The air was colder as they approached the mountains, leaving Nima grateful that Ulrich was so thoughtful to obtain a thick fur cloak before leaving the last settlement. She was still concerned that she heard Selig berating the man the next night. She snuggled deeper into the cloak, although it didn’t seem to bother Selig and his squire Constance. They were clad in simple, padded armor and leather caps as they worked at shifting fallen timber and stone. They easily shouldered aside the debris blocking the door. Selig entered, returning moments later, shaking his head.
Constance sighed in resignation and retrieved her pipe from Nima, who had been sheltering it from the wind. She was glad to return the foul smelling thing. It astonished her how the pair kept passing the pipe back and forth, exhaling the smoke that nauseated the young priestess the first time she smelled it.
The trio remained silent for some time. Finally, Selig stood from the rubble they had piled up, and both women fell in behind their lord. They travelled the western part of the town for some time before finding Ulrich and Osa. Both were sitting and talking quietly. When Osa saw Selig approaching, she immediately leapt to her feet, bowing. Ulrich continued to sit, reaching out to Constance for the pipe.
Osa was obviously perturbed by Ulrich’s lack of formality, but said nothing. Nima had become accustomed to long silences from her companions. Osa tended to be more talkative, if stiffly proper, than the other three. Growing up in convents and abbeys meant that this lack of needless conversation was natural.
“My Lord,” Osa said, “we have found no signs of the townsfolk in every building we inspected.” The woman stood to attention and placed emphasis on addressing Selig by status. She seemed to take pleasure in serving a person of such title.
Selig pulled off his cap, rubbing the bald pate reflectively. He didn’t react too much to Osa’s report, which seemed to deflate the woman.
“Thank you, Osa,” he said. Turning, he addressed his servant. “Ulrich, you seem to be mulling over something. Tell me.”
The man had tried to avoid eye contact, busying himself with slouching against a wall while drawing on the foul pipe.
“Well, Milord, I think we should leave quickly. There’s a feeling of spirits here about and I don’t like the air of this place at all. It’s unnatural here.”
Osa glared at his seemingly disrespectful attitude, but it didn’t seem to bother Selig. The older man nodded.
“We are too deeply involved to leave. Keep up with your instincts, though.”
Osa was evidently unhappy at the exchange. Nima knew that Constance and Ulrich had served Selig for years and it seemed Osa was jealous of this camaraderie.
Without a word, the three stood and began walking, leaving Osa and Nima to fall in behind them. The dynamics of the group weren’t ideal, but Nima felt a kinship to Selig and his companions. Osa, though, left her suspicious. The woman was more interested in seeking approval than assimilating into the group. She reminded Nima of too many members of the clergy, always seeking favor from those above.
The priestess thought of how cutthroat some of her faith could be. That was part of why she had been sent off with Lord Selig’s companions. As always, though, she thought back to the flood, and her failure. She shook the thought from her head and continued to follow her new leader.
They wound through the maze of streets until the sounds of merriment led them into the town center. The soldiers that had accompanied them had found alcohol and were obviously deep into their cups. In the center of it all was Anse. He had joined Selig’s company not long ago, around the time of Osa. Nima saw Selig’s face go blank. He walked slowly and unnoticed to Anse, then suddenly grabbed the large man by the scruff of the neck and hurled him to the ground without apparent effort. One of the soldiers began to move towards the nobleman until Constance stepped up and hurled the man over her shoulder.
The laughter died off as the massed men stared in shock. Neither Selig or Constance were large people, but showed a strength that would not be expected from their lean bodies. Ulrich had half-drawn his sword and moved to protect his lord. Selig walked over to stand over Anse’s prone form.
“I am certain you had orders that did not involve debauchery.” The words were spoken softly, which sounded more menacing to Nima than a shout. Anse, panting, tried to get his breath back. Without a word, he stood and took his place among his fellow retainers. His reddened face and grimace showed he was displeased with the humiliation.
The party walked back to the encampment in the town center. They occupied the southern part of the plaza while the rest of the expedition was to the north. As they approached, the nobleman’s pages stood waiting to assist. They helped remove the party’s equipment and everyone saw to maintenance, oiling blades and beating the dust from the padded garments. A few joined Nima in preparing dinner. She enjoyed their company, remembering better days.
Selig left his gear to the pages and set about to brew tea. His willingness to pitch in remained a wonder to the young woman. Even the elder priests she had known deeply enjoyed the ease of life that came with their station. She could see the disapproval on Osa’s face. The woman’s reverence for rank rankled Nima, especially since the other woman disapproved of Selig taking his share of the work rather than sitting at ease.
Nima shook the thoughts away and focused on smoked pork, rice, and bread. She took over the cooking early on and everyone seemed grateful for that. She had tasted their attempts and was quite willing to push them out of the way. She remembered Ulrich’s laughter when she nudged their lord out of the way to avoid eating another of his meals. Nima did not realize his station when she had done so and was mortified when it was pointed out that she had scolded an earl for his ineptitude.
Chores finished, everyone leaned back against their saddles to eat. All asked for seconds, making grateful noises when they found there was enough. They had brought provisions for weeks, so their priestess did not scold them for not leaving anything for breakfast. The thought that she was appreciated made the trip almost a pleasure. Anse and Osa put her off, but the others were easy to get along with. In spite of the stench of the pipweed, she bundled up in the fur cloak and curled up next to Constance. The squire was clearly the younger woman, but she felt like an older, experienced sister to Nima. The younger woman passed the pipe to Ulrich and Selig and smiled as she enjoyed the sisterly embrace.
The silence of the camp was broken by approaching footsteps. Selig and Ulrich were wreathed in smoke and remained silent as Anse and Osa jumped up to greet their visitors. Both were furious at their companions’ relaxed manner. A half-dozen men stood just inside the firelight. Four were mercenaries accompanying two retainers of the baronettes.
The elder man, Jacobs, stepped closer and grinned warmly at his greeting, going chilly when he turned to the relaxing quartet.
“Selig, Milady summons you to attend upon her.”
The nobleman exchanged stares with the servant. Jacobs’ stern look was undermined by his large, watery eyes. After a moment, he looked away, turning his gaze on Nima and Constance.
“You are a poor example to this young woman. She should not be allowed to be so familiar with another woman.”
Selig remained non-verbal, taking the pipe back from Ulrich.
“You overstep yourself, old man. Curry for her favor to your heart’s content, but recall that I am an earl and greatly outrank your pompous mistress.”
The reedy man beside Jacobs bristled with indignation, wringing his skeletal hands in consternation.
“Selig, we are on a blessed journey on the orders of the king. Even an atheist such as yourself can recognize our holy mission.” His face reddened when he heard a snort of derision from the group. Nima was mortified to realize that it was from her.
The mercenaries began to move forward, but Selig and his retainers were already on their feet. Ulrich and Constance began to advance on the priest. Cold fury and a dozen angry warriors drove the interlopers back. Even Nima was taken aback by the ferocity of the pages. Selig barked out an order to halt. The party stopped in their tracks and Selig walked up to the trembling priest. His arrogance failed him with the man standing nose to nose with the priest and the scraping sound of the mercenaries backing away.
“Listen closely, pisspot. I have not endured so much of life to be insulted by a vagrant like yourself. Madallon has surrounded herself with sycophants searching for an easy life and the two of you,” he said, gesturing at both the priest and Jacobs, “are at the top of that list. Keep your distance from my people. I won’t stop them a second time.”
Nima had not heard her lord speak so much at once, and the chilly tone caused her to shudder more than the implied threat.
“We will speak in the morning,” he continued, “after we have had breakfast. Not before.”
Jacobs took Anatol by the arm and led the priest and mercenaries back to their camp. Nima realized that Anse and Osa had held back when the rest stood to defend their lord. The mercenary company had them outnumbered, but Nima had no doubt that Selig and his retainers could mow them down as little more than a field of wheat. The mercenaries were little more than tavern louts, while her companions had spoken quietly of various campaigns and the comrades they had lost.
After the food was packed away and the dishes cleaned, the pages split up the duties of night watch. Ulrich chuckled and asked where the rest of them figured into the job. He was rebuked with chidings that all the old people needed sleep.
“Silence that disrespect!” Osa’s roar shook the walls of the courtyard. She drew in breath for another outburst until Constance crossed the distance in a blur, knocking the other woman to the ground.
“Be silent,” she said, walking away, “and get some sleep or I’ll help you into unconsciousness.”
Ulrich slipped over to Osa, speaking softly and pulling her into an embrace. She resisted for a moment before sulkily accepting his touch. Nima could hear his whispers. He was probably intent on smoothing things out. A few minutes later, the pair had lain down to sleep. Nima moved closer to Constance and share the warm cloak with her. The younger woman made her feel safe.
Nima woke to the smell of cooking food and heard Selig’s voice close by.
“You seemed to need more rest, so we let you sleep.” He handed her a mug of hot, sweet tea, which she accepted with grateful noises. Anse came over and sat next to her carrying two battered tin plates. He offered the smaller one to which she thanked him. He responded by leaning over and drawing her into a hug. It felt awkward and was relieved when he released her.
“So, she said, trying to divert attention elsewhere, “when will we visit the other camp?”
Osa snorted. “We should have already.”
Cullen, one of the pages, skewered her with a hard stare. “Our lord rushes for no one below his station.” The older woman glared at the boy, but kept silent. When breakfast was over, the group began preparing to begin the day. The pages helped Selig, Constance, and Ulrich into steel mail before donning rigid leather armor themselves. It was obvious that neither Anse or Osa were pleased with this martial display. Weapons were belted on and another page, Elijah, unfurled Selig’s banner. The black background, detailed with an empty pair of boots and a cloven shield, was ominous.
Everyone but Osa and Anse fell into step behind Selig, the former walking just behind the man, and the latter walking next to Nima. His behavior often made her nervous, often needing to make some manner of physical contact with her. No one had said anything about this, but she couldn’t imagine it escaping the notice of their companions. Nothing seemed to miss their attention. She continued walking with her eyes focused at the back of Selig’s head.
Ahead of the column was a large pavilion, somewhat threadbare, with Madalon sitting in a large gilt chair the size of a throne with Anatol and Jacobs sitting to either side in slightly less opulent chairs. Nima could faintly hear Cullen say, “She actually lugged that all the way here.” There was a brief round of sniggers from the pages until Constance made a soft snap of her fingers.
The mercenaries made an attempt to stand at attention, but they slouched in place and whispered among themselves. The retainers to either side of their lady looked to have regained their pompous arrogance. Both attempted to convey a sense of judgement, but they were laughably incompetent at looking wise and bleak. Selig stood with his arms crossed and gave the assemblage a cool gaze.
“Well,” he said, “talk to me. It will be a long day continuing our search of the area. A conference will encroach upon that opportunity.”
Madallon bristled at his tone. “How dare you speak to me with such disrespect in my own domain! I will be addressed properly from this point forward!”
She was interrupted before continuing her tirade.
“This is not your domain yet, for starters. The king has not confirmed your ascension as yet,” Selig said in a flat tone. He began to approach her, causing the mercenaries to reach for their weapons. In response, Selig’s retainers fanned out, each of them holding a heavy mace in their hands.
“Furthermore,” he said, “you will guard that whining tone when speaking to me. Even if you receive this as an inheritance, I will still outrank you. I am not your servant or an inferior. This place has seen some terrible occurrences and I am here to find out what. When we have finished, feel free to stay. We will not.”
He turned and walked away towards the north side of town where the keep could be found. The party fell in behind him, hanging their maces from belts. Madallon, Anatol, and Jacobs all began to scream their outrage, but were ignored. The main boulevard leads directly to the massive structure. Having focused on the town first, they had not examined it closely before now. The missing townsfolk was enough to deal with over the first few days after arriving. Now, as the group approached, it was apparent that there were two structures, connected by walkways.
Anse spoke with awe in his voice: “This is a magnificent structure for our lady.”
Ulrich snorted. “It is poorly constructed. This place is an older keep that was repaired. Probably it took the whole population to complete it quickly.”
A dark look crossed Osa’s face. Nima saw it, but let it pass without comment. Ulrich will never learn that he continues to drive a wedge between him and his lover.
Selig had stopped staring at the bleak stone pile before them. He was instead looking at the flagstones leading to the gates. Everyone began to gather around him, all staring at an inscription:
Up the hill
Go the feet
All the little children
The pages stood silent, knowing when to remain silent. Too many painful memories blanketed Nima, keeping her silent. Finally, it was Constance who broke the silence:
“We follow these children, then.” She stepped in front of Selig, immediately followed by Ulrich. They adjusted their shields and drew short, heavy-bladed swords. The pair took the lead, advancing toward the gatehouse.
The portcullis was raised and the gates stood open and there was a skittering of startled little claws. Cullen groaned. His dislike of rats was well-known to the others. The walk through the gatehouse was a nervous affair with the walls and ceiling lined with holes for attacking anyone attempting to assault the structure. Darkness enveloped them as the group ventured further. At a nod from Ulrich, Cullen and Elijah went ahead, but they returned moments later.
“The gate ahead is open, my lord.”
“There is no open courtyard,” Selig asked.
“No, my lord,” Ulrich replied, “It appears to have been covered over as the structure was repaired.”
Selig nodded to the pages, who began taking out lanterns from their packs. Some of them were strangely shaped, confusing Nima, until she saw them being affixed to the groups shields.Elijah and Cullen took the rear of the group and the other three remained in the center, holding large lanterns in one hand and weapons in the free hand. They were added to the group shortly before Nima was assigned to accompany Selig. They lacked the experience the other two had developed over the years. The group were protective of the recent additions, teaching them as much as possible to prepare them for future battles.
Ulrich and Constance resumed leading the goup until the sound of footfalls behind them caused the group to rapidly turn brandishing their weapons. Their lights illuminated the mercenaries that were shuffling through the passage, torches held aloft. It was apparent that they were apprehensive walking into the darkness, a number visibly shaking. Ulrich was heard hissing curses, but Anse was pleased to see them.
“My friends,” he breathed, “The more the merrier!”
Cullen snorted, saying: “Try not to stab someone with your shaking hands.” With that he turned his back on them and Selig signaled that they should proceed. However, Anse growled before cuffing Cullen in the ear. Selig kicked the large man’s knees from under him, holding his mace in both hands and using the haft to choke the man. “Never do that again, you meaningless worm.” He released Anse, pushing his stumbling body towards the mercenaries before proceeding down the hall with his retainers.
Entering into where a courtyard was expected to be, the group fanned out, looking into the various doorways in the walls. After taking stock of the surroundings, they gathered in the center of the chamber. No one found anything of note beyond weapons in poor shape and rotten food.
“Well, there are three ways to go,” Constance noted, “but where do we look first? The keep, down the staircase in that hallway, or up those stairs?”
Osa, who had been silent since they entered, spoke: “I will take Cullen and take the stairs down. We should be back quickly.”
Selig said nothing, staring into her eyes for several breaths before speaking.
“Cullen, would you do this for me?”
“Certainly my lord, my curiosity is alive and well,” the young man said with a grin.
Osa nodded toward the mercenaries. “I’ll take a few of them if we need a hand.”
Every member of the party looked at their opposite number with suspicion. Selig pointed to two of them and said, “You will go with them.” The two began to protest, but quailed under the older man’s glare. They reluctantly followed the other pair down the narrow passage. The staircase down was narrow and wound in sharply angled turns.
The quartet entered a sizeable chamber that stretched ahead into the dark. After a few steps, it was apparent that the walls were lined with alcoves that held manacles and large hooks. Cullen hung the mace on his belt, reaching forward to adjust the gate on his lantern. With the light narrowed into a beam, it reached nearly the full length of the chamber. There were trap doors at intervals in the floor. The young man walked forward and began to tug at the ring on the first door. It began to budge, but he had to sling his shield across his back. Grabbing with both hands, the heavy wood door shifted and he walked backward until he was able to lower it to the floor.
The other three were apprehensive of their surroundings, but fell into gaping astonishment at the strength possessed by the boy. Watching his efforts, they began to walk over when he shined his lantern into the hole. The floor was obscured by the tumbled mass of bones that filled the pit.
“An oubliette,” Cullen said, “I’ve seen one before, but this is beyond imagining.” His voice was low and husky. He moved on and tugged open another to find the same carnal discovery. He stared down and made a strange gesture and seemed to whisper a prayer.
“Who would slaughter so many children,” he whispered.
Osa jumped at his words and, though her mouth was moving, no sound emerged. The mercenaries shook in horror. Cullen looked at each in turn.
“Look closer. These are not the bones of adults.”
Looking around, he realized there were scratches on the bottom of each door. Walking back and forth, Cullen recited the words:
One by one
Two by two
Three by three
All the little children
Up the steps
Round the keep
Down the steps
All the little children
Rushing across the room, he hurled open the remaining oubliettes. There were more inscriptions:
Curtsy the queen
Bow the king
All the little children
Tables are set
Candles are lit
Into the kitchen
All the little children
Down the steps
Under the tower
Round the hole
All the little children
Cullen felt a chill down his spine, knowing that these words are connected to the presence of this charnel house. His fellow searchers were overtaken by a near manic state of relief at the seeming lack of danger. The presence of the pits of bones obviously unnerved them, but they took refuge in pompous arrogance and disrespect at the discovery.
While they laughing their way through the horror around them, Osa was watching Cullen as he explored the room, carefully panning his lantern light over every inch of the chamber. He inspected the hooks and manacles, often returning to the oubliettes before stopping before one. He crouched at the edge spending time studying the contents. She had not forgotten how insulting he was toward Madallon. Looking at the mercenaries, who followed her nod and they walked over to Cullen. The mercenaries rushed forward and knocked the young man into the pile of bones. They laughed as he struggled to get his footing. Osa looked satisfied at his discomfort.
The amusement of the watchers drained away as Cullen grunted in pain and jerked a leg out of the bones. A skull was latched to his leg. The rest of the pile began to shift, skulls began to turn his direction with some of the fuller skeletons rising up and shambling towards the page. Cullen was swift with his mace, the weapon singing through the air as he began to crush bones with surprising speed and accuracy as the skulls continued to assault him.
Osa and the mercenaries stood trembling, their throats dry and unable to speak. Cullen fought through tears and the agony of tearing teeth, his stoicism unbroken until an armless skeleton lunged forward. The creature bit through his right arm, severing the limb. Howling in pain, Cullen caught the falling weapon in his other hand, swinging hard on the skull that just struck him. His mangled legs gave way and, still fighting, the youth fell back into the pile, his screams trailing off into a wet gurgling.
Moments later, the waiting group was rushing into the chamber, Selig charging forth to find his servant. He approached the trembling observers as the sounds of crunching bones became louder. Looking into the pit, he saw the mangled remains of his faithful retainer. Osa caught his eye and backpedaled.
“He fell, milord! He leaned forward too far and lost his footing!”