Thin White Duke Sandbox

They found the stranger just before dawn. Two of the night watchmen caught him asummerstars he tried to scale over the eastern wall of Kartahold. Despite his best efforts to resist capture, it only took the two of them to beat him into submitting. As he lay on the ground, fighting to return to his feet, the guards searched him for weapons or coins they could take as their own. Much to their disappointment, they found nothing. Even in the darkness, it was clear that the stranger was dressed in only rags. He wore a tattered brown cloak and hood, thrown over his large frame. Following his surrender, the guards dragged him to his new accommodation. The cells in Kartahold were located at the top of a great stone tower near the center of the town. Without so much as alerting their superiors, the two guards matched the stranger up to the highest of the chambers and threw the hooded figure onto the damp straw floor. So slight was their concern, that they didn’t even bother to chain him. Locking the heavy iron door behind them, neither one even began to suspect that the broken man locked away could pose any danger. After all, he had been without weapons and it had only taken two men to restrain him.
If they had only noticed that the man not once cried out in pain or surprise during his capture.

In the morning, when Lord Flinatar of the Kartahold awoke, he was informed of the night's intruder. When one of his marshals had told him, both of them had laughed at the matter. Lord Flinatar proclaimed, loudly enough that he was sure the captured man could hear, that it would take more than one mad man to overcome the Kartahold. The marshal laughed along, taking some assurance that the King must be right. For he was not so easy with this intruder as everyone else seemed to be.
The marshal's name was Hector. Hector was not as young as Lord Flinatar was and he hoped not as naive. For as long as anyone could remember he had been marshal of Kartahold and before that he had been a military man. Years of living as he had lived left him with a sense for when something wasn't quite right. For when someone was more than they seemed. And upon hearing of the night's intruder, a mental tripwire was tripped in his brain. Like a dog's ears at a far off sound, his soul pricked up into attention.

"You should know better than to trouble me with this," Lord Flinatar complained as he lay tossed across his bed.
Flinatar was an attractive man, with a sharp chin but dull eyes. His hair was jet black but glistened like gold oil in the right light. Sprawling naked, before Hector, Flinatar possessed both youthful attractiveness and aged strength. But while his body may have been pleasant, Hector failed to see the attraction of anything else in Flinatar. Among the common folk of Kartahold, it was said that Flinatar's hair had more self-control than he did. Hector often pondered how it was that a man could be both so lazy and so cruel.
"Have the man executed, and let me sleep." He barked as he rolled over, brushing the oak colored hair of the woman lying naked next to him. She muttered something inaudible, perhaps to Flinatar but perhaps to someone in her dreams.
Hector did not know who the woman was. Lord Flinatar had returned from an expedition with her at his side. He only ever referred to her as The Woman. No names, no titles. Marshal Hector had taken that to mean that whoever she was, the Woman was a no one. Most likely some peasant girl Flinatar had spied while riding, or a madden he had stumbled into on a hunt. No one of significance, and no one to remember. It was nothing new for Flinatar to take a common girl as a concubine for a few months. She was attractive, with a slender frame and a short figure. Brown hair encased her heart-shaped face in a pretty case.
Averting his eyes from the Woman, Hector spoke directly to his Lord. He held his hands clasped behind his back.
"If I may, I suggest that you might let me speak to the man. Find out who he is. What it is that he wants. When I am done and have the answers, I will execute him."
Dismissing Hector with an absent-minded wave of his hand, Lord Flinatar returned all of his attention to his female companion. Needing no more reason to leave, Mariah Hector excused himself from the chamber. At a brisk pace defined by its clear sense of direction, Hector shot like an arrow towards the prison tower. Leaving the imperial quarters behind him, he crossed down into the great hall.
Since the death of Lord Fallhood, Flinatar's father, there had been few reasons to call the hall great. Hector could remember a time when richly decorated tapestries and paintings embellished the walls. When the Lord of the Kartahold sat on an imposing throne of wood and iron. In its place, Flinatar had constructed a wide and stylistic chair that he sat half-buried beneath mountains of pillows. Flinatar had turned it into his personal tavern and filled it with his personal rogues. Everywhere he went he collected cutthroats and sellswords that attached themselves to him like flies to rotten meat. But while some more proper lords might have worked to dispel these men, Flinatar welcomed them. They shared in his spoils of war, often taking more than Flinatar himself did. Word had spread that working for Lord Flinatar could make one fat on gold, and more and more mercenaries had come. Now they infested the corridors and halls of the Kartahold like maggots inside a bloated corpse.
Hector passed a few groups of them in the great hall. They sat in the shadows of the room, watching Hector as he passed. They watched him come, and he felt them watch him go. Hector felt his hand instinctively tighten its grip on his sword. He did not anticipate that he would have to use it today, but he decided that there was no harm in being prepared.
Crossing through the muddy inner-courtyard, Hector's eyes were drawn to the highest window in the prison tower. He could picture the cell, cramped, damp and cold. A large barred window let in light and any trace of warmth out. The iron bars let ribbons of yellow light in, always giving the room's inhabitants a sense of freedom that was just out of reach. Of escape that was calling to them, daring them to try and break free. Of course, even if any prisoner could break the bars they would still have to overcome a fifty-foot drop onto the courtyard below.
Hector entered the prison tower through it's single door. The two guards on either side nodded and parted to let him pass. Their armor was dirty, and their stance would have suggested they were relaxing off duty instead of guarding a prisoner. Neither was wearing a helmet, and one had removed his gauntlets. Under Lord Flinatar, discipline had sunken low. It appalled Hector, but he knew it wasn't his place to question his Lord's commands.
Hector made his way quickly up the spiral staircase. Narrow and winding, the irregular stone made it easy for one to lose his footing. Despite this, Hector took the shallow steps two at a time, driven by nervous energy. The closer he got to the top of the tower, the faster he took the steps. By the end he was almost leaping, crossing three or four steps at a time. He turned the final corner and found himself facing the iron laced door barring the prisoner inside. He slowed himself right down, traveling at only a walking pace. The nervous energy inside him had not disappeared, if anything it was getting stronger. But it was burning slower now, fuelling not his body but his mind.
