that made him believe that perhaps he could find his past, so long as he kept it. The body, made of crushed velvet, had faded and no longer felt soft. Its clasp was gone and he had made up for it with a cheap wooden button and a cut in the other side of the fabric.
“This place gives me a chill,” whispered Nóe. He shivered as if an insect crawled down his spine.
No one spoke. It was either a reverence or a fear that crept into their souls as they crossed the land. There was a feeling that people died on the infertile fields, broken roads, and among the sparse black trees. The fear that made their stomachs drop was that the silence made their hairs stand on end. A perpetual sensation of someone standing behind them, breathing on their necks, waiting to strike, made even Breixo glance over his shoulder. He locked eyes with Chance for a short second before he straightened again.
The castle wasn’t any more comforting.
Coming over the horizon like a running sick dog, the castle just barely stood, looking more like an old and crooked tree. It was black, like the rest of the land, and it leaned over on itself rather than standing tall like a good keep.
The architects must’ve been hasty, thought Chance, a foreboding embedding itself in his heart. Its terraces, balustrades, buttresses, and towers sagged in the most pitiful way. It was dark and dying, like the rest of the fief.
Breixo let out a shaky sigh. “If we get in and out… we’ll be fine. All fine.”
Lord Crofton, like his fief and keep alike, was dark and dying. His face was like parchment attempting to stretch over a brittle skeleton, and his grey beard was hanging onto his chin like a spiderweb - literal spiderwebs covering his chin could have been a believable notion, however, as Breixo had thought. This man was as ancient as the trees. Small spectacles sat on the bridge of his hawk-like nose, pinching it into subjugation. His lips were like a slit of scarlet red against his snow white skin. His cheeks were pinched and as grey as his colorless and beady eyes. His stature was like a skeleton’s as well, with knobby and arthritic joints. When he stood he bent over a blackthorne cane.
What was surprising was his lion-like voice and young movement.
Breixo bowed and Chance noticed his lips silently moved to the words: ‘Please don’t kill me.’
“It’s past sundown,” roared Lord Crofton. His voice was young and ambitious, contrasting boldly with his spindly appearance.
I couldn’t see that, Chance was tempted to huff, peeking through the high stained glass windows of the throne room. It was just as bleak as it was before sundown, and he saw no change. One had to have lived in the fief long enough to dictate, ‘It’s night!’, and to wake up and say with confidence, ‘It’s morning!’
No wonder no one lived here.
“Here’s the tiara,” announced Breixo, picking out the bright silver crown from his crossbody satchel. He held it in front of him and invited the Lord Crofton to come forward for it.
The lord glanced behind the team, and out of nowhere, it seemed, three black-caped rangers integrated themselves in the small crowd and one took the crown. They simultaneously marched forward and presented the tiara to their master.
Abrupt, but something to learn from. Interesting. Are they the sole inhabitants of this fief?
Crofton inspected the crown closely and rose a grey brow. “Luminously driven in craft,” he mumbled. “What a sapphire! How colorful and large! An envy! What a jewel!”
Chance glanced at Breixo, who tried to stay even and cool, but his breathing was stuttering and a bead of sweat ran down his temple.
Breixo was sincerely afraid of the Lord Crofton.
"With every respect, my lord," Breixo asked with a quivering voice, "why a tiara?"
The lord rose a brow at his worker as if he asked for it back. "The tiara was just to spite Her Highness. A humiliation. Bryngaer is nowhere near the splendor of the royal crown, you understand? And the death of the king?"
Nóe nodded. “If he’s not dead now, he will be soon.”
Chance was sickened by their indifference. He didn’t want to be so soft; Breixo had given a few more strikes until they officially let go of him. Nevertheless, it was wrong to see the death of the king as a favor to the world. Chance massaged his upset stomach.
“You succeeded in an excellent job,” the spindly lord extolled as he tossed the crown to the ranger to his right with disinterest.
“Our two ffyrch?” Breixo reminded calmly.
Crofton smirked. “You have the mind of a solemn salesman, my good sir Breixo.” He nodded to the left ranger.
The black-caped, red-bearded ranger produced a bag filled with fifty drauffyrch. He tossed it into Breixo’s ready and effortless hand. The gold coins, with their sparkling smiles, gleamed up at their new owners. Breixo dumped the burlap pouch into his crossbody, to be split up once business was done.
“And the other end of the deal?”
Chance frowned. What other end was there? He relayed the business letter sent to them a month ago.
“Aye,” Breixo said with a tell-tale sparkle of betrayal in his eyes. With no warning, he grabbed Sa’di by the hair and pushed him into the last ranger. The old man yelped and tried to protest. “One palace slave.”
“I’m not a slave anymore!” cried Sa’di as the ranger wordlessly locked his arms behind his back. “Leave me out of this!”
Breixo smirked and waggled the pouch of money in front of his face in a taunting manner. “You’re naïve for an elder, to say the least, Sa’di,” he half whispered. “I told you; I haven’t worked with you for a long time nor are you my friend. What you didn’t know is that you turned your back on me the moment you agreed to help us. Plus,” he straightened and stood at full height. “My men want as many drauffyrch as possible.”
Sa’di’s expression was one of fury and beet-red shame.
“Enjoy Crofton Fief,” wished Breixo as the elder was dragged off and down the echoing hall.
His screams for mercy were cut off by the long sound of the high oak door shutting him out.
Crofton watched the whole exchange with a wide smile on his face. Once the door was closed and the slave was silenced, he applauded Breixo giddily.
“The true mind of a mercenary!” he praised. “Brava, brava, bravissima!”
Chance was disgusted to the pit of his stomach. How could this old, weathered lord find so much fun in the misfortune of Sa’di? Misfortune was an understatement- torment was more like it. Better yet, the digging up of old wounds of slavery.
However, he straightened and said nothing.
Toughen or be tossed, he replayed in his head. This is the way of life.
Interesting fact: Sa'di's name literally means 'luck, fortune'. I'm sorry, I needed some REALLY bitter irony in there.