by M. W. Mars
The Merriths make their plight known to all in Maplewood.
THE SIREN & THE SACRED LIE
CHAPTER 3: CORVAN'S LONGEST DAY
Part 2 of 2
“Good evening, friends. Graciously, have you come to this sovereign hall to lend your support and kinship. On behalf of the Elders of Maplewood and the House of Eldric Merrith, we are deeply grateful.”
The gathered scores then bade further ovation.
“And surely you've come to hear of the plight which has befallen your warden... The truth is we know very little. Sir Eldric left the Maplewood forest today under peculiar circumstances. And as yet, most details elude us. We know that sometime mid-morning, while scouting the weald, he encountered an odd company of nigh a dozen men. From the east, they were led by a man named Hidelwine Gaul, son of Hauvester of the Emperor's City. And now, willingly or not, Sir Eldric has departed in their custody. His son Corvan witnessed the men of this company donning long cloaks stained of dark, violet dye. They were last seen pacing the north road toward Castelton.”
Langrian paused, hoping one might share a hint or chance sighting, but only the Autumngale crickets chirred above the silence.
“Humble denizens of Maplewood, your warden left his home today bearing no armor, no sword, nor any other means of aggression, and to our knowledge, has committed no act for which he might justly be seized. The precedence of his departure is unclear, and the aims of his abductors a mystery...” He saw the worry unhinging his audience, so the Elder gave a strength to his voice. “But friends, let us not despair, for these truths remain. Eldric Merrith is a most clever man, with training and experience above all in the realm. He left the weald on his own feet, and it was promised that no harm will come to him. No Harm. Those were his captor's words, and any deceit against such an outright assurance would stand punishable by the strictest laws in our kingdom.” Langrian's old lungs then sucked in a breath. “Though we are heartened by this assurance of protection, we intend to pursue answers, and we mean to pursue justice. By the will of the Elders of Maplewood and the House of Eldric Merrith, these strangers from the east shall defend their actions before the court of King Mordole. And may their aims be revealed in the light of Gwynneth, herself.”
Hesitantly, his audience began to nod, clap, or otherwise gesture with approval. The maven pandered to their support before placing his hand on Corvan's shoulder.
“Most of you know Lady Annalyne and her eldest son Corvan, here. Some of you might remember the toddling boy that arrived with his family almost twenty years ago now. Well, that boy has become the strong and capable young man who stands before you this evening. One day, when his father deems it so, Corvan will inherit your wardenship. But hear this, my friends. That day will not be rushed upon our good lad just yet. For he has vowed to deliver our requisition to Castle Halcyon, himself.”
Again, the anxious crowd applauded.
“By the grace of the Goddess, Sir Eldric shall return home to Maplewood!”
As Corvan peered over the hopeful faces gazing up at him, suddenly his burden weighed even heavier than before.
The terrace outside the House of the Elders had become their stage. And like roses at the theater, the audience hurled question on top of questions at their feet. But none were so loud or demanding as warranted an answer above the rest. There would be no encore this evening. The mavens and Merriths had no more answers to give.
And so, the crowd began to thin, as the scent of spiced meats and supper stews caught the Maplewood breeze. For the few who lingered, Langrian descended the stairs to speak with them personally. With Amos in hand, Annalyne confronted Mr. Bremmin to thank him for rallying so many to their support. Jessel was relieved. He'd been nervous the crowd might displease her. Meanwhile, Corvan slipped over to his friend Galad, who attended the meet with his father.
“Corvan. I'm sorry this trouble has found you, my friend. What a strange matter, indeed.” Consolingly, he gripped Corvan's shoulder. “So tell me, when are you leavin' for Castleton?”
“Well... Elder Langrian says it's better kept quiet, but I won't be wasting a moment of daylight, if you catch my meaning.”
“Of course.” The sun had set upon the warm summer evening, so Galad knew he meant to leave at first light. “On the morrow,” he uttered to his father. When Mr. Havelroy returned a nod, Galad quietly asserted, “I'm coming with you, Corvan. And I won't hear any objection.”
