“Are you sure you’re strong enough to be doing this, Gregyr?” grunted Big Gristo carefully. “I don’t want to be telling you your business—”
“—But,” continued Gristo pointedly, “You were only brought back from death a few weeks ago. I’m not sure you should be gallivanting off into the sticks already. It can wait.”
“Number one, I wasn’t dead. I was almost dead, there’s a difference,” Gregyr grumbled. “Number two, I’m hardly gallivanting, and number three, it certainly can’t wait. Marda is moving fast and, right now, she doesn’t know that I survived. If we don’t find something we can use against her, we might not get another chance. Besides, we’re here, so it’s a bit late now,” he added grimly, forcing his aching legs to struggle through the over-grown forest. It had fallen into wild and wanton neglect over the decades since he had last visited. He hardly liked to confess it, even to himself, but he felt old, as if thirty extra years had landed upon his shoulders overnight. Gregyr was the oldest man left standing in the Rat’s Nest crew, thievery was a young man’s game by and large, but he wasn’t that old. His bones no longer seemed to know it, however. They creaked wearily every time he moved them, and his muscles seemed withered and frail. Everyone kept telling him to slow down and recover, but Gregyr was starting to suspect that he didn’t have enough time left to slow down at all.
“It’s not too late to turn around and go home still,” Big Gristo offered up hopefully, unaware of the grim thoughts churning through the back of Gregyr’s mind. Gregyr stopped dead and stared at him.
“Big Gristo…are you scared?” he asked incredulously. Big Gristo was head and shoulders taller than any other man Gregyr had ever met, and was broader than a brick-wall. That he should actually be frightened by the ghost stories that surrounded Morthdark keep was ludicrous. Gristo blushed.
“Just worried about you,” he muttered.
“Well don’t be. Worry about getting us into Morthdark. That will be trouble enough.”
Gregyr suppressed the groan growing from his aching bones and forced himself grimly onwards. The forest they stumped through was wreathed in shadow. He remembered the days when he had ridden through it as a youth, seeking out adventure in his childish folly.
You are still foolish now. You are still weak. You are dying, Gregyr. Give yourself to me, and I will give you strength.
Ah, yes, that was the other problem.
Gregyr wasn’t quite sure what Dae the Dark had done to heal him but since Gregyr had come back—been healed, he reminded himself firmly—there had been this strange whispering voice lurking in the back of his mind. He’d managed to ignore it so far, but he could not deny that it was disconcerting. He had hoped it would fade away in time but, if anything, it was growing stronger.
He personally wouldn’t have trusted himself into the darkwitch’s hands, but he didn’t begrudge the crew their choice. He knew they’d only gone to Dae the Dark to save his life.
And it wouldn’t have needed saving in the first place if I had not been foolish enough to trust Marda. If I had not let her get close enough to poison me.
That still stung, in truth. He had only tried to help her win the crown she craved, and she had repaid him in poison. It was a mistake he did not intend to make twice.
Gregyr stopped dead as they tumbled out of the forest’s edge and greeted the black façade of Morthdark Keep. Big Gristo had walked a few steps ahead before he realised he had left his friend behind, and turned around to stare at him. But Gregyr hardly noticed the perplexed look on Big Gristo’s face. He was staring at the country manor castle he had not been back to for forty odd years—and some of those years had been very odd indeed.
It was smaller than he remembered. The keep had seemed imposing as a fifteen-year-old ward. It had been common practice in noble families to ward their second or third sons out to other houses, to build alliances and find political traction, and yet no one else had been sent away to Morthdark, not until Marda came. Lord Fitzfallow’s reputation had gone before him. He might have been the king’s half-brother, but there were some rumours even the crown couldn’t quieten. Dark magic. Dark deeds. Perpetual shadows.
Fitzfallow had been a strange, eccentric man, callous and cold, but he had never been actively cruel to either Gregyr or Marda whilst Gregyr was under his care. At least, not until the day he had sold his niece, Marda, out to the rebel forces besieging the keep.
