Days rolled into weeks and weeks into months. The barons had long since gone back to their respective castles and settlements and as wanted by Lucille de Gavney our paths never crossed again for the remainder of his stay. I sat at the desk in my room looking over some of the petitions for my Uncle. Since the barons had returned to their homes my Uncle had seen fit to put me to some use within the castle and so I took on the job of looking after some of the paperwork. I never really saw much of him nowadays being as he was out visiting the barons to see if they had managed to sort out the problems of their missing serfs. The problem had dwindled itself out, for a period of several weeks after my arrival messengers bringing the grim news of another missing serf was a common thing but then they had died down and ultimately stopped signalling the end of the crisis. No culprit was ever found to be responsible and, according to my Uncle’s letters, there was a sense of dissatisfaction and anger underlying amongst the barons that this was the case. Sighing I cleaned the tip of my quill and moved from the desk to rest my eyes from the papers still left to do. Arnet was sitting on his bedding in front of the empty fire reading a book. I’d decided that the kindest thing I could do to my friend was to teach him to read and he’d caught on quickly so now when he wasn’t doing the chores that manservants usually did he would sit reading until it was time to do something or I asked him to. Hearing my movement he closed the book and looked at me,
“You need anything?” he asked ready to leap to his feet and do as I asked.
waved him away smiling, “Take it easy Arnet, I’m just resting my eyes. All these reports and petitions are sending my eyes crazy”
I heard a chuckle as I walked to the window. Looking out I saw distant birds flying over the thick forests of the region, Uncle would be back soon hopefully in time for Christmas. A knock came at the door and I bade the person enter it was Aesc. I hadn’t seen much of him either since the incident with De Gavney so he was a welcome sight.
“Aesc! What brings you to my room?” I asked vaguely surprised
“My lord, your Uncle has returned to the castle and wishes to speak with you urgently”
Puzzled I simply stared at the warrior to see if he would be anymore forthcoming with information but he wasn’t. Quickly I pulled on my jacket of office and followed him out of the room.
My Uncle hadn’t even taken time to get changed out of his travel clothes before calling me to the throne room, “Raven! Thank you for coming so quickly”
Looking at him I knew he would say no more until Aesc had left the room. I heard the doors shut and I felt the gaze of the grey eyes settle on me, “Should I be pleading for some kind of mercy? You only ever gave me that look when I was in some kind of trouble” I asked warily not daring to push a dangerous situation.
“No, don’t be silly.” Came the reply as he settled into his throne, “I’ve just come back from your father’s, brother’s, village and have had the most startling of revelations”
Instantly my gaze was riveted on him trying to figure what he could possibly have found out while in my brother’s grace. “Any charges he’s placed against me are false” I said quickly but stopped as he raised a commanding hand.
“Raven! This is not about you, yet about you. A serf farmer by the name of Thunor came to me privately and told me that he had come across something that might be of use in our case.”
I raised an eyebrow, “Thunor is Arnet’s father. What did he find?”
“Apparently he was digging his field and came across a body, after further digging he found more. Raven, each of those serfs buried in Thunor’s field was from the other settlements that had suffered the disappearances those months ago. And each was branded with your brothers arms.”
As much as I hated my brother for being the loathsome slime that he was I still felt my jaw slacken and fall, “ But…but…but surely not. I mean as loathsome and backhanded as he might be Uncle, Wolof would never do that.”
“Raven the proof was there. I saw the bodies with my own eyes. Each one branded with the very seal that I granted your brother upon his rising to the throne on the death of your father. I made haste to travel back to tell you.” My Uncle’s voice softened, “I’m sorry Raven but I have to execute justice as dictated by the law of the land and the people.”
I clenched my jaw and clenched my fists, this was wrong. Wolof might be evil enough to swindle me out of my inheritance from father but he was not made of darkness enough to have done this deed which my Uncle was having to charge him with.
“Raven” My uncle was speaking again, “once the justice is met I will assign you as head of the settlement by edict.”
“No!” I shouted against my will and the surprise was obvious on my uncle’s face, “Wolof is not guilty of this.” Quickly I restrained myself and while the shock of my response still lasted I bowed, turned, and left for my room.
Arnet immediately sensed my distress, “What’s happened?” he asked as one friend would to another. It was times like these that I was glad I was a person who thought of servants as people and not objects.