“Galad, you can't. There's a deal more you haven't heard. This Hidelwine spook is far more dangerous than maven Hassai bothered to mention.”
“Then you may need my bow more than I bothered to mention.”
“I warn you in earnest." Regrettably. "But I should speak no more of it here. Come by the estate later tonight-- my parents' cabin. I'll demand you hear the rest before you make any decision.”
“Fair enough.” Galad replied as though he hadn't caught a word of any danger.
“Thank you for being here, friend. And Mr. Havelroy, thank you.”
“You boys are doing right by your fathers, you hear me? Try to get some rest tonight, Corvan. All will be well in due time. Now if you will excuse us, Galad and I would give our regards to your mother.”
“Certainly.” So the Havelroy men left to console Lady Annalyne, who'd since parted with Jessel to speak with Mrs. Tanda Havelroy. Mother seems in better spirits than before, Corvan noticed. We are fortunate to have friends such as ours. In truth, he was thrilled by Galad's offer to travel with him. But should harm or misfortune befall his good friend, how could he forgive himself? I will not persuade others to this task. The risks are my own.
At last, he hoped to steal a moment to catch his breath and absorb all that the day had become. But Elder Langrian was skulking over to bring further complication.
“Corvan, I need to speak with you privately. There's more I wished not say where your mother could hear.”
Well, this doesn't sound promising.
“My boy... I suppose it's hardly a secret that I dabbled in fire magic when I was your age. Pyromancy, they call it. My motives were rather innocent, really... more innocent than what the stranger vaunted for you in the forest, I'm afraid.” It seemed Langrian suddenly preferred calling Hidelwine 'the stranger'. “You see, I'd only hoped to make fire, that we might warm ourselves on a blustery night without setting endless logs and timber to ash. Save the trees and such,” he added mocking his callowness. “I scoured through dozens of texts and tomes. At the Academy, I even studied from a mage's grimoire, a fascinating work discovered on Crescent Wood, far to the east. But for all my effort, I could never so much as conjure a spark.” The Elder then drew closer and softened his voice. “All the writings surmise that only the rarest crystal rune stones can harness the magic from which natural elements take form. Elements meaning fire, wind and water and the like. And a catalyst, such as a wand or staff, is required to channel the element from the haze to the accompanying rune."
Corvan shook his head as if mired in a cobweb.
"It all sounds utterly foolish to you, I'm sure. As it did to me once. Or perhaps it would have sounded foolish before what you saw today... Corvan, listen to me. To conjure the kind of flame you witnessed through the manifestation of one's own power, without need of a staff, a crystal or catalyst of any kind-- to his very own hands... Well, that is beyond remarkable. And I would add, a highly punishable breach of Imperial law. I tell you all this to say you are dealing with a most rare and gifted man, Corvan. Such sorcery is... unheard of. He must have dedicated half his life to wield this staggering power. Why? Why would any man labor for so long? I'll grant you that one so obsessed is not inherently dangerous, but I'd wager the capacity for madness is ripe within this stranger.”
Disheartened, frightened, and simply frustrated with everything, Corvan thought only to say, “His name is Hidelwine, maven Langrian. And he advised that I remember it.”
“Did he, indeed? Well, I advise you remember this. Whether her husband or son, your mother would have one of you return home, should the risk that neither of you return becomes too great.”
“Corvan, I plead that you leave any confrontation with Hidelwine to the Castleton guard. It would only be wise. And your father's counsel would echo my own.”
Corvan glanced down at his feet, but he acknowledged Langrian's warning.
“Very well. Try as you might to get some rest before you depart. Your day has been long.”
“It certainly has.”
The maven patted him on the back before turning to leave. As he strode away, Corvan then called to him.
"What is it, lad?"
"I'm not sure I've thanked you."
“You're welcome, Corvan. May the moon be your guide.”
Soon, all had dispersed, and the Merrith's trudged home together... quietly. Even young Amos was speechless. When he shoved open the door, the house felt empty. Stale. It was dark and the silence an uproar. Annalyne hoped to vanquish it by lighting every candle and lantern she could find. She pushed open the shudders, all while mumbling to herself about nothing... Somehow, it helped.
