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The Thinning Veil
The roots of Lockheer sank deep into the earth, dank and ancient, lacking for the most part, the upkeep the upper levels boasted. There were basements and sub-basements where stores were kept, provisions and arms and unused furnishings, all the varied things a keep might collect over a span of centuries. And then below that, at the very depths of the castle, the places where, in the darker ages of men, prisoners were kept, more secure than the lords in their tower suites.
Down narrow stairs that Gavin had never traveled, despite years in the garrison at Lockheer. The place smelled of mold and age and rusting metal. The walls were slick with moisture on the lowest level, water leeching in from some underground branch of the river, perhaps. Halls with low ceilings and rough-hewn walls, flanked here and there by thick wooden doors hinged with rusting iron. The torches held by the guards guttered, serving only to make the shadows more lurid, more threatening to a man brought here against his will.
That they brought him here at all, down into the depths of the earth to this untended place, when there were sturdy rooms with locks on the doors in the barracks, where a questionable man might be detained while a higher authority decided his fate, boded ill. As they marched him down those steps, Gavin's mind dredged up myriad reasons why they - - Sir Simon and his noble backer - - might wish him far removed from the rest of the garrison. To keep a mob of angry men from him, perhaps, until they could investigate the matter; the most reassuring theory he had by far. Or, to keep him from proclaiming his innocence to men who might very well believe him, having served with him and lived with him for long enough to know plain murder was not in his nature.
He'd demanded, after he'd regained his senses, that someone fetch Sir Liam or Sir Niccoli, the both of whom would stand for for him, he was sure, but none of his guardians had responded, other than to snarl at him to be silent and jerk him more harshly along in their wake. And no few of these men he knew. Not intimately, though, these men-at-arms serving under Sir Simon's command, or the knights directly under Sir Simon's authority. Not a man of them had ridden under Gavin's command, or that of his close comrades.
They reached a broader chamber, lined with barred niches and thrust him against a wall, hand between his shoulders to keep him there while they fumbled with a rusted lock. A few muttered complaints passed among them when metal melded by rust protested movement. Cheek against moist rock, Gavin could see the faintest suggestions of shapes in the dark chamber beyond, Just shapes in the darkness, of the instruments that might be found in a dungeon of old, dull and ominous.
He'd stopped trying to reason with them, some floors above. A waste of breath, when they were angry and scared and following orders. He was still wet from the rain, as most of them were, but none of them had blood in the mix. Haden's blood. He could smell it on him. Or perhaps that was simply the acrid scent of rust.
They managed to yank the door of a cell open, not a wooden door, but bars, the doors of a cage where there was no hiding within. No space to even stand upright when they pushed him in. He scraped the top of his head against the ceiling, went down to his knees at the unexpected blow and knelt there in dirt and debris, the cell hardly as long as his body from door to back and sloping down towards the far side. More a cubby than a cell, and they slammed the door on him, muttering under their breaths as they did. Angry things, directed at him. They hadn't unbound his hands. A small cruelty, compared to the larger one of retreating and taking the torches with them.
"Leave a Xera be damned torch at least," he yelled at them, shoulder against the bars of the door. He cursed, casting a quick, wary glance around the edges of the cell while there was still light enough to see if there were anything nesting here with him that he ought to beware.
He sat there, not daring to move, as the last of the light disappeared and thrust the whole world into the sort of stygian darkness one only imagined in nightmares. For long moments there was only the sound of his breathing, the rush of blood in his ears, then the faint, drip drop of water made itself known and after that a distant scurrying of some small creature in the darkness.
Goddess. He drew his knees up, concentrating on calming his breathing, on forcing back the bile that wanted to creep up his throat. He was a knight protectorate and he had walked the bloody field of battle among the corpses of friend and foe alike. That was hell on earth. This was simply a dark cell and no great torment beside the feel of an earth soaked with blood, squelching under his feet. Or sitting amidst a hundred - - a thousand dead and dying men on the occasion of his first foray into the wholesale slaughter of a pitched battle - - and rocking with the shock of simply being alive.
He drew a series of slow breaths, frustrated that no amount of time allowed his eyes to adjust to the pitch blackness. The lack of even shadowed shapes was disconcerting. He worked at the leather binding his wrists, trying to loosen them before the rain drenched straps tightened as they dried.
It was painful work, loosening leather enough to slip his hands free and his wrists were bloodied afterward. Well worth the effort though, not to be bound in this darkness with unseen things beginning to venture forth, now that the light was long gone. He rattled the bars, testing the strength of the cell and found them fast, despite their age. Sat finally with his back against the stone next the bars and tried to wrap his mind around what had happened.
