Nestled somewhere near the heart of Emberhelm is Castle Virtus, home of the royal house of Wyatt. The Wyatt line has ruled over Emberhelm since its earliest days, and despite my own personal issues regarding the throne I can’t say I hold anything against any member of the family. It isn’t like they are ruthless, reckless or known to be foolish in their judgment. They’re still people though, and in the end I couldn’t keep living on a leash.
The Castle itself is a massive sprawling structure made out of a mixture of white marble and granite. Equally impressive under the moon and stars or the light of day the stone could almost seem alive. It flowed with flawless lines to form wondrous walls along with titanic towers. Castle Virtus was a marvelous majestic sight, a testament to the throne that resided therein.
I didn’t bother with approaching the primary gate, even so close to mid-day. It would be swarming with other official solicitors and courtiers, not to mention guards already past their patience to tolerate anything out of the ordinary. No, I decided to instead redirect my steps straight for an alternative entrance used by SpellHounds when they came and went for duty assignments.
There would still be a gate to contend with, but if I had been summoned for an audience then I might have better luck getting through there instead. Among the SpellHounds the area was often referred to simply as ‘Ward Way.’ It was a fortified stone archway complete with barricades of iron and steel to cut it off from the outside if needed. There was never any shortage of available manpower to defend it, since it lead directly into the garrison where SpellHounds slept and were stationed in all the manner of duties they participated in.
Actually, if I was someone who wanted to engage in any manner of mischief; Ward Way was the last place I would try to do it. It’d be like trying to walk straight into a den of sleeping starved beasts at the end of winter, waiting for them all to wake up and then daring to threaten any one of them with violence. Nobody had ever been that foolish, or death craved to me memory.
I was certain to still receive more than my fair measure of menacing looks and serious suspicion by showing up there I estimated. But at least it was less likely to be used as eager entertainment or a display of warning to the general public. If I casually waltzed up to the front door, smiled and simply said I was an invited guest on matters of the realm then there was bound to be laughter and some serious stress release. And I couldn’t ensure that my mood would be entirely accommodating.
So I marched purposefully over the alternating polished pavestones of glistening alabaster and ivory to navigate my way around a long length of the primary perimeter wall. This took quite some time, if anyone had ever had to patrol the entire path around it as I had in my early days of training they could appreciate the sheer size of Castle Virtus and its vast defenses. Especially since just making a pass along one side of the outer wall could take at least an hour to an hour and a half – the place is that big.
The entire time I made my way around I could feel the constant companion of scrutinizing stares. Even with a place as big as Castle Virtus was, you couldn’t expect to just sneak up on it. There were always guards you could see as much as deadly defenders you might not. Like I said, the Wyatt’s had been securely seated on the throne pretty much since it had existed in Emberhelm. They hadn’t done so by taking chances or suffering sloppy security.
This gave me a double cause for lifted spirits when I caught sight of a familiar face awaiting me just outside Ward Way. Standing as straight and stoic as a statue was none other than Maeredith Starseer, her hands resting atop the end of her hammer’s handle in front of her. If I squinted enough to allow my imagination some room I could almost picture us still in Minstrel’s Market. But sadly our surroundings had changed, even if she hadn’t seemed to.
Maeredith waited wordlessly until I closed the distance between us to stand a pace or two in front of her. There were other SpellHounds busy around us, but not a single one seemed interested in interrupt either of us. The assigned Interdictors acting as guards on either side of the gate itself didn’t even blink at my presence. Which truly was a sight worth savoring since there was at least two outside the gate, matched by a pair on the other side as well as a couple in between. And not a single one of them so much as looked my way or acknowledged my existence.
There was no way that the untold number of men monitoring me heading this way hadn’t alerted someone. These guys were too good to just not be paying attention when anyone approached within a short dashed distance of slipping inside. Besides that, Maeredith had been standing out front in what I had to assume was meant to be for the sole purpose of meeting me.
Glitch wasn’t the only one who has more than his share of curiosity to deal with. My eyebrow rose sharply and my smile shifted to a half grin as I let the clues start to sink in. Maeredith gave me a long hard look that seemed to confirm that I had indeed picked up on something and nodded curtly. She didn’t have to say a single word, nor did I think she could allow herself to out here among so many extra ears.
“Follow me, if you please,” Maeredith instructed formally. As I automatically fell in to drift along behind her she flicked her hammer up in a swift motion and pivoted around. She led me directly through the gate and down a dizzying number of paths and walkways systematically. We walked in silence and the further we went it seemed the fewer faces we encountered. Of those that we had, none questioned me; nobody so much as uttered a single sound at either of us.
It was bizarre, and I wasn’t above admitting that it was just a little unsettling if I was being honest. We had entered a long corridor that felt like it sloped down below the ground level above. The stone around me was washed in white with shades of blue and grey woven through it. There was only scarce light splashed about from broadly spaced lanterns along the walls around us. Which made the whole atmosphere all the more awkward – especially when it occurred to me that these lanterns weren’t giving off any traces of magic.
