The Castle GroundsMature

James sent one of the men at his table to fetch coats. When the man returned, James put his coat on, while the man helped the General with his. Turning to her, Wholawski held out the third coat for Sarah and she let him help her.

Wrapping his arms about her, he buttoned it. Sarah stood stiff, resisting the urge to break the contact. Playing along to keep them safe was going to take every ounce of strength she had.

“I think you will find,” Wholawski’s voice tickled her ear, “that my fortress is most cozy, though cold in the winter. But of course, my goal is to be seated upon the throne in Verdas come next winter.”

Good luck with that. Sarah managed to keep her retort silent.

Wholawski stepped to stand beside her and placed her hand upon his arm. Sarah let him lead her down from the dais and between the tables, James in tow. Heads swiveled to watch them. Two men hurried forward to open the double doors at the bottom of the steps.

“An ingenious place,” Wholawski smiled, “this Entrance of mine.” He pointed to the floor, where Sarah noted there were small holes in the boards. “I can flood it with freezing lake water while they try to batter down the doors and then pour flaming oil,” he pointed up, where there were large grated holes in the ceiling, “upon their heads.”

Sarah glanced to each side, noting the slit windows on those walls. “And poke them full of arrows too I presume?”

“Exactly.”

General Wholawski’s smile was lit by daylight as the men opened the front doors. He stopped her upon the top step. A cobbled drive cut the courtyard in two as it sloped down to the gate-house where three men, bedraggled and worn, entered. Behind her Sarah heard James whisper and two men moved past them to intercept the travelers.

“To our right,” Wholawski gestured, “is everything we need to survive a siege.”

Leading her down the steps, he moved in that direction. “There is our livestock, and gardens, and the bake house tucked in back, where the most loyal of my women servants are allowed to sleep.”

“You have women loyal to you?” Sarah asked before she could hold her tongue.

The General snickered. “They are overseen by Sharon, who has been loyal to me since birth; as a sister ought to be.”

Shuddering Sarah wondered how Sharon could stand being Wholawski’s sister.

“Come,” the General led her away from the wind that poured over the Fortress walls, “we will walk in the lea of the inner keep to the side where the more important things are made.”

As they crossed the drive, Sarah’s eyes were drawn to the frozen practice field. Men were drilling and those who slipped and fell where rewarded with loud yelling and sometimes a cuffing. Got to love military life, she thought, remembering some of the stories her brothers told her. Training with the Scouts had been much better.

“Here,” General Wholawski stopped them under the barrack stairs, “is where most of the men our housed, and there,” he gestured to an open building that was much the same size as the bake house, “is our smithy.”

No one was working the forge at the moment, so the General moved them back towards the keep. They stopped in the corner between the tower and the inner keep wall. With the fortress blocking the wind, Sarah could feel the winter sun warming her coat.

“So I wonder,” Wholawski pondered as he watched the sparring, “if you were able to best Senior Captain Chester, why is it you lay like dead when he brought you back?”

Sarah winced as a man, who’d slipped for a third time was lashed with a whip.

“You can’t expect me to be completely immune to whatever it is Nigiris use on their daggers.” She noticed Chester was enjoying a spar with someone who looked to be twice his age. “Though if I get pricked enough,” she muttered, “I might end up immune.”

“Is that so?” Wholawski turned to her. “And how many times have you been pricked?”

“Four,” Sarah sighed as she tried to find something else to look at. Her eyes rested on James momentarily, and she wondered how he could be so stony faced to the cruelty going on around him. “Once on the way back to Vervell, after poisoning your camp.”

“Ah, I was so hoping Chester would bring you back for your punishment.”

“Yes, well Phoenix had other ideas...”

“I cannot fault my nephew,” Sarah’s heart skipped a beat at Wholawski’s words, “for his taste in women. And so that was once, and here makes twice, so where, pray tell did the other two prickings happen?”

Sarah swallowed her shock, thankful that Wholawski hadn’t noticed. “The second happened while I was staying at Griffon’s, and York managed to throw a blade into my shoulder blade before Phoenix ran him through.”

“So he loved you?” The gleam in General Wholawski’s eyes put Sarah on edge. “Did you love him?”

“What does it matter,” she told him, “he’s dead.” For a moment, Sarah believed her own lie. Only it was James’s lie. And James, who stood impassive as two men where whipped for poor performance, was allied with Sharon. And Sharon was Wholawski’s sister. But, Jason was the man’s nephew so...

“And the fourth?” the General interrupted her thoughts.

“At the Scouting Trials,” she smiled at him, “I kept Chester from killing Prince Theodoso, so he decided to throw a dagger into my leg.”

The End

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