Haden dead by an assassin's blade. A blade that happened to be Gavin's own. It had been in his room, left by necessity to attend a feast where no weapons were allowed. Had it been chance that the murderer had slipped into his room to steal a weapon, or design? It seemed unlikely that any man bent on the destruction of another would enter the keep unarmed, hoping to find a weapon on his way. And Lady preserve, but Sir Simon had arrived quickly, as if he'd already been in route, summoned perhaps as Gavin had been summoned, to witness the aftermath of the crime.
Haden, being who he was, a man in charge of no small portion of the king's fighting force, a lord of no small repute who had the ear of the king as well as his regard, a man who spoke his mind regardless of popular opinion - - Well, there were more reasons probably, that certain men might want him dead, than Gavin could conceive. Niccoli had told him once that he'd gladly live penniless and without influence on the boarders of the kingdom, fighting mountain tribesmen, than have to live in the bloodthirsty world of Genothian nobility. That no one of them was not engaged in layer upon layer of plotting.
The fact that there was a lord here, a duke of the realm who wished things that Haden had opposed - - there was no more logical deduction than that his presence and Haden's assassination were no coincidence. Even Sir Simon, who lived and breathed to emulate all things high blooded, ought to be able to make that connection, when he took the time to ponder the matter. Once tempers had cooled, he'd listen with a clearer head to what Gavin had to say.
Hours passed and the scurrying things were cautious in avoiding him. The sense of the river, or the underground tributary that traveled beneath it pulsed beyond the rock walls. He could feel it, off and on, with that erratic sixth sense of his, the constant rush of water - - the immense power of it, slowly, subtly wearing away the subterranean rock that channeled it. Almost like it were a thing alive. The moment the thought crossed his mind, the feeling intensified, of some single-minded, sinuous 'being' slipping under and around the ponderous bedrock in which the castle was rooted.
He shook it off, spooked enough already. Drew his knees up tighter and wrapped arms around them to ward off the damp chill. He dropped his forehead, possessed of the rare talent of seasoned warriors to snatch what rest they might, even in tenuous positions. There was no difference between the dark of closed lids, than there was when his eyes were open. He dozed.
Finally, after an indeterminate amount of time, he was roused by another of the senses of a battle-trained man, the sense of the approach of other men. He snapped to awareness quickly and saw the faint glow of approaching light, before he actually heard the sound of footsteps.
A group of men approached, armed guards, Sir Simon and a grey robed priest clutching a leather-bound scribe's kit to his chest. Gavin could well understand why the young priest might be spooked, descending into this little visited pit.
Gavin made no move to shift from the comfortable position he'd found and watched warily as Sir Simon approached his cell, flanked by two of the guards, while the others found brackets to settle their torches. Still more hung back in the shadows, more men by far than might be needed to subdue one unarmed man.
Simon stared down at him, stern faced, disdainful. Not so different as the look he usually reserved for Gavin, only now, Gavin found himself at a distinct disadvantage.
"You never bothered to close the gates, did you?" Gavin said, feeling a bit of disgust well up himself. "Never bothered to look for a man attempting to flee the keep."
"Why should I have, when the culprit was secure in my grasp?"
"More the fool you, then," Gavin snarled, desperation shattering his hold on calm. The guard closest slammed the shaft of his spear against the bars hard enough to dislodge rust.
Gavin flinched minutely, set his mouth and glared up at Simon.
"We require a confession," Simon declared finally, explaining the presence of the priest. "You will give it willingly and justice will be meted out quickly and without undue pain."
Gavin laughed, a humorless exhalation of air. "Is that all? Simple then. A page came to my room and told me Knight Commander Haden required my presence upon the south tower. I complied. He was dead when I got there, and freshly so. I cried for help and you arrived quickly enough and with force, that a man might think you were prowling the halls below, waiting for the call."
Sir Simon narrowed his eyes. "I was on my way to the commander's quarters when the boy raised the alarm. It was not my blade that took his life."
"It was not my hand that wielded it," Gavin rose to his knees, clutching the bars. "My rooms were untended during the feast. Anyone could have taken the knife."
"I saw you with the blade in hand. His blood still stains you," Simon sneered. "And yet you scramble to place blame elsewhere."
"I'm telling you the truth, damnit."
"The truth is that if he called you at all, it was for censure, and in your drunken anger, you struck him down."
"I did not!" Gavin cried, shaking the implacable, rusty bars. "I loved him as a father."
"He seems more willing to concoct lies than give an honest confession," one of the men who had hung back with the guard moved into the light. The Duke of Idago himself, who strolled into the dim light, pausing to run his fingers over the edge of some ominous, wooden contrivance of old.