Gregyr forced his feet forwards and approached the doors. He had thought that this whole place had been torn down once Marda had escaped, but it looked just the same as the day they had fled it. The shadows clung to the keep thickly, just as they always used to, lurking in every corner of the high, black stone walls, the gargoyles and grotesques perching atop the roofs grimacing down at him in frozen snarls. But though the keep was abandoned, the doors were still firmly fastened and the walls were still dauntingly impenetrable. A haze of ivy and thorn tangles wound their way up over the stonework, but Gregyr did not like to trust his weight to it.
“What now?” Big Gristo asked quietly besides him, also knocking a fist against the locked doors.
“Come on. I know another way in.”
It felt strange to be walking up the tunnel path that he had once fled down. The wyvern tunnels wound under the ground, ridged and rolled through the rock, though the beast that had hewn them must be long since dead. There were no flamewyrms on these ceilings, nothing to bring him that comforting feeling of home, just the flicker of the bound-bracken torches they bore, sending strange shadows amidst their echoing footprints. Memories seemed to linger thickly in the air and Gregyr almost thought that, if he strained hard enough, he could see the ghost of his younger self pulling a frightened young Marda down these very tunnels to safety.
Moss and mould clung to the edges of the rock and, here and there, weeds had begun sprouting through the sparse dirt.
Just like you. You’re nothing. There’s nothing left to you now, Gregyr.
Shut up. This is hard enough without unwelcome intruders lingering in the back of my head.
He pushed open the trapdoor at the end of the tunnel. It gave way with a bit of persuasion, sending an eerie creak echoing out through the damp cellars. He hauled his aching bones upwards and Big Gristo hastily followed him.
The cold and the damp permeated the abandoned room, the stench of old, corrupted magics thick enough to choke. Gregyr waved a hand before his face, as if he could wipe it away. He led Gristo out of the cellar, and the shadows prickled at him uneasily, following him with a strange, unnatural rhythm he did not like.
The house was dead.
It had always been eerie, with its high ceilings and sparse staff and, even as a child, running alone around the rooms, Gregyr had been unnerved by it, but it was worse like this.
Gregyr tried to ignore the muscles tensing and bunching beneath his skin, urging him to flee back out into the daylight and safety. His feet echoed through the halls, sending skittering mice and spiders away.
The stairs were damp, as if someone had left a shutter open, and as he ran his hand up the banister, heaving his aching body upwards, his palm came away sticky.
They should have pulled this whole place down brick by brick. They should have scorched the earth where it stood.
The thought was vehement in his mind, almost too vehement, and for a moment he wasn’t sure it came from him, though the words resounded in his own voice. That was more concerning than he liked to admit.
“Where to now?” asked Big Gristo anxiously. And yes, the voice was anxious, despite the bravado coating it, as the large muscle-man tried to hide his trepidation.
“This way.” Gregyr led the way down the winding hallways. He hesitated for a moment outside the door of his old chambers, his hand resting on the doorknob, but then he walked away without opening it. I am not the same boy who fled this place that night. Anything left in there now belonged to him, and the life I left behind. There can be nothing in it for me now.
He led the way down another corridor and then opened the door to Marda’s chambers instead.
He had only been inside them once before, on the night they had left. They had seemed almost mythical when he had been a lad, full of the mystery of the young lady he had been obsessed with. He had spent far too many nights dreaming that he would be invited inside them by the summer eyed Marda.
The room was exactly as it had been that night. The same heavy brocade curtains hung by the windows, the same coverlet thrown back hastily from the sheets, the same dress lingering upon the back of the chair by the writing desk, still covered in the same notes and drawings. He touched them almost reverently with the tips of his fingers now, as if he could feel her hands writing them. Her handwriting curled and swooped with flourishes. It had been fashionable for young ladies to adorn their letters with far too many swirls and bows at the time, he recalled, and he wondered distantly if noble house daughters still did that, all these years later.
“Are you sure it’s in here, Gregyr?” Big Gristo asked gruffly behind him, drawing him abruptly out of his reverie. In truth, Gregyr had almost forgotten that he was still there.
“No,” he said honestly, “But I know she didn’t take it with us when we fled. She couldn’t find it and we didn’t have time to look.”
