The fire in the hearth crackled. Awkward introductions had been made. At the head of the table, Sir Danielle Longbow was enjoying the dizzying strength of the beer. Her brown eyes met her mother’s and the mirth on Alexandra’s face fell away.
“How did you meet?” Rose Fletcher asked, pointing from Danielle to Lupita Smith.
“We killed some monsters in the prison. You must have heard the story?” Lupita smiled, showing brilliant teeth.
“More rumours than anything,” Rose nodded, “some say the three of you killed a hundred werewolves by yourselves. Others said it was only five werewolves and you had a dozen warriors by your side.”
“More the second than the first.” Danielle reached to Miss Smith, taking her hand.
“Was it scary?” Nettle asked, sitting between Lupita and Anne. She had grown a great deal over the summer months, in height more than muscle.
“Very. They locked us in with them and started putting out our torches because they could see in the dark and we couldn’t.” Sir Fabian put down his beer and stared off into memory with brooding gravitas worthy of epic poetry. “Then people started dying and we survived, just. With a few scratches-”
“And empty bladders.” Danielle finished, taking a deep sip from her tankard.
Everyone around the table laughed, Nettle genuinely because hearing dirty language from Danielle was still a novelty. Most gave a polite chuckle with hard faces.
“I was sorry to hear about your father Sir Fabian.” Rose said. “Sir Lorenzo Castel was a great man. Possibly the greatest swordsman Crann has ever known.”
Fabian dipped his head. “The greatest in the world for me. Killing the loup garous didn’t satisfy my hunger for revenge though. I suppose nothing can. I just have to live up to his legacy.”
“You do,” Lupita’s dreadlocks bounced as she nodded to him. Pained smiles passed around as everyone agreed, feeling as though the ghost of Sir Lorenzo was on their shoulders.
“How long have you been with Danielle and Lupita now?” Rose asked Nettle, who was too busy picking at the callouses on her hand to notice she was being spoken to until she was nudged.
“About a year and a half, I think. Since mama disappeared.”
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.” Miss Fletcher’s face flushed.
“That’s alright. I know she’s dead,” Nettle said in a matter-of-fact tone. She stirred the scraps in her bowl and snapped a bone open to suck out the marrow. “Shame this is finished.” Soup dribbled down her chin. “It was good. Better than Danielle’s cooking.”
“Harsh,” Sir Longbow said, mouth curving with a smile.
“Fair,” said Carl. He winked at Nettle.
“Should we say a toast for those lost?” Rose asked.
“And those taken,” said Carl.
Danielle raised her tankard and looked around the two joined tables from right to left. Carl’s blue eyes met hers with a smile. Fabian held his beer high with a sombre glaze in his brown eyes. Rose held her wine aloft, looking at Alexandra who sighed and lifted her cup. Anne gave Danielle a wink. Nettle sipped her wine before realising she was meant to hold it up. Lupita’s brown cheeks had a warm tinge of red as she raised her beer.
“For all of those who gave their lives we give thanks and drink to you,” Sir Longbow looked at her tankard and saw a spiderweb in the roofbeams above.
“AYE.” Everyone drank.
“And for the living, another, because we’re still here.” She and the other warriors drank deeply as their minds took them to traumas that haunted their days and nights.
Anne gave a long belch and hid her mouth behind her hand as Nettle laughed.
“Sorry to ask a thousand questions, but aren’t you the same boy Danielle was whipped for saving from execution?” Rose pointed to Carl.
“I thought you were no more than fifteen.”
“Roughly.” Carl smiled. His gaunt face cracked into deep creases around his mouth and forehead.
“Sorry,” Rose said.
“No, it’s alright. I’m not used to it myself. I can’t have you dying of curiosity at the table.” Skeletal fingers brushed stubble on his bony chin. “No one is meant to double in age overnight. Growing pains doesn’t do it justice. My body devoured itself to grow taller and,” he looked at Nettle, “do all the other things a boy’s body does at that age. I don’t feel older in my soul. I feel older in my creaking bones though. I’ve been getting better. I’ve got some muscle now and it doesn’t hurt to eat. That’s nice.”
He reached across the table to the rabbit on a spit. Tearing off a lingering strand of muscle he popped it into his mouth and kept talking. “I don’t know if the pain is less or if I’m just getting used to it but either way I don’t care. I’ll take the win.”
“What’s going on with you and Queen Elspeth?” Nettle asked.
“That’s not what Lu says,” the girl grinned. She liked to tell people’s secrets.
“Nettle.” Lupita hissed at the girl and shook her head.
“Who wants to hear a joke?” Anne asked loudly.
“Go on then.”
Anne slapped her calloused palms together and gave them all a mischievous grin. “A boy comes in from the barn with a bucket and tells his mother that the cow’s milk looks funny. The mother tells him it wasn’t a cow in the barn, it was a bull.”
Cries of disgust rang up and down the table.