In the light, the boys sat by the kitchen table where they watched their mother get straight to cutting up vegetables and cracking walnuts. Feverishly, Annalyne whipped up a haphazard supper of cheese and nuts, kale with garlic oil, leeks, carrots and turnips. Corvan hadn't thought about food all afternoon. His stomach was in knots. But he wouldn't squander his mother's effort. With some persistence, he managed to eat most of what she'd put on his plate. His young brother, though, was not as inclined.
“Amos, if you're just going to poke at your food, why don't you trot off to your room and get ready for bed.”
So he did.
Lady Merrith's attempt at supper had ended, so she piled up the stoneware and began washing. And scouring. And washing again. The way she's scrubbing, she'll scrape the clay right off the plates. It was a peculiar exorcism of nerves. One Corvan would not soon forget.
When the dishes were stowed away, Annalyne tugged the cloth down from her shoulder and rested her hands on the table. Finally, she stood still. She then drew a long, evocative breath. “Son, come with me. I need to show you something.”
Strange. Pah said he'd wanted to show me something today.
He expected to follow her into Eldric's private study, where his father spent countless hours working on his commission for the emperor. The room had always seemed unwelcoming when he was a boy, but in recent years Corvan had found it increasingly luring. The crowded quarters housed trunks, chests and gilded boxes of all size. Books, candles and lanterns. The hearth mantle and all the shelves were cluttered with scrolls and relics of a life decades old. There were heirlooms and keepsakes, plaques and other traces of the legion commander's honored past. On the far wall, Eldric had mounted seven broadswords, three ornamented shields, and five medals. But these prides of war hadn't been displayed flagrantly to be shown off at supper parties. They were hung between two armoires in the corner near his writing table. They were for him.
To Corvan's disappointment, Annalyne strolled right past his father's quarters. Instead, she led him out the back door to the shed behind their house.
“You mean to show me your new gardening spade again, mother?” It was a halfhearted jest, though the first moment he'd sounded himself since the morning. “I'm sorry. I--”
“No, Corvan. Don't apologize. You needn't spend every waking moment worrying for your father. It certainly won't help anyone. Besides, my worrying will be enough for both of us.”
“You know father can take care of himself until the king's cavalry reaches them. As for your son, my errand to Castleton should not trouble you to worry. Halcyon is a gentle land, home to gentle folk. You said it yourself just last eve.”
That was yesterday, Annalyne considered. What a difference a day makes.
To himself Corvan lamented, Gentle, aside from the fire-casting magi in father's company. But he dared not say that aloud-- no reason to embellish Hidelwine's magic as Langrian had.
“At any rate, I've been considering how unfair all this is. How long have you wished to travel the countryside, to see the kingdom for yourself with your own eyes? And now that you're finally being rushed out the door, you must drag this cumbersome burden along with you... Corvan, I don't want you to feel guilty for escaping your worry once in a while to take comfort in the scenery. The goddess has blessed this land with beauty and wonder deserving of your admiration. Embrace it, so long as you remain vigilant and keep your pace swift.”
“I will, mother. And when I return, I shall paint for you a portrait of my favorite sights,” he added playfully. “Now, tell me what we're doing out here by the shed.”
She almost grinned. “Follow me.”
From the ground up, the shed had been grown over with leafy, green ivy. Surrounding tree limbs slumped with the weight of a heavy bloom, laying as a canopy upon the crooked roof. With haste, Annalyne freed the lock and heaved open the door, brushing back the fallen leaves at her feet. Like any backyard shelter, it housed haystacks and hearth logs, garden tools, and sacks full of wheat stalks and grains. Though Corvan had been here twice a hundred times, his mother was preparing to show him something he'd never seen before.
“Help me slide this barrel around, son.”
It must have been gorged full of stone mortar, heavy as it was. With plenty of effort, they were able to tilt the weighty barrel on its edge and spin it aside. Annalyne then shone her lantern over the spot where the barrel had stood.