He reached into his pocket, his stiff fingers fumbling as they failed to grasp the key. Calming himself, and slowing his breathing, he pulled it out slowly. Measuring each of his movements carefully, he slid it into the lock. Hector twisted it into place with deliberation, letting each of the clicks ring out in the closed space. In his head, Hector reminded himself that he was in control. He told himself that it was he who was the master in this situation. The prisoner should be afraid for his life.
With renewed vigor, Hector stopped stalling and pushed the door open. The rusty hinges cried out, flooding the enclosed space with hateful sound. The rank smell of rotten strawn rushed out to greet him. The stench was such an assault on his senses that he was nauseous in mere moments.
Three rays of morning sunlight cut into the chamber. Dust caught in the light's path was shown in detail. But while they illuminated the ground before them, they also emphasized the room's shadows. Hector stepped tentatively into the room, feeling sure that at any moment a figure would spring from the darkness and ambush him. Inside the cage of his chest, his heart drummed faster and faster. It was now beating with such force that Hector was sure he could hear it echo off the chamber walls. Without realizing what he was doing, his right hand drifted to grasp the hilt of his sword. As his eyes tried in vain to peace the veil of shadows, his hand pulled outwards. The sound of steel on leather slowed the beating of Hector's heart. Now he was prepared for any attacker. Only a mad man would dare try to attack him with his sword drawn.
Hector had thought he was ready for anything but what his eyes did finally see when they had adjusted shocked him. Sitting in the shadowed corner of the prison was a half-obscured figure. Silent and still, the stranger did not move in the slightest as Hector entered. In the marshal's eyes, the stranger was nothing more than a silhouette. A vague and almost shapeless outline, defined only by the whites of his eyes that Hector could make out.
Putting his sword back into his sheath, Hector did his best to unravel the enigma of the man before him. But the stranger had chosen his position well. The ebony shadows wrapped tightly around him, revealing only what he chose to let Hector see.
I have lost the upper hand Hector realized. By stepping into the light of the room, he had let the stranger make all the deductions he wished, while Hector himself still knew just as little as he did when he first walked in.
"Step into the light," he commanded, hoping to catch up with the stranger. Slowly, and taking all the time he needed to, the stranger came to his feet. Hector waited patiently, taking some satisfaction in knowing his command would soon be obeyed. The man moved half into the light, and Hector found that the stranger hid his face again with a hood.
"Shy, are we?" he asked menacingly as he tore the hood from the stranger and pulled him to where he could get a good look at him. Grasping him by the collar, Hector held the stranger close to his face. He had intended to hurt the stranger, but his captive took the grasping as one might take a telling off. His face betrayed only the smallest sense of discomfort and certainly no pain.
What Hector had pictured the stranger to be and what the stranger truly looked like were two different pictures. In his mind, the shape in the shadows had been a thin, dangerous-looking man. Perhaps even handsome in an outlaw's kind of way. His face would have been thin, with hollow cheeks emphasized by sharp cheekbones. Instead, he was confronted with an ugly face and broad-shoulders. Any subtitle charm about his face was lost due to an overly round nose and two fat red lips. While the upper one was bulbous and blushing red, the lower seemed almost gray and sunken. The stranger was also far younger than Hector had envisioned. Perhaps only sixteen, but large for his age. A few patches of awkwardly shaved stubble grew like ugly moss on his chin and arms. Whoever he was, the boy was used to physical labor. His skin was sun-baked to the point of being dusky. Over his large figure, the boy wore a shabby green tunic and ill-fitting brown cloak. It protruded outwards at his shoulders but hung loosely around his feet.
Hector had seen all kinds of reactions to integration. Some prisoners cowered in fear, hoping their tears would shield them from his anger. Others tried to stand defiant and tall, telling themselves that no matter what happened they would not break. That they could stand against anything Hector threw at them. Hector had grown accustomed to all manner of fear and had seen it in all its forms. But how the stranger stood was new. He neither cowered in fear or tried to stand any taller and prove something. There wasn't so much as a speck of rage in his eyes. Instead, he simply regarded Hector with the casual contempt one might give to an overly loud drunk. Not the fear that the marshal was accustomed to. The indifference of the boy was only further fuel on the fire inside him.
"What is your name?" Hector barked directly into the boy's face, tightening his grasp.
"Oherod of the Bones," the boy replied. Hector found his voice just as repellent as his features. His voice was a high tenor undercut by a low growl. But what defined his voice most was its total apathy towards Hector. There was no fear, as Hector was accustomed to. Not even disgust. Only a blank slate of cold dullness. It took Hector only a moment to realize what the boy was doing. He was hiding. His neutral stance and blank face were meant to hide who he really was. Even his words had been chosen to answer Hector's question without revealing anything of his identity. Assuming that Oherod of the Bones was the boy's real name, then it only told Hector one thing. The name meant nothing to him, but of the Bones was interesting.
"A Boneman?" Hector pondered aloud as he released his grasp on the boy, tossing him onto the straw. The boy only watched him with his deep green eyes, saying nothing. "Tell me, what is it that brings a Boneman this far south. I thought you were all penned up in the north, fighting in your petty wars with the Angos."
The boy muttered something quietly, with his head bowed. Hector listened close, but the growl of the boy's voice obscured the words.
"What was that?" Hector demanded, snapping at the boy like a crocodile.
Turning his hideous visage towards Hector, the boy spoke just a little bit louder. "I'm not a Boneman," Was all he said. Hector laughed. When the marshal of Kartahold laughed, it was a cold cackle, devoid of any joy.
"You aren't a Boneman?' Hector said mockingly as if he had never heard anything so funny. "Tell me then, Oherod of the Bones, who are you. Your accent betrays your level of education; high for a Boneman. Perhaps you have been spending some time with Lords of the Clans. But if you have then what could it be that brings you to the Kartahold? No spy or assassin would be as large or as foolish as you. They would know better than to attempt to scale the walls. But I can see that you are no meer stupid brute. There is more to you than that. Someone has prepared you for interrogation, that much is plain. You were prepared for my entrance, and even now you evade me. So, when I ask you again who you are, please do me the honor of not mistaking me for a fool." Hector paused, emphasizing the moment. He watched Oherod's face carefully, searching for a crack in the iron armor the Boneman presented him with.
"Who are you, Oherod of the Bones?" Hector asked for a second time and with great satisfaction, he watched as the crack he had been hoping for appeared. Across Oherod's face dashed a look of surprise. Trailing behind it came the shadow of a smile. The corners of his plump lips twisted upwards, and specks of interest appeared in his green eyes.
"You are clearly a man of intelligence, marshal Hector," Oherod said, his voice lingering on the fact that he knew who it was he was addressing. "So I will tell you who I am and what my business is in Kartahold." He paused, letting Hector wait just that little bit longer.
"My name is Oherod of the Bones. I am one of the Western Wardens and was sent here by Quinton the Lion,High Warden of the West. He asked me to come to the Katarhold."
"And why would the Lion be sending a Warden to the Katarhold?" Hector asked, not believing a word Oherod said.
"I was sent here to retrieve Lady Elizabeth Roseheart from your Lord."
Hector cursed himself for the instant of surprise the darted across his face. For while it fled as fast as it had appeared, Oherod caught it.
"You didn't know," he said with a small chuckle.Tossing his head backward, he let the small sound fill the space. The laughter made Hector want to cut out his tongue. But despite his bitter glare, the Boneman continued as if it were all some grand jape. "I suppose that you assumed your Lord had become overly friendly with some shy peasant girl. Well, it turns out she's the daughter of Sir Noa and he wants her back."
Hector's mind began processing what he was hearing. The woman being the daughter of Lord Noa changed everything. While not a powerful lord, Noa was a Warden of the East and had powerful friends. Myles of the Storm, Charles the Hammer and to name a few. His cousin was the great Dustin Roseheart. Any one of them could muster a force large enough to storm the gates of Kartahold. Not that they would need to. Just the mention of the three of them would be enough to scatter the defenders of most castles like disturbed flies. Hector suspected that the mercenaries and sellswords that Flinatar collected would flee faster than most. If they wished for it, the three of them could storm the Kartahold unaided. Dustin was cunning enough to devise a way of entering undetected, and Sir Myle’s storm knights could lay siege to it. And Hector knew that thicker walls than the Katarhold’s had crumbled into dust from a single blow of the enchanted war hammer Tide Maw in the hands of Charles of clan Hammer.
"Why would a man like Sir Noa, with such powerful friends, send you to come to take back his daughter?"
Oherod laughed again, and Hector came deathly close to gutting the Boneman.
"I have not been sent to take her back," he said, and for a moment the Marshal hoped that he was getting somewhere in the integration. Then Oherod spoke again and any hopes disappeared like snow under the sun. "I have been sent to ask for her back. If you would rather keep her, then someone will be sent to take her back. By whatever force they deem fair."
It was Hector's turn to laugh. "You lie well for a Boneman." It gave him great satisfaction to watch the world make Oherod wince. But for as sure as he sounded, Hector could feel that there was some truth to what Oherod was saying. Some of it was a lie, but how much? Hector began to try to extract the fact from the fiction.
"But you lie nevertheless. And you still have not answered my question? Why would Sir Noa send a nameless Warden like yourself? If it were truly his wish to have his daughter back, then the Katarhold would be swarming with knights and Wardens. Or perhaps he would come himself. After all, he is an Eastern Warden is he not? So tell me, Oherod of the Bones, what are you doing in the Katarhold?"
Oherod did not answer the question instantly. Instead, he sat in brooding silence, staring at Hector with death in his eyes. If a gaze could kill, Hector suspected that Oherod would have killed him. The silence between them grew into an almost physical barrier. When Oherod finally did speak, his words were just as deadly as his gaze.
"Call me a Boneman again," he said as a matter of fact. "And you will die."
Hector smiled coyly but felt more than a little uneasy. Something in the way that Oherod made the threat left him feeling that Oherod truly believed he could kill him. Whether or not Hector believed Oherod could, was another matter.
"Is that so?" he asked. "Because from where I am standing, you are in no position to make threats."
"Not a threat," Oherod said with a shrug. "Just a fact,"
Hector smiled, masking his inner fear with a mummer's talent. "Tell me then," he said, putting a cordal tone into his voice, and taking a seat opposite Oherod. "How would you do it? If you were to kill me right now, in this tower. What would be your first move?"
Oherod smiled a knowing smile and as if he knew some secret Hector had yet to discover. He looked up and let out a sigh.
"If" Oherod began slowly, "I wanted to kill you, I could simply dive towards you. Like so," and before Hector realized what was being said, the Boneman lept towards him. Poncing like a panther, Oherod moved with surprising speed for someone his size. Swift as an arrow shot from a bow, he landed on Hector. Raising his hands defensively, Hector did his best to fight the boy off. But Oherod was strong, and Hector far past his prime. In a matter of moments, the struggle was over. No sooner than he had landed on him than Oherod's hands where on Hector's dagger. In a moment of desperate panic, Hector grasped Oherod's hands. But Oherod was the stronger man by far, and he wrenched the dagger free. After Oherod had control of the blade, the fight was short-lived. With the accuracy of a surgeon but the fury of a beast, Oherod slashed at Hector's right hand. A bleeding gash appeared, blood spilling out like wine. Hector cried, as acute pain pulsed like lightning up his arm and into his shoulder. No sooner than the sound had escaped his mouth did the injured Marshal feel Oherod's heavy hand clasp it shut.
"Shut up you fool," the Boneman hissed at Hector, his eyes frantically scanning the doorway. Already, Hector could hear the sounds of footsteps racing up the winding staircase.
"The sellswords at the door, can they fight?" Oherod asked quickly, caught between guarding Hector and moving to fight. Unsure of what answer was true, and even more unsure of what answer Oherod wanted, Hector simply stood petrified as Oherod swore loudly enough to ensure that if the guards had not already been on their way, they were now.
Moving urgently, Oherod dashed behind the door. Clasping his bleeding hand, Hector watched as Oherod hid behind it. Just as he found cover, the two sellswords ran into sight. They saw Hector on the ground, bleeding. That sight might have been enough to compel a regular Kartahold guard to rush to help him. But the sellswords were less interested in Hector, and more in whoever had injured him. They stepped cautiously through the doorway, their eyes taking a moment to adjust. In their hands, they carried long pikes. They were both dressed in light armor, designed to give more comfort than protection. Neither one had thought to put on their helmets on the way up.
"He's behind the door you fools," Hector shouted at them, not releasing his vice-like grip on his bleeding hand. Both of the guards heard him, but it took them by surprise. They looked around as if they had forgotten what a door was. It only took them a few seconds to figure out what Hector meant, but it was all the time that Oherod needed. Pushing the door backward, it crashed into the first of the two guards. Sent sprawling from the impact, the first landed flat on his back. His weapon went spiraling. The second was knocked off balance. Oherod wasted no time leaping from his cover, flying like an arrow towards the second guard. The sellsword was fast enough to raise his pole ax defensively, but such a large weapon was more of a hindrance than a help in the small space. Oherod's stolen dagger, on the other hand, was the perfect size. By the time the second guard had raised his poleax, Oherod was already well past its steel point. With his free hand, he grabbed onto the ax and pushed it out of the way. Oherod crashed into the sellsword with the force of a cannonball, and the two of them fell together onto the ground. With the fury of a pair of hunting hounds, they fought one another. The sellsword kicked and rolled and tried to shake Oherod off and for a moment Hector dared to hope that the Boneman might lose. But with the dagger in his hand, Oherod won the melee. The cold steel cut through the sellswords soft armor with ease, leaving the man bleeding from a wound on his chest. The first guard, having now recovered from his fall, charged towards Oherod. Penned in on both sides, there was no room for Oherod to dodge. Once more, Hector hoped that Oherod might end up skewered on the end of the ax. But Oherod moved without a second thought and threw the knife from his hand as he darted backward. As soon as he realized what Oherod had done, the guard came to a complete stop. Fear clouded his movements, and he collapsed awkwardly to the ground. His weapon landed on the ground beside him. Oherod lunged for it, and at the same time the knife cut a red, but harmless line across the sellsword's cheek. Hector realized that the knife had never been meant to kill the sellsword, but distract him. It worked and gave Oherod all the time he needed to poncing on the man like a mountain cat. Without the dagger to bring it to a quick end, this second struggle was twice as long and twice as bloody. With a curled fist, Oherod beat the sellsword until it resembled a bloody pulp. As relentless as one might beat a drum, Oherod brought his fist down time after time. Blood flew further and further with each blow until Hector was sure that there could be none left in the sellswords ruin of a face. When he finally stopped, Hector could only guess if the man was still alive.
Using the stone doorway as an aid, Oherod staggered back to his feet. Thick beads of sweat lined his brow like a strange crown. Whipping them away with the back of his left hand, he did his best to shake the pain from his left. If the force of his punches had been enough to hurt his own hand, Hector hated to think how the sellsword must be feeling.
His breathing ragged and shallow, Oherod slumped down opposite Hector. The Marshal was still clutching his bleeding hand, and biting down on his teeth as more hot blood crept out.
"Thank you for not getting involved," Oherod said in between shallow gasps. He rested his hands on his knees "For a minute I was worried you might try to help your sellsword friends. Thank you for not being a hero," He laughed but quickly fell into a burst of coughing.
"There's no one else coming, is there?" Oherod asked in a sly voice when the coughing had subsided. "No more loyal sellswords to defend their master?" Once more, the Boneman laughed and once more he began spluttering.
The pair sat in silence for a long time, Hector's hand throbbing all the while. The pain had not lessened yet, and neither had the flow of blood. What vein or artery Oherod had slashed through, he had no idea. But he knew that the pain was so bad he could hardly speak, let alone stand. How such a small wound could be so awful, he had no idea. During the Conquest of the Vipers, one of the Viper's soldiers had cut a great gash down his side with a longsword. Somehow, Oherod's little scratch stung more than that ever had. During the Conquest, Hector had been fighting in the dusty Green Rambles, or the deserts of Jehara. The sun had backed him until his armor was too hot to touch but stuck to his skin with sweat. Yet it hadn’t felt half as uncomfortable as his soft tunic did now that it was damp with blood.
Oherod noticed the Marshal's pain and a smile crossed his lips. "Hurt's doesn't it?" He asked. Hector's lack of a reply had more to do with his hatred of Oherod than the pain preventing him from speaking.
"Don't worry," Oherod said. "It won't kill you. Just hurt like hell." He paused, and his breath was finally beginning to return to a more usual pace.
Hector did have to admit, after quite some more time, the pain did begin to subside. The constant stream of blood had been returned to a slow red trickling. Oherod collected the dagger from the ground, tossing it unsheathed into his belt. He picked up the polearms of the sellswords, tossing them into a dark corner of the chamber. Whipping his hands against each other, as if shaking off dirt, he offered one down to help Hector up.
"Ready to move on, are we?" Oherod asked when he had finished.
"Move onto where?" Hector asked. Fighting against all his weariness, Hector refused the hand. His bitterness towards Oherod seeped like venom into his words and filled his heart. "What is your plan, Boneman? To sneak past the guards, slay the evil Lord and save the fair Lady? Is that it? Suppose you can do all of that, what then? You would still be trapped inside here, with no way out save the guarded gate. Unless, of course, you wanted to try to clamber over the walls. But you saw how poorly that worked when you were alone. Do you even have a chance if you have to carry Lady Elizabeth along with you?"
"I could kill you, you know," Oherod remarked dryly.
"But you haven't," Hector said, "which means you have some purpose for me." A dark smile raced across Oherod's face, a strange blackness appearing in his brilliant green eyes.
"Yes. I want you to take me to your Lord. It's time I met Lord Flinatar."

Roughly half an hour later, as Hector measured it, the situation he found himself in had changed completely. A healer had seen to his wounded hand, dressing it a strange smelling paste before wrapping it in a white sheet. The acute pain was gone, replaced with a dull ache. He could flex his fingers, but not without discomfort.
Oherod was once again closed away in the prison tower. But this time, it was of his own choosing. Hector had given him the key, and the Boneman had locked himself away.
"There are certain things I want to be done before I meet your Lord." he said, and Hector listened attentively.
The first thing that Hector did was inform Lord Flinatar that there was a Warden of the West waiting to treat with him. Lord Flinatar laughed for some time and only laughed more when Hector told him the Warden was here to negotiate the return of Lady Elizabeth to her father.
"Who did he claim to be?' Flinatar asked.
"Oherod of the Bones" Hector informed Flinatar, hands clasped behind his back to hide his wound.
"A Boneman?' Flinatar asked, speaking as if the thought intrigued him more than anything else he had heard all mourning. "Perhaps I could pay him in rocks and pebbles. Is he like the Bonemen are described? Big? Tall and loud? A long mane of black hair?"
"No," Hector admitted grudgingly. "Actually, Oherod claims that he is no Boneman."
Flinatar broke into another burst of hysterics. "It is as I said, the man is a madman. A flaw so short-sighted that he claims to be from the Bones, yet not a Boneman. He is either liar, fool or con artist hoping I will toss him some coin to fuck off. If her father truly wanted the wench back, he would have come himself." Flinatar boasted, still reclining in his bed with Lady Elizabeth lying silently beside him. Her arms hung loosely over Flinatar's bare chest. Hector couldn't say for sure but felt the arrival of Oherod had upset her in some way. Hector might have suspected that she wanted the Warden to come to save her, although the queer look that unsettled her face suggested something else.
"I thought the same at first," Hector admitted to Flinatar. The pain pulsing up his arm was near enough to drive him to madness. "But he has already killed two of your sellswords, and managed to overcome me." Hector raised his injured hand, displaying the wound. If the Marshal had intended to convince Flinatar of Oherod's danger, showing his wound had the opposite effect.
"Sellswords as weak, and you are old." He said, barely paying Hector half a mind. "So what if some madman happens to cut your hand?"
Ever the loyal servant, Hector bowed his head. "A madman perhaps, a Warden of the West also."
"Did he have anything to prove this claim?" Flinatar asked. By now, it was clear that Hector's continued interruptions of his mourning were beginning to get on his nerves. The slight aggravation that laced his voice was audible now. Beside him, Lady Elizabeth continued to hide her feelings by burying her face deep into a pillow. In other circumstances, it could have been viewed as a coy, or playful action. Now, Hector could only pity the poor girl.
"No, he had nothing to prove his claim," Hector admitted. "But I truly believe that he is who he claims to be."
"What would you have me do?" Flinatar asked, sighing. Hector doubted that his Lord believed him yet but just wanted to be done with the disturbances.
"Please, address him in the great hall. Listen to what he has to say. Then, if it is your wish, you can have him executed. But if you want it done, then do it yourself. Or at least have one of your sellswords doing it for you."
Flinatar's face twisted on itself, like a wet rag. His eyes became blue pools of bitterness.
"Fine," he spat, leaping from his bed. The covers and sheet fell away, discarded on the floor. Lady Elizabeth rolled out of bed, picking up a pearl white gown and hiding herself with it.
"Fine, I'll come down and treat with the madman." He told Hector before turning his attention to Elizabeth. "I want you to be beside me when I address this fool. Let him see that you have no intention of returning to your father. See if this Warden has the steel to steal away a woman, or if he is a chivalrous idiot." Lady Elizabeth nodded, bowing her head and turned to dress.
Flinatar dismissed Hector, and the Marshal moved to the next task that Oherod of the Bone's had given him. He went to the small iron and wood gate of the Kartahold, ordering it opened. If it had been manned by sellswords, then Hector may have found it shut to him. But sellswords are notoriously bad at guard duty, and the few men that Hector found beside the gate were old men.
Men who had served Flinatar's father in days long gone, Hector thought. Men who remembered days when a Lord of the Clain's did not steal another Lord's daughter. When Hector ordered the gate opened, no one asked what it was their Marshal was wanting beyond the gates. They simply did what they had been ordered, pushing the iron and wood open. Hector slipped out, declining the offer of an escort made by some of the older men. Oherod had demanded he go alone, and he had no intention of disobeying the Boneman.
Hector could see the tall pines of the Carastall wood as soon as he set foot outside of the gate. A small dirt track used only by small carts and mules winded away to the left, but the Carastall woods lay directly before him. The grass field that separated the castle wall and the forest was no more than twenty leagues. Hector crossed them in long strides. At first, he could feel the eyes of the sellswords from the Katarhold's walls. From over his shoulder, he thought he heard someone laugh at him. He could almost hear them laughing at their mad Marshal, wanding into the woods alone. Whether or not they knew of his defeat at the hands of Oherod he did not know, but he hoped not. Hector did not turn around, even when he undoubtedly heard laughing coming from the battlements. He simply moved forward, step after step. The pine tree's loomed above him, like nature's reply to the towers of the Kartahold. The low bushes wove a tight wall, with only a few openings revealing the layered leaves behind. Before he had felt the eyes of sellswords on his back. Now he felt a far stranger feeling, as he made his way into the deep woods. It should have been pleasant, even enjoyable. Perched in the trees, countless birds filled their air with their own songs. Beams of sunlight that looked so solid Hector felt he could touch them. The air was sweet and warm, but beneath his feet were dead leaves shaped like dry bone. The sunlight only emphasized the looming shadows. Hiding in every dark corner, Hector began to see outlaws or Wardens with their knives drawn, ready to tear him to pieces. Oherod had kept hold of his dagger, and in the rush to fulfill the Boneman's command he hadn't picked up any other weapon.
Hector kept walking, even after the forest's borders were well out of sight. Oherod had told him that he would find two men of the Order of Squires waiting in the woods.
But as it turned out, the squires found him first. The pair of them stepped out of the woods, as suddenly as if they had sprung from the oak itself. Suddenly, Hector found himself looking down the silver blade of a longsword. It's point hung so close to his nose that determining exactly where it was would have been impossible. Raising his hands to the side of his head, palms open in the universal sign of surrender, Hector looked the man up and down. He was an incredibly handsome man, in a heroic kind of way. He had short brown hair, cropped close to his head. His skin was dusky; a result of hours in the sun, Hector suspected. On his chin, he wore a pointed beard. He held the sword in his right hand, which while it looked far stronger than Oherod's, lacked some of the control the Boneman possessed. He also looked to be roughly ten years older than Oherod, which still made him twenty younger than Hector.
But the handsome man was not the only one to ambush Hector. A small girl stepped out from behind the older man. She was slight, with a frame about half that of the man's. Hector placed her age at no younger than eight, but certainly no older than eleven. She had a pointed face that somewhat resembled the sharp chin of the man, but that was where the similarities between them ended. She had long blond hair that fell back over her head in all directions, reaching PAST her shoulders. Her eyes were light blue, like a calm ocean. Unlike their male companion, they did not carry any steel. Both were dressed in simple, but well made blue tunics. Around their waists they wore belts. The man's carried an empty scabbard, the girls a small knife. Above their hearts, an open hand had been sown in with yellow thread. It rested inside a four-pointed star. Only the left point had been filled, the others were only an outline. Hector recognized the open hand as the sigil of the Order of Squires, and the four-pointed star with the left shaded in as the Wardens of the West's, leaving no question as to the identity of the two. But what Hector found strange was the young girl. Out of the four Orders of Wardens, only two accepted members of one gender. West and East for men, or North and South for women. But the young girl wore the four-pointed star with the left side shaded in. If she had been from the South or North, it would have been the bottom or top. It was only then, after close inspection, that Hector realized that it was no girl in boy's clothing he was addressing, but a boy with long golden hair.
The man holding the sword addressed him, not moving his sword from Hector's face. "Who are you?" he asked quickly.
"My name is Hector, Marshal of the Kartahold. I was sent here by Oherod of the Bones. He told me that I could find two of his squires waiting in the woods."
The two Squires shared a look. The man's face questioned the boy, who only shrugged in reply.
"Oherod sent you?" The man asked. He still held the swords in front of Hector's face, but he seemed to step out of his stance.
"That's right," Hector said.
Another shared look, and another shrug. "What did Oherod ask you to tell us?" The man asked, returning his gaze to Hector.
"He said that you were to come stand with him as he treated with Lord Flinatar. He wanted you to bring his sword and armor." Hector saw the man's mouth open to say something, but before any sound could come out the boy cut him off.
"How do we know you're who you say you are?" He asked. His voice was alto high, but not drawn out or whiny. "How do we know you haven't killed Oherod, and are leading us back into a trap. How do we know that as soon as we step foot into the Kartahold we're not going to get stabbed in the back." As if to emphasize his point, the boy threw his twig-like arms across his chest and stared daggers at Hector. The man must have been going to ask something similar because instead of telling the boy off for interrupting him, he waited expectantly for an answer.
Hector fumbled for a moment, trying to think of some way of proving that he was telling them the truth. How to let the Squires know he hadn't killed their master. "I don't think I could have killed Oherod if I'd wanted to," he admitted, hoping the truth might naturally persuade the Squires. If it was working, then neither showed any change of expression. "While he was unarmed and on the ground, he managed to overpower me and two armed sellswords." His answer seemed to have half convinced the man while not affecting the boy in the slightest. He still had his arms crossed tightly and studied Hector with his small blue eyes. The man was considering the options, weighing up his choices inside his head. After a moment of consideration, he lowered the sword. Resting the point in the soft dirt, he leaned one hand on its pommel and stroked his short beard.
"Swear that Oherod told you to come to us and that there is no trap waiting for us inside the Kartahold," he demanded.
"Of course, Oherod told me where you were," Hector said, more annoyed than his honor was being questioned. "I didn't just see him and suspect that two of his Squires were hiding in the woods. How else would I know to come to find you if he hadn't told me?"
The boy spoke first, breaking into the conversation. "You could have tortured Oherod, forcing him to tell you we were here. Just knowing where we are doesn't prove anything!"
"Just swear it if it's true." The man said reasonably. "If it isn't, then tell us the truth,"
"By the High Lord of the Gale, I swear it," Hector vowed, lowering his brow as he did. The older man considered it for a moment longer, before making up his mind.
"Then we will come with you," he said, carefully sheathing his sword. Once it was safely away, he turned to the boy. "Jasper, run and collect Oherod's armor. Ebony is wrapped in a cloth in one of the bags, where Oherod left it. Bring it as well." Without taking his eyes of Hector until absolutely necessary, the boy ran into the woods.
"He doesn't trust you," the man said, "And I'm not sure I do either. So, we're going to follow you and I want you to know one thing. While I may not have Oherod's skill at arms, if you betray us it will be the last thing that you do."
"I swear to you, I have no intention of betraying you," but Lord Flinatar has made no such promise Hector thought to himself.
"It is probably time I introduced myself," the man said. "My name is Sebastian Summerstar. My father is Dustin of Dawntown and my son is Jasper. He and I are members of the Order of Squires, in service to Oherod."
"You hope to one day become a Warden?" Hector asked, unsure if this was the time for casual questions.
Sebastian neither noded or shook his head. "The work of the Wardens is the work of the gods. The High King blesses each Warden personally in the name of the High Lord. I could do worse than spend a lifetime serving them, I think."