“You’re father came across the bodies of the missing peasants.” I said quietly, “they were branded with my brothers seal. He’s being charged with their deaths.”
I nodded, cutting Arnet’s reply short before he said the truth I was determined to ignore. He moved to my side and placed a friendly arm round my shoulders and it was as if that simple gesture had broken all defences within me. I fell forwards into the wall and sobbed.
Two weeks after my Uncles arrival with the terrible news justice was met on my brother and I made sure I was far away when the deed was done. My uncle sensed that I was not in the mood to banter lightly with him anymore but still tried to keep our light heartedness going until the day that I said I was leaving.
“Where are you going to go? I’ve yet to settle your title” he asked me
“I don’t know and personally I don’t really care right now. I’ve lost practically every member of my family that I cared for even if I didn’t show it. I’m even beginning to doubt whether I know you anymore. Killing your own nephew. Am I next? What you going to charge me with just so I know?”
“RAVEN!” he roared, “enough!” I simply blinked at him, “Raven, I had to follow the laws that I laid down for my people. You think I enjoyed sending my own kin to his death? Raven hate me all you want but a man of my position does not have it easy. I love you as a son and would hate for anything to happen to you.” His voice tailed off as he looked behind me and I turned to see Aesc in the doorway.
“Your Highness you have a visitor. King Aelther from the North”
“Show him in Aesc thank you.” then turning his attention back to me, “Raven, pack your bags and take Arnet, go ride the realm be young. Find yourself a woman and marry her. But promise me you will come back. Promise me that you will take the place of your father”
I was torn. Everything in me wanted to be mad and unforgiving towards him but there was something, something that made me want to forgive him. Made me understand that he only did what he had to do. I stood in silence until I heard the doors open to admit the guest.
“Very well.” I said looking down at my feet then I looked up at my uncle’s aged face, “I shall make my return 2 months from now”
My response was met with a relieved smile and a hug that I fell into, “Aesc, fetch Raven a pouch of gold from my treasury.” Holding me by my shoulders he pushed me back, “You take care and come back to me. I couldn’t bear to lose you, of all my family.” Just over an hour later I found myself riding my brown mare once more with Arnet at my side. We said our farewells to Arnet at the edge of the city and then took to the roads. As we rode I glanced at my friend he was quiet, too quiet.
“Arnet what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I’m just wondering why we’re doing this?” He looked up and held my gaze with his ice blue eyes, “I hear you. Each night you pray to your God. You pray for the strength to survive, you pray for me. A heathen, a Saxon. How have we been able to be how we are without causing trouble?”
I smiled, “Well, I guess that for a friend that knows pretty much everything about me, there are still things you don’t know. Arnet, you are my sanity. If anyone and I mean anyone was to mess with you I’d be uncontrollable.”
Arnet smiled and looked back in front of him, as my gaze lingered I thought I saw his cheeks blush red but that might have been from the chill of the evening. Looking up I saw that the sun was setting, I had hoped to be further out and closer to people than we were but it mattered not. We set camp and sat round our fire eating some wild bird meat that Arnet had scavenged from the kitchens, both of us laughing as he recounted the tale of how he obtained it, the exaggerations so obvious. As the fire burnt down I sat watching Arnet sleeping under my heavy travel cloak, what I had told him earlier had been true but something in my heart stirred as I realised to myself that perhaps there was something more to what I’d said. Sighing I lay down under my own cloak and closed my eyes.
Something roused me with a jerk and I bolted upright holding my dagger at the ready. Not daring to breathe I listened for any sound to betray whatever had woken me but I heard nothing. I relaxed slightly and lowered the knife. It was nothing. Then I halted, something was definitely wrong, Arnet was a heavy sleeper and snored. And there had been no sound. Gripping my knife I leapt over the embers and knelt by Arnet’s bedding. He was there. I placed a hand on him to wake him but instantly withdrew it in horror when I came into contact with a sticky substance. I didn’t need light to tell me what now coated my hand. “Come out you murdering bastards” I yelled. I waited. Squinting into the darkness. Snap! Whirling round I faced the direction of the sound, “ Who are you?”
“Your worst nightmare!” came a voice from behind me and just as recognition hit me something plunged into the side of my neck and the darkness swallowed me whole.