Corvan was stunned. “What the?... Mother, it's... a door? A secret door in the ground?”
Annalyne pulled another key from her pocket. “Don't get too excited, Corvan. You won't fall through to the other side of the world. Now when I trigger the lock, pull up this trap.”
Dirt and dust scattered as the trap creaked open and thumped to the ground. Below them descended an earthen box, dug ten feet on each side, with straw-covered planks laid across the floor.
“Well... Get in there,” she said. “I'll stay up here and hold the lantern overhead.”
Reticently, Corvan squatted, then dangled his legs over the edge of the square. Where the light would not reach, it was pitch dark, but vaguely he could make out the hay landing beneath him.
“Go on,” she urged.
With his mother's faith, Corvan plopped down into the hole. The hay crimpled beneath his boots. As he regained his balance, the must of old maple wood and rusting metals assailed him. “What is all this?”
Annalyne lowered her lantern into the trap. It was astounding, what the flame then revealed.
“By the goddess...”
“I know, son.”
Corvan gazed at the sparkles shining back at him, suddenly bright to the dark he'd been kept in his whole life.
“I suppose there was never a good reason to show you this before."
"Your father brought all this from the Capital, of course. When they name you the savior of the great city, well... you earn the Emperor's favor.”
“And the Emperor's coin, I see.” Perhaps it earns enemies as well.
“The Merrith's will not accept gold from the Maplewood treasury, son. What the Elders granted to you, I intend to repay. Yet, you will have all the influence you need to ensure your father comes home.”
Along the wall, there sat three plated metal chests. Each was adorned with gilded bumpers and dowels, and the slats were inlaid with all manner of gemstone. Coppers, silvers and gold Chandems spilled out all three of them, leaving the trunk clasps to repose. So much treasure... Corvan was amazed ...and not enough chest. It was more than much, really. More than anyone could spend in a lifetime.
“Is this what father meant to show me this afternoon?”
“Well, I didn't ask him, son." Annalyne hesitated. "But--"
All too abruptly, a shout then rang from the back door of the house. “Corvan! Where are you, Corvan?” It was Amos calling for him. “Someone is here!”
On any ordinary day, they would have assumed a number of friends or neighbors. Yesterday's assumptions. Alarmed, bewildered, Annalyne glared down at her son. Corvan scowled back at her, his thoughts suddenly swimming. Amos then shouted again. “It's Galad, Corvan!”
With a sigh that practically echoed from the trees, Annalyne deflated. Then just as quickly, she angered. “Tychon's hell, Amos! Why didn't you say Galad is here!? Galad! Not... someone!” Out the shed door, she yelled so loud that Galad could hear his name around front. Her head swiveled back to Corvan in the treasure trove. “What is Galad doing here, anyway?”
“Well...I...” He had forgotten all about his friend's visit.He then realized he hadn't mentioned a word of Galad's invitation to travel with him. But that was more than Corvan felt like explaining from a ten foot hole in the ground.
“No matter. I'll leave the lantern and go greet him. You pull those pouches down from the hook over there and pack all the coin you can carry. Whatever else you find in there is yours for the taking. Troubles me to say it, but this might be the storm your father and I horded all those nuts for.”
Mother shouldn't breathe life to such pessimism. “Wait. Don't leave me yet,” he said.
“What is it, boy?”
“How am I supposed to get out of here?”
“Should be a ladder down there somewhere. If you don't find us soon enough, I'll come back with a rope.”
Before Corvan began filling any coin purses, he decided to do some milling around the family gold mine. For there, he found riches more intriguing than gold. Treasures which could not be spent in any market or tavern.
In the near corner, there stood an armor mannequin, draped over by a shabby wool cloth bearing the contours of a soldier. It startled him at first. To the touch, the drapery felt cool and heavy, as the years had shaken sediment loose from the earthen ceiling above. Corvan couldn't resist the temptation. I'll have just a quick look.