Where in all of Emberhelm was I being led? An official audience was generally held in one of the greater halls or some other place of power to the public eye. While I couldn’t claim to have seen every square inch of the castle, I had seen a respectable portion of it. Enough to know that I was in unfamiliar territory and likely reroute to anything other than a greater hall.
Maeredith’s voice startled me when she finally spoke. She kept her tone hushed and subdued but I could still make them out thanks to my close proximity behind her. “The girl has been confined to a healers care for the duration of her recovery. They can’t guarantee that she will ever completely return to the way she was but at least she is being treated to help her deal with it. I thought you should at least know that she received a compassionate sentence.”
I welcomed those words and allowed myself a moment to close my eyes and take a breath before I had to open them again to ensure I was still keeping pace with Maeredith. They truly were a comfort, one that I would like nothing more than to share with Baylen as soon as time allowed. It was also the kind of news that I could make use of to help put me in the good graces of anyone close to Lillian. As callous as it may seem, I had to keep in mind that if she had kept from alerting anyone about her changes in behavior there was also the chance that loved ones might not welcome any word of her bizarre behavior. The least I could do was soften the blow with mercy that she was being helped instead of thrown in some hole – or worse.
“Thanks Mae, I do owe you a massive one,” I said sincerely. “Any chance you can spare my endless stream of speculations as to where you’re taking me and what this is all about? Wynna wasn’t exactly forthcoming when she delivered the demand for me to appear, nor was she altogether straight forward. Care to illuminate our strange surroundings, or am I to continue to be kept in dark awhile longer?”
Maeredith’s speed didn’t shift in the slightest in response to my words. The whole time either of us had spoken she had just kept moving further on down the passageway. I did keep my ears trained forward on her, just in case. This turned out to be fortunate; as we rounded a series of sharply curved turns that kept angling us ever so gradually downward she decided to answer me.
Thankfully I was better prepared this time and didn’t jump. Not being able to see someone’s mouth beginning to move can have that effect on you when you’re following them down an empty stretch of stone and shadow that you’ve never sat foot in before. Much less if it’s a place you didn’t know existed and leading you to some similarly unknown destination. I may have twitched ever so slightly though as my heart skipped a short beat however.
“We can’t risk this being widely known, not even among the ranks of the SpellHounds,” she explained with the full weight of a Justicar’s conviction. It made me immediately reevaluate me previous fears and decide they needed to be raised up a notch or three. “You’re meeting with Aethen Wyatt under the guise of a petty matter beneath the concern or prevue of a SpellHound. However, as part of the plan there has been a general mandate to ignore your presence while you are here and assurances have been made that you are being kept isolated from any sensitive areas.”
“So everyone pretends I wasn’t here while they wait to laugh behind my back like I am the butt of some kind of joke then,” I tried to sum things up in a way that sounded like a better description. There was no way to look at it that didn’t leave me feeling a little less valued. Knowing that I was needed for something important enough to keep off the record might have made it easier to swallow but it still left a bitter taste in my mouth.
“Wounded pride aside,” Maeredith continued still keeping her voice down. “You aren’t on the castle grounds, this meeting never occurred and anything said will never be mentioned. Once you are escorted back beyond the gates, everyone is to be told that you were called upon to find an errant pet or something similar and that it found its way back on its own. Either way; you’re professional services weren’t needed and you had to be dismissed after you arrived.”
“Yeah, I get the message,” I admitted, trying my best to sound as apathetic as I could. “Let’s just get this over with then, the longer I am here the harder people are going to have believing your story. The faster I can be on my way the quicker everyone can start laughing about it.”
Without any attempt at addressing my last barbed remark, Maeredith guided me the rest of the way through what I had begun to think of as tunnels. Our journey ended rather abruptly at an unassuming doorway that surrendered to a chamber. A solemn gesture from Maeredith encouraged me to enter before she turned to take a position behind me effectively blocking the passage that led us here.
A tiny tickling sensation worked its way through me as I stepped through the entrance and I had to remind myself that it must be my nerves. Yeah, just a perfectly understandable and expectable case of garden variety anxiety I nearly mumbled aloud. It couldn’t have anything to do with me walking into some covert conference complete with its requisite shadowy secret setting.
“Maybe we’ll be able to skip straight to the punch line,” I told the still air. But even as I breathed the thought into words I also tried to steel myself against the flicker of fear. Honestly, what was the worst that could happen? No sooner had I conjured the concept before I recalled my current trend of luck and desperately cast the notion away in hopes of avoiding tempting any more ill fortune.
“Let’s not make a game of this, Anchor-Heart,” I called aloud. And a hearty deep chuckle of amusement rang out to answer me.