"I think," the Duke said. "That we waste valuable time, seeking honesty from an assassin who has spent a lifetime living a lie."
"Sekkish spy," One of the Duke's guards spat low, under his breath.
The duke smiled and waved the man into silence. "You've given him the chance to admit to a lesser crime, Sir Simon," Idago said in mollification. "A man striking out in anger at another for some perceived wrong is a more honest crime than one planted among us, biding his time to strike."
"Goddess - -" Gavin breathed. "No - -"
Sir Simon gave him a long look, an almost sad expression in his eyes. "Rash and unsuited for the title of knight he might be, my lord - - but a spy?"
Idago laid a consoling hand on Sir Simon's shoulder. "No man likes to think he's fallen prey to the duplicity of another for so long a time - - but there's little shame in it. The Sekks are a crafty, treacherous people, bred for deceit. We'll find the truth of the matter. Allow me to deal with him. My men hold no tenuous loyalty to this man and will not hesitate to wrench the truth from him."
"Simon, you can't believe this. The only man here who gains advantage from Haden's death is the one who wished the mines open when Haden opposed it," Gavin started, and the butt of a spear shot through the bars, slamming against his shoulder. He sprawled backward, pain sharp and deep where the butt had struck.
"Watch your tongue, spy," the man spat, and behind him another guard approached. Sir Dwayne stood looking down, a sneering half smile twisting his face.
"We'll have that confession for you soon enough, my lord," the knight promised. "You just leave it to me."
* * *
The lady of the Lhesa herself prepared the body of Knight Commander Haden. She along with an elderly, robed priest of Xera who quietly whispered rites over the body, in the privacy of the commander's room, while Niccoli DeLathe stood guard, refusing to leave the task to another, in the outer chamber.
He stood rigid, at attention, back to the doorway, assuring the sanctity of the ritual, feeling very little of anger, or grief or disbelief. Just a very great numb. A cold barrier almost, that crowded out louder emotion. Liam had been very loud. Very angry. Violent almost in his reactions. Demanding to see Gavin and find the truth of the matter himself. Almost Niccoli had no desire to know. Truths of matters were often painful. People more often than not, disappointed. Long experience had taught him that. But they would find the truth, Sir Simon and Sir Liam, Niccoli felt confident of that, whether it be a truth Niccoli wanted to hear to not.
But Niccoli couldn't think on it. Couldn't turn over possibilities in his mind. Reason or culprits or scenarios. He couldn't get past the numb. Retribution he would have delivered, if this had happened on the field of battle. Instinct and anger might have played a greater role in his reaction if the blood lust had already been upon him. If he'd seen the blade that had taken a life precious to him, he might have cut a swath through the field to challenge it. If it had been an anonymous strike, then he'd have worn himself to exhaustion and beyond, reducing the number of enemies on the field.
It made a difference when there was no field of battle and no enemy force to focus his rage up on. There was no honor in wailing his grief to the heavens in a castle of comrades. Even if one of them had possibly taken the life of a man he'd deeply respected. No honor.
Haden had never wavered in his duty, or his honor. The politics he'd played had been straightforward and as honest as any man in power could make them. He'd been feared because of it, respected for it. The King's Sword Arm, he'd been called. Steadfast in his loyalty. The finest man Niccoli DeLathe had ever known. He had joined the Knight protectorates a disillusioned youth, who'd read of honor and the ideals of knighthood in books, but seen little of it in the world of Genothian nobility. Haden had taught him the true meaning of it. Had shown him that men of true power used it wisely, to protect those who could not protect themselves instead of grinding them under foot on the path to coveting wealth and power.
And Haden lay cold and still in the room beyond and it still rang unreal in Niccoli's head. Death a great dawning mystery to Niccoli, who had dealt no small bit of it himself, yet had never had it touch him so closely, so dearly as it had now. He had lost a brother when he'd been a child. A brother who'd coveted the title of heir and sought to kill the eldest of DeLathe's sons. And failed. Niccoli only had vague memories of him, a cold, malicious boy who'd been at school in the capital most of Niccoli's young life. He'd been more upset over his mother's hysteria than the bloodless corpse of a sibling he'd hardly known. He'd been six.
"Sir knight," The Lady of the Lhesa stood at his shoulder and he'd not even heard the swish of her skirts. "It is done."
Niccoli swallowed, swung his head, a quick, unwilling glance into the inner chamber where the Knight commander lay in his finest garb, body cleansed and scented under a gauze shroud. The priest still stood vigil, gently trailing smoke from the wand of incense in his hand.
Niccoli nodded, looking away. They would take him to the small keep chapel, where they would seal in him in a box with dried herbs and scented salts, to be carried the long trip home. Haden had estates of his own, and a family name of repute, and a daughter that would want to see over his burial. Niccoli had met her once, in Anelthar. He nodded to the young page, who crouched, red eyed and pale, against the wall down the corridor. The boy swallowed, and rose, hurrying off to bring the guard that would take the knight commander to the chapel.
"Is it true," the Lady of Lhesa spoke quietly at his shoulder. "That Sir Gavin committed this crime?"
Simon had been adamant that rumors not spread and inflame the whole of the keep, until they'd uncovered the truth. But there were no preventing whispers entirely from shocked, grieving men. It would be known keep wide by mid-morning, more than likely.
"I don't know, Lady." He stared at the opposite wall, harder not to think on it when she asked him direct.
She stood a moment, a quiet presence and a weary one. "If he did, then he deserves the fate justice will met out. But I find it hard to believe that Sir Gavin would raise a hand against the commander."
He recalled Gavin saying that she and the Knight commander had shared a certain confidence, the knight commander being long widowed. Niccoli paid little heed to such things, but Gavin generally did not pass unfounded rumors, so he supposed it must have been so. Whether Gavin had or not, and in his heart of hearts, he hoped not, calm heads would find the truth.
"Men do things often, that they come to regret," he said finally, because she was a pressure at his side that seemed not willing to let up, until he answered. He looked at her finally, at her tired dark eyes and the lines on a face that had aged most gracefully. A handsome woman who guided an honored, Goddess-blessed profession.
"I'm sorry," she said it to him, when by all rights, he ought to have offered the sympathy to her, who had likely held intimacies he had not with the commander.
He swallowed, not knowing what to say. Not sure he could have uttered a word, with the lump in his throat. So he stared at the wall and eventually she retreated back into the antechamber.
* * *
Gavin's lungs burned. Blood pounded, gathered in his head, and even with eyes squeezed shut, there was red around the darkness. He was dying, drowning, dunked head first into a trough of cold water. It wasn't the first time. But this time - - this time - - he thought, they'd pushed him beyond his limits. His body wracked from lack of air, thrashed uselessly against the bonds in death panic, until awareness began to go dark, and then he was coughing up water, drawing in precious oxygen. Alive despite the odds.
He sputtered, still coughing, trying to focus on the dim shapes, trying to find the enemy. Not that he was capable of defense, hung from the ankles by rope they'd looped through a rusty hook in the ceiling. Arms bound elbow to wrist behind his back. No leeway there. No leeway anywhere, as he swung above the trough, blood long since settled to make his head spin and his thoughts thick and sluggish.
A rough hand grasped his hair, yanking his head up enough to focus on a face. Sir Dwayne's broad, malicious features, the knight's crooked mouth twisted in a grin.
"Ready to sign your confession?"
Gavin blinked reddened eyes and said nothing. He hadn't the breath for it, even if he'd cared to bother. He'd already tested Sir Dwayne's capacity for insult and paid for it. The bruises on his body were testament enough, though he supposed he'd have gotten those regardless as they tried to coax a confession out of him. Talking to them was a waste of effort. To Simon he might have pleaded his case, attempted reason, Simon being a comrade of sorts, a knight of the same order despite their differences. These men held no loyalties to the knight protectorates, much less the memory of Commander Haden. They worked for a man who had much to gain from Haden's death. For all Gavin knew one of them had done the deed. But then, his mind had drifted toward extremes these last few desperate hours in their hands. They wanted no explanations from him, simply his mark, and his confession and they went to lengths to get it. Being no stranger to discomfort - - what man was that had ridden for days, encased in armor, in miserable conditions - - he refused them an easy conquest.
"He's damned stubborn, milord," Dwayne said to someone beyond Gavin. For hours - - more hours than he could count, it had just been Dwayne and his fellow knight, the tall, rawboned Sir Thamas working at him. Trying to break him down. The priest had come once, with a new parchment to replace the old, had looked at him with pitiless eyes before whispering something to Sir Thamas and leaving. Simon hadn't been back. Nor had Duke Idago.
Until now, when the duke stepped into his upside down view, a blurry figure in expensive clothing that seemed out of place here, in this dank pit.
"You were given a chance, you know," the duke said. "To avoid this. To avoid a painful death. To avoid anyone other than you suffering. The confession of a man striking out in a moment of drunken anger would have satisfied the people that needed to be satisfied. But now - - now there will have to be more. A more convoluted motive."
The duke motioned and sir Thamas, out of Gavin's view cut him down. The only thing stopping him from bashing his skull on the stone floor was Sir Dwayne catching him before he could hit head first, but not gently. Just enough that he survived the drop, and lay like some beached fish on the filthy floor at their feet. Being horizontal allowed the blood to began to flow back to the proper places and his head spun and his limbs tingled from it.
The duke stepped over him, moving about the chamber, examining this archaic piece of equipment or that. The instruments of torture from another era. Rusted and rotted and thank the Goddess for the small favor of that, or they might have gotten creative and experimented with them. They still might given time.
"So you're looking for convenient lies?" Gavin managed to keep the quiver out of his voice. No small feat, considering the trembling in his limbs.
Dwayne and Thamas pulled him up, pushed him back against the bars of a cell and held him fast. The duke surveyed him, a faint sneer of disdain making his thin mouth twitch.
"The king will want to know the why's and wherefores of his good friend's death."
"He'll be stricken, I'm sure," Gavin said. "Doubtless there'll be lords aplenty clamoring to fill the void. To offer their own advice. Yours even, maybe?"
Sir Dwayne cuffed him, a blow that banged his head back against the bars for that insolence.
Idago lifted a brow, amused. "You think you know a thing or two about politics, base-born commoner that you are? Or do you have greater scope than one might think, trained by Seskkish spies? Were you brought here for that reason by your mother, or were you recruited afterwards?"
"I'm no spy," Gavin cried, a kernel of fear growing in his gut. "My mother renounced her homeland when she sought asylum here and has been nothing but a loyal citizen of Genoth."
Idago shrugged. "Hard to believe, when her son is an assassin. Perhaps she'll be more willing to answer questions than you."
"Son of a bitch - -" Gavin growled, throwing his weight forward, regardless of bonds. The two knights easily restrained him.
Sir Thamas twined a hand in his hair, twisting his head back.
Idago leaned down, long, soft fingers gripping Gavin's jaw. No calluses, not even the hint of them, but the grip was strong enough. "Make what remains of your life easier. Sign the confession. Spare the people you care for similar treatment."
The Duke's thumb moved, stroking the angle of Gavin's cheek. "Surely Commander Haden's murder deserves the honor of closure. Would you deny his family that?"
Surrender was not in Gavin's nature, it never had been. He'd faced enough bullies in his youth, foreign born as he was, to hold them in great distaste. His stepfather was no poor merchant, but one of wealth and standing, with connections in the city. He was not a man to stand idly by when false accusations were leveled against his wife.
He spat in the bastard's smug face. It was answer enough, and the Duke hissed, drawing back in outrage, before he slammed a ring-adorned fist into Gavin's mouth.
Blood filled his mouth, dribbled down his jaw from a cut from one of the Duke's rings. He spat again, this time at the floor and glared up, bloody and unrepentant at the furious nobleman. "It wasn't my hand that felled him," he growled, blood and water dripping from his hair mixing to run pink. "Nor my order. Look to yourself and your interests for that."
Foolish accusation to make for a man in his precarious situation. As he'd been told no few times, tact had never been a talent he possessed. Idago glowered, but something caught Gavin's attention, some movement at the corner of his eye. One of those peripheral awareness's that forever teased him. He glanced to the side, knowing from habit that there would be nothing but moldy stone when he looked, but drawn to do it regardless. Something clung to the dank wall, something dark and crouching, with awkward limbs and tiny, glowing eyes. It snarled at him, revealing tiny sharp teeth, and he blinked in shock a moment before a hard hand caught his jaw, punishing fingers biting into his flesh, forcing his attention back to the Duke, who pressed up close, the buckles of his tunic biting into the bare flesh of Gavin's chest and stomach.
"Look at me when I speak to you, common filth," the duke snarled and Gavin wondered what it was he'd said. He stared speechless, the image of the thing, no bigger than a skinny housecat still clear in his mind. Then he felt the press of something else from the duke, something lower. Arousal. Arousal accompanied by the glint of malicious intent in the nobleman's narrowed eyed.
Idago's knee came up, slamming between Gavin's legs. It wasn't the first time in the last twelve hours or so he'd received such abuse and it stole breath and reasoning for precious moments. The pain remained, even when his head cleared enough to see again. A view of their boots from the floor where they'd let him drop. He curled in upon himself, the pain in his groin centering in his lower gut and traipsing maliciously outward.
"When I return," Idago was saying. "I expect you to have taught him meaning of respect."
"On my word, he'll learn it well, my lord," sir Dwayne promised.
Gavin barely heard them, over the pounding of blood in his ears. He looked up, past the pain film obscuring his vision, to see if the thing were still clinging like some wingless, four limbed bat on the wall. But it was gone, and none of the other men in the dungeon seemed to have seen it at all.
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