With care, he pulled back the dusty old cloth and spread it delicately over the floor. After rubbing the grime off his fingers, he then lifted the helm from the mannequin to examine it under the light. To Corvan, any infantry-grade helm would have impressed. But this was a masterpiece deserving of his awe. The vertical crest was sharpened to serrated edges, crafted with the inspiration of mist tiger fangs. Sacred wildcats of the eastern jungle, mist tigers were beasts of legendary affection. On this helm, their elegance and ferocity were both deftly captured. The work of Alvous Barnell, no doubt. The bowl was graded with slate and lighter gray ridges which widened from crown to brow. The visor jetted out to a point still sharp to the touch, and the face guards were angled like wings. Most of the metalwork evinced a dark hue of slate, unlike the heather gray steel of the common legion knight. Indeed, this was no ordinary armor. Corvan was staring at the rare vestments of a legion Majestic, the most lethal warrior in all the Island Kingdoms. Alternating patterns of gilded mail fed to the steel-plated pauldrons, and those were layered in gold and black weaving. The chest plate and plackart bore similar patterns which met beneath a large, oval reinforcement plate for protecting the heart. On this was displayed the crest of house Chandem-- dynastic bloodline of holy sovereigns, lords of the four royal families, supreme rulers of the Island Kingdoms of Gwynneth and all the known world. Or more simply, the 'Imperial seal.'
As Corvan's imagination had its way with him, suddenly, he stumbled upon something unseen. Where he dragged the armor cloth down from the mannequin, the drapery skimmed back a layer of hay. Half-buried in the pitch black corner, he'd kicked what turned up a heavy, leather satchel. Where do the secrets end in this place? So Corvan replaced the helm and leaned over to inspect this new treasure. He raised the over-sized satchel, a sturdy, remarkably preserved aurochs hide, and began tinkering with its back straps and buckles. This would suit well for my trip, it occurred to him. His own haversack was much smaller. He swung it onto to his back, but found the fit too loose. Corvan then swiped away the hay stalks and began adjusting the straps... What was that? He'd felt something jiggle. There was something of weight in there, entombed in one of the interior pockets. What could it--
“Corvan! Get in here, already! Galad is waiting for you.”
Once again, a voice from outside had startled him to haste. So Corvan scurried back to the coin chests and began shoveling, all but forgetting the satchel's hidden prize.
I won't bother counting, he figured, though he made sure to bag more gold pieces than coppers and silvers. As the pouches swelled, a bitterness swelled in him, too. Why haven't they shown me this before? Why hide all this treasure from my brother and me? Aside from the comfort of their sprawling estate, his mother and father led a modest, hard-working life-- a lifestyle they intended to pass on to their children. Corvan then questioned whether the untouched wealth or the deception alone had bothered him. Well, what obligation have they to pamper me with these riches? It was theirs earned, not mine. Despite the novelties their wealth might have bought him, Corvan had never wanted for anything he needed. I'ts only because they hid it from me, he decided. Still, he wouldn't resent them for it, and certainly not on this day. Their choices had always been carefully considered.
With the bloated satchel in tow, he draped the wool back over his father's armor, climbed the ladder, and secured the trap. When Corvan stepped inside, Annalyne was leaning over his brother's bed reading a children's story. His best friend awaited him at the kitchen table.
"Tell me what you need me to know, Corvan."
Very quietly, he told Galad his tale.
"... and then fire surged from his hand. I saw it..."
It took all the persuasion, warning and threatening Corvan could summon to convince Galad that the pyromancer and his men were of a kind to be feared. Otherwise a peaceful haven, Halcyon was no longer safe for those serving the name of Merrith... and certainly not for those toting a requisition for the arrest of Hidelwine Gaul. The threats were useless, though. Galad was too stubborn. No words could sway his intentions. He would journey to Castleton whether it meant traveling by Corvan's side or following from distance. Either way, his arrows at the ready. After all, just one night ago, the boys had made a promise. Come spring, they'd planned to travel the Halcyon countryside. But spring had come too soon and too sadly for Corvan... No longer could they call this a holiday. This was a mission.
Continue to Chapter 4: