Never After | Chapter 28 of 31

Author: Laurell K. Hamilton | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 4828 Views | Add a Review

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056
7
The Cursed Destination
As it happened, we did not stay a full week at Arantha’s house. All of us were restless by the end of the second day, and Darius himself was like a caged hunting cat who had been deprived of too many meals. I enjoyed the chance to sleep in private, bathe in luxury, and spend the days in idleness, but soon enough even I was longing to be on my way. So four days after we arrived, we packed our bags, bid our hostess farewell, and set out again.
Another day and a half of travel took us to Kannerly, where my life changed.
It was a smallish property, accessed off a narrow road devoid of any ornamental planting or fencing. In fact, the ground on either side of the drive was tangled with unkempt vegetation—low shrubs, tall weeds, and the occasional oak standing surprised and doleful on the overgrown land.
The manor house itself was squat and narrow, built of yellow stone that had molded over to black along the foundation. It was smaller than some of the outbuildings that fanned out behind it—what looked like a couple of enormous stables, constructed of weathered wood, and a few storage sheds. I saw three circular arenas, heavily fenced, and a huge pile of mounded debris. Something was giving off an unpleasant smell, heavy and meaty and foul, but I could catch only the occasional whiff as the wind shifted—and as we grew closer.
From some distance out we could catch the ceaseless cacophony of many dogs.
I happened to be riding in the wagon with Darius for this leg of the journey. I looked at him with a questioning expression that in no way mirrored the trepidation that had coiled in my stomach. I could not have said what, exactly, but something at Kannerly was very wrong.
Darius was looking about him with a small frown weighing down his cheerful features. “Strange sort of place,” he said in a hesitant voice. “It feels—off—somehow, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” I agreed. “I don’t like it.”
Harwin had circled back and now wheeled his rangy bay up beside the wagon. “There will be guards at the entrance,” he said. “I assume they’ll recognize your stepmother.”
“Harwin,” I started, but he spurred forward to say something to Gisele through the coach’s open window.
Another few minutes brought us to the gate, where four soldiers lounged, looking bored, though they all came to attention to inspect us. Gisele poked her head out and said in a colorless voice, “I have brought Princess Olivia and some companions to spend a day at Kannerly. We will travel on in the morning.”
The guard who seemed to be in charge studied her face for a moment, then glanced at me. Unimpressed, he waved us toward the gate. “Pull on through,” he said.
A footman and a butler awaited us on the exceedingly modest front porch, and two grooms raced up to take charge of the horses. The footman helped Gisele and Dannette out of the carriage, while the butler bowed to the queen.
“Majesty,” he said with an inflection of surprise.
“An unexpected detour on an unexpected trip,” Gisele said lightly. “Grayson, this is Princess Olivia, who has never had the honor of touring Kannerly. We will require five rooms for a night, dinner, and breakfast. We do not plan to stay past the morning meal.”
“Very good, majesty,” Grayson replied.
Just inside the door was a woman who looked less like a housekeeper and more like a tavern waitress, young and full-figured and sullen. She recognized Gisele, because she dropped an unwilling curtsy, but she neither knew nor cared who the rest of us were. In silence, we followed her through the house, which was clean enough, though not nearly to the proud standards of the palace. It was also rather bare—no portraits or tapestries on the walls, no rugs to soften the hard stone floors. I peered into a few rooms as we passed and saw nothing but dark leather furniture and heavy, blockish cabinets and tables.
The property seemed more like a hunting lodge than a family estate. The sort of place men would go without their womenfolk.
“Cozy,” I heard Dannette murmur to Gisele, who smothered a laugh.
The bedroom I was assigned was utilitarian and chilly. I took advantage of the amenities and then stepped over to the window, hoping for a scenic view. But nothing so pretty awaited me, since my room looked out over one of the monstrous barns and an attached arena.
Through the still, sunny, autumn air, I caught again the sound of barking. A little more distinct from this vantage point, so that I could almost make out layers of sounds. High, fast yips of excitement or distress; low growls of warning; an occasional howl that made my skin prickle all the way down my spine. How many dogs were there at Kannerly? And why were they so agitated?>
I intended to wait for Gisele and the others to get settled, so we could tour the grounds together, but curiosity and that growing uneasiness in my stomach shoved me out of my room. The housekeeper was nowhere to be seen, so I found my own way down the stairs and out the front door. The footman held it open for me, but made no attempt to stop me.
I supposed I could wander around Kannerly on my own and find out what made it so mysterious.
I hiked directly toward the nearest barn. With every step I took, the noise of the dogs grew louder and the stench from the mound of debris grew stronger. Other odors were also mixed in, the smells of dung and urine and wet fur, all of them so intense that I pulled a handkerchief out of a pocket and held it over my nose to ease my breathing. As I got closer, I could hear the sound of men calling to one another over the whining and baying of the dogs. Although no one had told me not to investigate the property, I instinctively shrank back against a side wall of the barn, not wanting to be seen. I waited until their voices faded away as they headed toward one of the other buildings, and then I looked around for an unobtrusive entrance. A small side door had been left conveniently ajar, so I kept in the shadows and slipped inside the barn.
For a moment I couldn’t understand what I was seeing.
Partly that was because the lighting was poor, provided by a couple of murky skylights and a handful of oil lamps. Partly because the scene itself made no sense.
There were cages. Dozens of cages—crates—stacked on top of one another. Each one held a dog that barked and howled and whined and scraped its paws at the flooring as if trying to dig its way free. Some dogs were quite big—too big for their quarters—others were so small, and so thin, they looked as if they might squeeze out between the slats. They were all mangy and matted, covered with dried mud and what took me a few minutes to realize was old blood. Most of them sported a variety of half-healed wounds; more than one had had an ear partially torn off, or a nose slashed, or an eye clawed out. Several were missing limbs. There might have been more horrors, but I couldn’t look long enough to find them. I pressed myself back against the wall, squeezing my eyes shut and still holding the handkerchief to my nose.
These were fighting dogs.
Kannerly was where my father bred and trained them.
The arenas must be where the handlers introduced them to the sport, after the animals had been beaten, starved, or whipped into a frenzy so they would attack on command.
My eyes still closed, I frowned. But the creatures in here were too thin and scrappy to last for long against the dogs in my father’s kennels back home. I called up a memory of the last time I had seen those beasts in action—when they had been loosed on Harwin and Darius and my other suitors. All those animals were well kept, well muscled, well fed.
The ones here must be bait dogs—prey for the fighters no doubt kept in much better condition in the other barn. Once an animal was relegated to a cage in this building, its life expectancy must be very short. Which no doubt explained the odor of rot and decay seeping from the large mound at the back of the property.
I barely made it out the side door before I fell to my knees and vomited. And then all the mixed, dreadful smells of the property overcame me, and I vomited again. And again, and again, until there was nothing left in my stomach but bile.
When I pushed myself to my feet and turned to stumble back toward the house, I saw Harwin running across the lawn in my direction. He must have spotted me from the house and instantly come after me.
Which meant he had known exactly what I would discover when I went roaming through Kannerly.
I could not talk to him—I could not speak to anyone—I could hardly think. How could such cruelty exist in the world? I turned blindly away from the barn, away from the house, and blundered on in a random direction, hoping my path didn’t take me past some fresh abomination. I had gone maybe twenty steps before Harwin caught up with me and took my arm.
“Olivia,” he said, his voice both wretched and compassionate. “Olivia, please wait—”
I shook my arm free and then turned both of my hands into fists and beat at his chest. “You knew!” I sobbed, for it turned out I was weeping. “You brought me here and you knew what I would find! How could you? How could such a place be? How could you bring me here and let me find it—”
“Shh—shh—let me explain—I would never have let you out of my sight if I had realized you would start exploring—Olivia, hush a moment, be still—”
“I can’t be still, I can’t stop crying, and everything is too horrible, and it’s all your fault,” I wailed. I dropped to my knees and began crying even harder.
Harwin bent over, scooped me up, and, heedless of my flailing fists, carried me a good hundred yards before settling down on a narrow bench that appeared to be situated for no good reason in the middle of a desolate acre of lawn. From one of his pockets he pulled out a rather shriveled orange and handed it to me.
“Here. Peel that and eat a slice. You lost your lunch back there and your mouth must feel horrid. And don’t say a word,” he added, raising his voice when I began ranting again, “while you listen to what I say.”
My hands were shaking so much I couldn’t make the first gouge in the tough skin of the fruit. Harwin took it from me, teased back a small section, and returned it. My hands grew sticky with juice as I continued to work away at the rind. When I crammed the first two sections in my mouth, I couldn’t remember anything that had ever tasted so good.
“Your father brought Gisele here the day after they were married,” Harwin said. “Told her to pick out a dog that she could call hers, and then proceeded to fight it in a few rounds, all of which it won. Her own father keeps a pack of fighting dogs, so she’d known how to choose a good one. She knew if she selected a weak animal, and it was killed in the first round, her marriage would be unbearable, because it was clear your father thought this particular exercise represented something about power. She said she cried herself to sleep every night they spent at Kannerly on that first visit, and then she never let herself cry again.”
“How can someone do such awful things?” I burst out. “Because he’s the king? Because he has money and power and he can always get his way?”
“There are people with much fewer resources who are just as brutal as your father,” Harwin answered. “What makes a man enjoy someone else’s pain? What makes him feast on violence? The answer is, I do not know. It is not just kings who are cruel. All sorts of people are unfair, unkind, or truly evil.”
“You’re not,” I said.
He bowed his head. “I try not to be,” he said.
“You don’t own fighting dogs.”
He shook his head.
“And you don’t shout terrible names at people in the town square,” I said, remembering the scene with Dannette at the fountain.
He half smiled. “And I don’t beat my horses or starve my servants or kick beggars in the streets,” he said humorously. “The list of my virtues is truly long.”
“I mean it,” I insisted. “You’re a good man.”
“I hope so,” he said, serious again. And then, as if he added the words reluctantly, “And so is Darius. I find him—more frivolous than I might like, but I also find him completely devoid of malice. I think you might have chosen him for reasons other than his good heart, but I have discovered that it is the most impressive thing about him.”
I didn’t want to talk about Darius. I ate another section of the orange, then shut my eyes, but that just caused my mind to re-create the nightmarish scene in the barn. We were still close enough to hear the incessant howls and whimpers of the dogs, though the smell was not so strong here. I sighed and leaned my head back against the nearest support. That happened to be Harwin’s arm, still wrapped around my shoulders.
“Why did you let me come to this dreadful place?” I whispered. “Why didn’t you tell me no when I insisted?”
He was quiet a moment. “It’s not my place to tell you yes or no,” he said at last. “I will always offer you my counsel, but I will never tell you what to do.” There was another pause before he went on, his voice even slower. “And, in this case, my counsel would have tallied with your inclination. If you are to be queen, you must know everything your country holds. You must know what your father has promoted and what his subjects have embraced. If you become queen, Kannerly will fall into your hands. What will you do then with this possession?”
“Tear it down,” I said instantly. “Burn it to the ground.”
“And the other estates that train such dogs?” he said. “And the men and women who profit from such activities?”
I opened my eyes and glared at him, but found I had no easy answer. If I indeed became queen, I would instantly outlaw the practice of raising fighting dogs. Of that I had no doubt. But folk who had run what formerly had been a legal enterprise would suddenly be without an income. What would my responsibility be to them? “I don’t know,” I snapped. “I’ll figure something out.”
A somber smile broke through the habitual gravity of his face. “Yes,” he said, “I have faith that you will.”
A sense of puzzlement settled over me; I felt my brows draw down in a frown. “I don’t know why,” I said.
“Why what?”
“Why you would have faith in me. I’ve never done anything particularly memorable.”
His smile grew by the tiniest margin. “Oh, there I must disagree. You have managed—with great creativity and boundless stubbornness—to thwart your father at almost every turn for your entire life. He wanted you to be charming and empty-headed, but instead you became sharp-tongued and opinionated. He wanted you to be meek and biddable, but you would not make friends where he wished you to or court the nobles he asked you to. He wanted you to marry me, and we all know how that turned out. You have won every battle of wills with your father, and he is not an easy man to withstand. I imagine you will accomplish almost anything you set out to do, no matter how difficult. It will be an entertaining saga to watch.”
Everything he said just made my frown blacker. “I sound like a terribly disagreeable person!” I exclaimed, sitting up straighter. I would have pulled myself away from him altogether except his hold tightened enough to keep me in place—and I did not try very hard to slip away. “Nothing to recommend me but a contrary disposition!”
“Yet fifty men showed up to strive for the honor when your father invited them to compete for your hand,” he reminded me.
“They wanted to marry me because I’m a princess,” I said glumly. “Perhaps one day to be queen.” I risked one sidelong look at his face. “That’s why you wanted to marry me, no doubt. A throne makes even a shrew seem attractive.”
“I would have wanted to marry you if you were a beggar’s daughter fighting for survival,” he said quietly. “I will want to marry you if Gisele is right and your father manages to sire a son by some new bride. I am moved by your indomitable spirit, I am awed by your determination, and I am impressed by your intelligence.”
He reached up his free hand to brush a stray lock of hair from my face. “And I remember always the lonely child you were, growing up in that unfriendly palace,” he went on. “The expression on your face, when your mother would walk into a room—the hope you would show—the smile you would produce. And the look of abandonment you would wear when she turned aside without noticing you. I never saw anyone so willing to be loved and so surrounded by people who were not capable of such an emotion. I thought, ‘I will love her, if she will let me.’ ” He gave me a smile of such tenderness that for a moment I couldn’t catch my breath. “All these years later, and that’s still how I feel.”
I wondered why he didn’t kiss me, and then I thought perhaps it was not quite so pleasant to be kissing someone who had just been throwing up, no matter how many oranges she had eaten since then. I didn’t have the right words to respond to his extraordinary speech, but I had to say something. “I don’t think I will be marrying Darius after all,” I said, speaking airily to cover my slight dizziness. “I feel rather bad about that, except I’m not so sure Darius wants to marry me, either.”
“I think Darius likes you very much,” Harwin said. “But I also think Darius would be relieved to learn he’s not expected to take up the crown and scepter after all. He is not—shall we say—a man who flourishes in a lifestyle bound by conventions.”
That made me laugh, but I tried to assume a thoughtful expression. “Still. I agreed to marry the man who proved his strength, valor, and intelligence by winning my father’s three contests. I can hardly break my word now.”
“May I remind you that I also succeeded at each one of those contests and that I am therefore a perfectly eligible bridegroom?” Harwin said. “I do not like to boast about myself, but I, too, am strong, courageous, and wise. You will be breaking no compact if you marry me instead.”
“Well,” I said. “I will think about it.”
I expected him to come back with some kind of gallant reply—I mean, think of it! Harwin was actually flirting!—but suddenly I felt his muscles grow tense and I sensed that I had lost all his attention. I slewed around to see what he was staring at and saw a line of soldiers trotting in through the front gate.
Royal soldiers. Eight of them. Sporting my father’s livery. The leader wore a closed, purposeful look, and all of them were armed as if for combat.
“Why are they here?” I asked in a fearful voice.
Harwin came swiftly to his feet, almost dumping me on the ground, though he kept a hand clamped around my arm to help me find my balance. “Gisele,” he said.
We both took off running for the house.
057
The parlor was a scene of madness.
Soldiers milled in the cramped hallway outside the room, half of them with their swords drawn, three of them shouting. The slatternly housekeeper was shrieking and sobbing, but no one paid attention to her until one of the guards shoved her unceremoniously down the corridor, where she fell to her knees. Two of the soldiers were beating at the door to the parlor, as if trying to break down a heavy panel of wood, but there was nothing there except a block of shimmering, translucent air. Through this scrim I could spot bodies roiling inside the room—Darius, Dannette, Gisele, her maid, even the coachman—all of them holding makeshift weapons, all of them poised for battle.
Darius’s weapon appeared to be the magic in his hands, with which he had created a shield across the open doorway, and none of the soldiers could breach it with their blades or their fists.
Behind me, I felt Harwin gather his strength as if to join the fray. But he hadn’t been wearing a sword when he came after me and I didn’t know if he carried a dagger and I did not want him plowing through the mass of irate soldiers with only his rage to defend him. I drew a deep breath and demanded in my iciest voice, “What is going on here? Answer me, in the name of the king!”
That caused a big swell and commotion as the soldiers spun around to face me and my friends began shouting to me through the ensorcelled doorway. I held up a hand for silence and glared at the whole group.
“Quiet!” I shouted. “One of you—give me some answers! Why are you here?”
One of the guards pushed to the forefront—a man I knew, more’s the luck. His name was Mackoby, and he had been at the palace since I was born. A bleak, hard, but honest man. “Princess Olivia,” he said, his voice raspy. “Your father has sent troops out across the land, looking for the queen. We got word that she arrived at Kannerly this afternoon.” He gestured toward the doorway. “And you see we have found her.”
I kept both my expression and my tone glacial. “And why are you so interested in Gisele’s whereabouts?”
“She has practiced treason and must be brought to justice,” Mackoby said.
“I did not!” Gisele retorted furiously. “What treason? What is the charge?”
I didn’t look at her. “The queen asks a legitimate question,” I said. “What is her exact offense?”
Mackoby stood to stiff attention. “It was not my place to know that,” he said. “But she knew she did wrong, because she stole jewels and money from the palace and she ran away.”
“I stole nothing! I only took what was mine!”
I was thinking very fast. Everything depended on the soldiers’ orders. Gisele was convinced my father meant to kill her. It would be simpler to do that several hundred miles from the palace walls with very few witnesses. But a public condemnation might earn my father sympathy for an execution, once he manufactured evidence of Gisele’s crime. That was the question. Did he want her back at the palace alive or dead?
“Those are serious accusations,” I said. “What is my father’s plan for the queen once she is back in his custody?”
“Olivia!” Gisele cried, but I continued to ignore her. I could not make it appear as though I were her ally, or I would lose any leverage I had with the soldiers.
“He spoke of a trial to produce proof of her wrongdoing,” Mackoby said.
I gave him my sternest look, one of the regal stares I have cultivated over the years. “If I allow you to take her now, will you swear that she will come to no harm in your custody?”
Mackoby looked insulted. “Princess! My orders are to return her to the palace with all speed. During our journey, I will defend her with my life.”
I pretended to deliberate. Behind me, I felt Harwin standing mutely, a strong, supportive presence. He certainly would understand that I was playing a role. He certainly would know that I was straining my wits to think of a way to save Gisele, not betray her. But those others inside the enchanted parlor—oh, I could tell they were all shocked and horrified by my sudden treachery.
“I will allow you to take her,” I said, “but I insist on accompanying you. All of us will come,” I added. “My betrothed and all my companions.” I let everyone in the hallway determine who they thought my betrothed might be. I was fairly certain not everyone guessed correctly.
Mackoby spoke stiffly. “We cannot breach the door. Magic blocks our way.”
“Darius will remove his spell,” I said, “once he is convinced the queen will suffer no harm at your hands.”
“I swear it,” Mackoby said, “and I offer surety for my men.”
I finally faced the parlor again, letting my gaze rest on each occupant in turn, trying to convey a silent message first to Gisele, then to Darius, then Dannette. I don’t know; maybe Harwin, behind me, was adding his own unspoken reassurance. But Gisele’s face smoothed out, and she nodded infinitesimally, and Darius let the golden screen evaporate. Mackoby stepped across the threshold and took the queen’s arm in a firm hold.
“We leave as soon as you are all ready to travel,” he said.
“We need no more than a few minutes,” I said.
So, as it happened, I did not spend even a single night at Kannerly. Not that I minded. I had learned everything I needed to know in the few short hours I had been on its tainted acres.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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