Just then, Jasper came dashing back into view. Bundled up in his arms he carried a sack. The cloth jutted out on odd angles, indicating the armor within. Under his armpit, Jasper held a sword in a plain scabbard of black leather. It was not a longsword, as knights of the Heartland’s often used, but a sabre of the west. Although he could not see it, Hector knew that it was a long curved blade with only one sharp edge. Sebastian took the sword from him, carrying the blade in his hands instead of putting it on his belt.
"Let's go. We can't keep Oherod waiting," said Sebastian. Hector lead the two of them out of the woods, and towards the stone walls. All it took was a call form Hector for the gate to be opened. The sellswords on the walls watched the Squires with interest, but none of them said anything. Hector led them through the courtyard and towards the prison tower. Making their way up the spiral stone staircase, the trio was greeted at the top by Oherod. The Boneman had opened the door, the key still in the lock.
"Hello Sebastian. Jasper," he said, barely acknowledging that Hector had entered the chamber at all. Sebastian offered Oherod the black scabbard he had been holding. Oherod took the blade. Looking it over once, he gave Sebastian a firm nod. Just as he did, Jasper upturned the bundle he had been carrying. Armor spilled out, in a crescendo of clanging. It clattered all over the floor, but Jasper continued shaking the bag violently until all of its contents were lying on the floor. The boy looked rather pleased with himself, tossing the empty sack over his shoulder. His father gave him a disapproving look but waited for Oherod to distribute punishment.
"That was foolish," Oherod said, his voice stern as an iron rod. "A Squire should always treat his master's equipment well and with care. A Squire of a Warden most of all."
"But we needed it out fast," The boy protested, his voice an octave higher than it usually sounded.
"Dressing will take longer now than before because you are going to have to find each piece of armor as it is needed. Hector, go tell your Lord to give us half an hour before we come before him." Oherod’s voice was a clear command. Not a request. Obeying, Hector made his way carefully down the stone stairs. He crossed to the great hall, and to his surprise, Flinatar was already seated in his soft throne. Beside him sat Lady Elizabeth. While Flinatar was spiraled over his seat, looking rather like a discarded doll, Elizabeth sat in closed concentration. The lines on her face were shallow, but Hector could see them all the same. He suspected that there wasn't a person in the hall who couldn't see them other than Flinatar. A serving man filled goblets with red wine for the two of them. Elizabeth hadn't touched her's but Flinatar was drinking enough for the both of them. As fast as he emptied the cup, the serving-man would fill it again.
"Hector," Flinatar called, his voice like a whip. "Come and sit with us." Obeying the command, Hector reluctantly made his way towards Flinatar.
"What might I do for you?" Hector asked as he took a seat on a simple wooden chair beside Flinatar.
"Your Warden, where is he?" Flinatar demanded.
"A pair of his squires are dressing him into his armor," Hector replied.
"You let a pair of his squires in without informing me?" Flinatar asked drly. He took another long sip of his wine, draining the goblet.
"They are a harmless pair. A father and son from the Heartlands." Hector explained, but it fell on deaf ears. Flinatar merely grunted and returned to sipping his wine.
As the minutes passed, a small crowd began to gather in the hall. Around the edges, sellswords hung in tight packs. A few of the bolder mercenaries dared to take seats at the tables near the center of the room. Wherever they were seated, the sellswords spoke in hushed voices and leaned close for conversations. The sellswords were certainly the largest demographic gathered in the hall, with the next largest being old men-at-arms. They sat at the tables, too proud to sit next to any of the sellswords. None would even share a table with one if he chose to sit at the far end. After a few minutes of swapping seats, it ended up with one table occupied by the men-at-arms while the sellswords scattered over the others. A third group of household staff found seats wherever they could in between the sellswords and men-at-arms. Most ended up standing close to the doors, coming and going as their jobs required.
Hector waited for Oherod's arrival, refusing wine or even water when offered to him. Flinatar held no such reservations. Hector lost track of his Lord’s drinking after six cups of wine. As the time he spent waiting for Oherod's arrival increased, so did the feeling that something was eating away at his gut. It devoured more and more, eating until Hector wondered how much would be left by the time Oherod arrived.
Fortunately for him, Oherod chose that moment to enter. He and his two Squires entered from the main door. Dressed in armor, Oherod looked far more fierce but no more attractive than he had in a grubby shawl. And what armor it was. Finely crafted from true steel, it was painted in a mixture of vivid red and pure white. Guarding his hands he wore red gauntlets, and matching boots. His chest plate was white and polished to the point that it could serve as a mirror. On it, a red serpent coiled around itself three times. But for all of the armor's ornamentation, Hector could see that it would serve Oherod in a fight. At his side hung the sword that Sebastian had carried, the curved sabre called Ebony. While it still rested in its black scabbard, Hector had little hope it would stay there.
Behind Oherod on either side, his two squires had not changed attire but walked with control and dignity. Sebastian kept his eyes forward as if Flinatar was the only person in the room. Jasper's eyes, on the other hand, darted from face to face as if any of them might leap up at any moment and gut him. He did not once remove his hand from the small knife at his side. Hector hoped that it would stay where it was as well, for while it was not long, and the boy was no threat, Flinatar would likely have him executed for the crime.
Flinatar was watching Oherod and his squires with amused interest. Taking a brief reprise from wine, he watched them as if they were a trio of foxes walking right into a hunter's trap. Oherod paused before him, standing opposite the Lord. The smug look on Flinatar's face had not been washed off, even when confronted by Oherod. The hot smirk on his face invited Oherod's challenge, but the Warden was too wise to fall into the trap.
"My Lord," he began, speaking formally and giving the smallest of bows. "My name is Oherod of the Bones, a Warden of the West. On the request of Lord Noa Roseheart, I have come here to retrieve his daughter Lady Elizabeth."
Flinatar spoke as if Oherod had said nothing before him. Stroking his chin, he said: "Your sigil, I don't believe that I recognize it."