“And you think it’s still here, after all this time?”
“I don’t know, Gristo, but it’s the best lead we have for beating her. It’s worth pursuing. Keep looking.”
They pulled out drawers and rummaged beneath the bed and table, pulling through the clothes chest and the dresser. Someone had clearly already done this, for though everything was neatly folded still, there was the unmistakable air of space invaded, and the petty warding charms youths often put on their belongings to keep prying adults out were all broken.
“What does it even look like?” Big Gristo asked, rummaging under the large wardrobe on his hands and knees.
“A tiny silver charm. I think it was in the shape of a flower or a star or something. It’s been a long time since I saw it.”
“And this tiny silver charm is going to be enough to topple the murderous Marda, is it?” Big Gristo asked sceptically.
“That’s the plan.”
They searched in silence for an hour or more, until the afternoon sun started to tip its way down over the edge of the horizon, the shadows wreathing the corners of Morthdark Keep growing longer until they almost shrouded the room entirely.
Gregyr was just about to suggest giving up when Big Gristo suddenly said:
“Greg, this floorboard is loose.” The larger man pressed his weight upon the board tentatively, and it squeaked beneath his huge foot. “Help me with it.”
Heart thumping, Gregyr obeyed. He knelt down with a quiet groan and, as Big Gristo pried the floorboard up, Gregyr slipped his hand beneath it.
Cobwebs, dust and crumbs greeted him, all the bits that had slipped between the cracks of the boards. He fumbled a hand around in the darkness and the whisper-light touch of spider’s feet scuttled over his skin. He ignored it, still desperately fumbling.
It must be here. It has to be.
As if in answer to his fervent prayer, his fingers brushed against something hard and cold that rolled away from him. He leant forwards, forcing his arm deeper into the slot, and his hand clutched around a small charm.
He brought it out into the dying daylight, and he and Big Gristo stared at it, sitting innocently there in the middle of his palm.
It was tarnished and cheap, the silver metal blackening. It had once been a tiny metal replica of a starflower, but it was hard to tell what it was supposed to be now. Gregyr remembered the day he had bought it for Marda at the monthly market. He had been too shy to give it to her in person, so he had slipped it beneath her door folded in an envelope, bound in ribbon, and had hurried away before she could see who had given it to her. He hadn’t known then what she’d do with it. He couldn’t have dreamed what she would use it to become. Even now, he could feel dark magic pulsing from the tiny metal charm, one tiny fragment of the bargain she had made and bound to the metal charm, one tiny piece of the enchantments she had woven around herself.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Gregyr?” Big Gristo rumbled quietly, once more breaking through Gregyr’s maudlin thoughts.
“What do you mean?” he asked sharply. Big Gristo ran one of his large hands up the back of his head.
“I know that things are…complicated…with you and Marda.”
“She tried to kill me.”
“I have always only ever treated her with loyalty and she has only ever repaid it with evil.”
“If this is how she acts as a fugitive princess from the old regime, imagine the damage she could do as a legitimate queen.”
“I know, Greygr.”
“But?” Gregyr demanded, furiously.
“But I think you’re still in love with her, even if you know you shouldn’t be. And if it’s too hard for you to do this, then I want you to have the option of walking away. We don’t have to support her claim, but we don’t have to be the ones to take her down, either. Just say the word, Gregyr, and we’ll go. Nobody will judge you for it. All of us, every single last one of us at the Rat’s Nest, we’ll support you in whatever you decide. Just, don’t react instinctively. Think and decide what you want to do.” Big Gristo’s one good eye pierced him thoughtfully and Gregyr swallowed the instinctive denial leaping to his lips. He stared down at the charm.
“I do still love her,” he said quietly. The words echoed through the empty shadows, leaden with an immovable weight. It was the first time he had confessed it out loud. The tarnished charm seemed to thrum smugly in his hands at the words. “But she needs to be stopped, Gristo, and that is my responsibility.” His fingers closed tightly around the charm and his face tightened into determined resolve as well. “Yes, Gristo, I’m sure.”