“I don’t understand,” said Nettle.
“That’s alright,” Danielle told her.
“You laughed,” Anne insisted. “Don’t say you didn’t laugh.”
“No more jokes please Anne. I’ll never look a cow in the eye again.”
“No? Will you be too busy checking if it’s a boy or a girl?”
“Who wants more beer?” Lupita asked.
“Who doesn’t?” Carl smiled, holding up his cup.
“Good, the barrel is over there, get me one.” Lupita reached cross the table to give him her flagon. “You need the exercise.” She winked as he shook his head.
Groaning as he stood, he hobbled over to the barrel of beer and filled the tankards given to him.
“I heard the queen is giving you Serpent’s Crook Tower and hoping you’ll rebuild the village there?” Rose asked, looking at Sir Fabian.
“Where do you get your information?” The knight tucked long hair behind his ear as he gave her a piercing stare.
“Gossip on the walls Sir knight. Women talk you know.”
“It’s been talked about. Queen Elspeth wants to spread out from Leonor now. The city is filling up but we’ve a kingdom to reclaim. Serpent’s Crook Tower never fell. It’s a defensible position to start with and there are ideas of building a wall around the area. People from all over the continent have come to Crann Kingdom. To feed them all we need fields and fishing. Serpent’s Crook is a good spot for both.
We have Worm’s Mount Castle at the northern border. There is nothing between Leonor and the empire to the west, nothing to slow an imperial advance. I’ve heard ideas about building a new castle or trying to seize Afon Fos from the empire.”
Silence held its breath at those words. Any of them who hadn’t been looking at Fabian gave him a wide-eyed stare. Fabian cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. Colour rose in his cheeks.
“Queen Elspeth wants to lay siege to Afon Fos?” Danielle asked, tankard forgotten halfway to her lips.
“Not exactly. She has been talking about reinforcing our borders against invasion. Afon Fos is a fortress to rival Worm’s Mount Castle. With it in Crann control Leonor would be infinitely safer. Survivors of Afon would be able to return home. Much of the city between the castles was destroyed but some buildings are used as imperial housing.”
“It’s just ideas just now,” said Carl. “The queen has been planning for the future of the kingdom. Queen Malin had great ambitions for Crann Kingdom and Elsie is no less motivated.”
“Elsie?” Nettle roared with laughter.
“Does she let you call her that?” Rose asked.
“No, but I do it anyway.” Carl smiled the roguish grin he’d always had, which looked infinitely older than just two years before. Though it had been not much more than fifteen years since his birth he was a man of thirty years to look at.
“Would villages like Fisher’s Gasp ever be rebuilt?” Rose asked, looking from Carl to Fabian. Alexandra and Danielle, who had lived in Fisher’s Gasp before imperial soldiers burnt it to ruins glanced at each other. Danielle wished Miss Fletcher hadn’t mentioned it.
“I’m sure other villages will follow. Crann will be reborn. We have some monsters to clear out along the way though. Things drawn to the slaughter the empire wrought have been nesting in the south, preying on people coming to Leonor from Afon and Sliabh.”
“Squidfolk?” Danielle asked. “There are plenty of them in the rivers.”
“Those and glass ghosts we believe.”
“What in the name of the gods and goodness is a glass ghost?” Rose asked.
“Try saying that ten times fast.” Carl smirked.
“Glass ghosts are hostile spirits that come out of the rock, clear as crystal and sharp as razorblades. If they get their claws on your flesh, they cut you to ribbons. They take on the form of the victim as they attack so that you’re looking at your own face as you die.”
“Thanks for the nightmares,” Carl muttered.
“How do you remember Fisher’s Gasp, Danielle?” Rose asked.
“Alexandra doesn’t talk about it much.”
“That’s probably for the best.” Sir Longbow looked at the bottom of her empty tankard and stood to fill it.”
“Was it a nice place? I’d never been.”
Danielle gave Rose a hard look, but her mother’s partner didn’t blink. “It was a small village. A few houses. Ours was in the middle. Ours until Alexandra threw me out. The entire village, people who’d known me my whole life, they all pretended I didn’t exist. They threw me scraps when I was starving as if I was a stray dog.
There was a barn at the end of the village, next to the inn. That’s where I found my father. Darren the Disgraced. He was lying dead with a drink in his hand. I took his shield and his sword, and I left him there to rot.
Any other questions, Rose?” Danielle looked at the mortified woman.
Filling her beer again, she looked at the gathering. No one spoke. No one looked at her. She opened the door and left the house.
Twilight Leonor was a hard place to navigate. Tight alleys and identical buildings were a great way to catch a drunk. She palmed the granite walls and stumbled until the world opened around her at the southern wall.
“Sir Longbow?” A guard in his green Crann tabard with the oak across the front peered through the darkness at her.
“That’s me. Enemies at the gate?”
“Then open it for me. I need to clear my head.”