Smiling, as if to deflect the Lord's disrespect, Oheord gave his reply in a light tone. "It is of the Bones. Not one that a Lord of the Heartlands would recognize." Flinatar smiled, the tips of his lips turning up like horns. There was something devilish that crossed Flinatar's eyes, and Hector knew he would say something he would regret.
"So, your sigil is of the Bones, as are you, but my Marshal reports to me that you are no Boneman. How could this be?"
Oherod kept a grimace off his face, but only by inches. "I was raised in the Bones, but not born there."
"Where was it you were born then?" Flinatar prodded.
"I do not know," Oherod replied honestly. "As a baby, I was found on the coast of the Bones."
"You were found on the coast of the Bones as a child, and I doubt that even the magic of the Warden's grants you a memory strong enough to recall that time. So, Boneman, how do you know for sure you are no Boneman? From the sounds of it, your mother may have been some poor wench who wild Boneman got with child She then abandoned it on the coast in the hopes it would die"
In a flash, Oherod cast off the cloak of decency and formality. Beneath it, he wore the cold armor of fury and rage. With the speed of a panther, he drew his blade and before anyone could move he had it drawn up against Lord Flinatar's neck. It was then that Hector saw Ebony for the first time. It was a blade truly deserving of its name, so black that it looked like a place light could not touch. Its surface was a polished mirror, but even from a distance Hector could see it had the finest edge he had ever seen on a blade.
The sellswords lept upwards, unsheathing their daggers and dirks. Sebastian and Jasper closed in, standing back to back behind Oherod. In his hand, Sebastian carried his longsword, and Jasper his knife. Neither of the two was in any armor, but their ferocity kept the sellswords at bay. After a moment, an uneasy stillness grew over the sellswords. Oherod and his squires became encircled by a gang of sellswords. Hector was unsure of exact numbers, but the Warden was outnumbered at least ten to one. Having seen Oherod fight, Hector suspected that he might win in those odds if it were fair. But inside the hall, a struggle would favor the sellswords with their knives and shortswords over Oherod with his longsword. Of the three Jasper was the one who was best armed, but also perhaps the least skilled.
Fortunately, Oherod was not enough of a fool to try and play the odds. As soon as the tension in the room came to a still silence, he spoke up.
"Right, everyone listen!" He began, his voice cutting calmly through the commotion. "No one has to die here today. There is a way for all of us to get what we want and leave satisfied. I'm sure that Lord Flinatar will agree that no Lady, however fair, is worth dying for. So, I will ask you again to give her to us to return to her father."
Hector hoped beyond all hope that for once Flinatar might accept Oherod's offer. But he knew his Lord too well, and Flinatar did just what Hector feared.
"Do it, Boneman," he spat, boldly defining the sword at his neck. "If you kill me, then not only will my men kill you and your Squires but Lady Elizabeth as well."
"Don't be a fool, she's only a woman. There will be others that come and go. In a month or so you'll have found another and forgotten all about her," Oherod advised Hector.
Hector laughed. "You're smart for a Boneman, I'll give you that. She's not the first, and I had never intended for her to be the last. But when a Warden comes into my hall and demands her back, I might decide to hold onto her for a while. How would you like that? A Warden being defied by a simple, petty Lord. That sounds like something you might hear a song sung about." Each time that Flinatar called Oherod a Boneman, Hector was sure that Oherod would drive the point of his sword though Flinatar's soft neck. But Oherod managed to restrain himself.
"Is that all that you hope to win?" Oherod asked. "Brief glory in a song? Because if you did defy me, then the song would only be about how Myles of the Storm or Dustin Roseheart stormed your castle. Charles the Hammer would shatter the walls until nothing but ash remanded. The foundations would be torn up and the ground covered in salt so that nothing will grow here for a hundred years. With your castle gone and no heir to continue your line, you will fade into obscurity. No one will remember your name, even if you do defy me now. So, do not delay what is inevitable. Surender the girl now, and Lord Noa will be forgiving. Hold onto her and you will receive no mercy." From the tone of Oherod's voice, Hector could tell that this was the Boneman's final warning.
Before Flinatar even opened his mouth, Hector knew his Lord would toss the last chance he had been given away. It was something he had done countless times in this conversation alone. Hector then wondered why he let him do it. Why was it that he could act the way he did, without repercussions? Barely thinking, Hector picked a knife from the table. His hand felt the weight of the knife, but his brain barely recognized it was there. Knife in hand, it drifted over towards Flinatar. Before he realized what was happening, he pushed the knife into Flinatar. For a moment, it was as if there was no one else in the room. The sellswords and men-at-arms disappeared. Oherod and his Squire's disappeared. Lady Elizabeth faded into nothing. In the darkness of the great hall, Flinatar was the only person that he saw. In total detail, he saw the smug look on his face and the chaos in his eyes. Hector saw it, and it filled him with an urge to kill it. An urge to save the castle that he loved from the hold of its tyrant. He was the Marshal of the Kartahold, not Lord Flinatar's Marshal. Even as he sunk the blade into his Lord's chest, he didn't consider what he was doing treason. It was justified and more than that, it was right. Around him, the room erupted into chaos. Hector's mind captured only as a fraction of the combat. Far away, he could hear a low voice chanting. The words were strange, a language as alien as the stars. But the words spellbound Hector, dulling his sense. Blades passed across his eyes, but he couldn't say whether or not they belonged to sellswords or men at arms. All he saw was the shock that flooded Flinatar's eyes as the blood-stained his clothes. The rest of his world dissolved into shadows, and his vision narrowed. He watched idly as Flinatar slid from his chair. In his chest, his heart had turned to stone. His mind was numb, and his ears were filled with the sounds of steel on steel. Crys rose around him like water, drowning and disorientating him. He felt hands, both real and imagined, grasping at him. They tugged at him, tearing his body in different directions. One hand, stronger than the others, grasped the back of his head.
"Sleep," a distant voice commanded as the hand pulled his head backward. In his numb mind, Hector was given no choice but to obey.

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