CHAPTER FOUR - THE POWER OF GOLD
Draigh strode into the Guildhall. Despite it being early, the place was full up. The Guildhall was a large, open, rectangular-shaped building. The first floor was dominated by a massive table that stretched the length of the room with long benches on either side where the Watchers met, talked and planned. A fireplace dominated the back wall, limning the people at the table with a golden glow from the flames it barely managed to contain.
There was only one chair, which was at the end of the table. It was stout and heavy. Carved from a single tree that had been sundered in two by a storm. A long-ago artisan had carved the back to represent an eye with rays streaming out from the center of it. That was where the leader of the Watchers sat. That was where Donal now was.
His blond head was down and he was surrounded by half a dozen of the experienced Watchers. They were all regarding a long piece of paper that Donal was making marks on with a quill and ink. They were, undoubtedly, reviewing the plans for tonight.
Donal would want to know if Draigh had talked Adar into Watching tonight instead of racing, but he found he had no desire to speak of his twin at that moment, not with all the Watchers about. He wasn’t sure he would be able to hide his conflicted feelings. Not that any would divine the truth of them, but it would be clear that his normally stoic demeanor was affected by Adar. Villagers already gossiped about them enough. Though Draigh had made many friends among the Watchers, he knew that some of those friendships were only skin deep.
As the doors closed behind him, he was enveloped in the scents of rich tobacco, sweet applewood, bitter sword oil, musky leather armor and sweat. The benches were thick with Watchers preparing their gear and telling tall tales of Nightfall Festivals past where they’d fought off Shadow Souls or was it a Ripper or maybe it was a pack of Voids? Every year the stories multiplied and became more monster and danger-filled. Even though most of it was bunk and all knew it, some of the younger Watchers still listened with wide eyes and forgot to drink their pints of the bitter, dark beer. Ironically, these tales never spoke of the witches who were actually out there.
And likely are out there right now.
Pipes had already been lit up. Others were in the process of being filled, tamped and puffed on. The tobacco was laced with an herb that his brother had helped to gather that would keep them keen all night long. Clearly, the Watchers were expecting an eventful beginning to the festival. The villagers stayed out until dawn usually, celebrating, and that meant more noise and light and time for creatures in the Moonfall Forest to be drawn near.
Draigh decided to find a relatively quiet spot in a corner and recheck his gear. But Rickert called him over. Though Rickert had been on the Watch for nearly twenty-five years, he never told any tall tales. He was, in fact, quite notorious for being tight-lipped about his battles with the forest creatures, but it was known that he had actually encountered the monsters the others only lied about fighting. It was why Draigh had been drawn to him in the first place. And unlike most of the new Watchers, Rickert had taken a liking to Draigh too.
Now the big, burly man had an unlit pipe clenched between his strong, white teeth, that practically glowed against his red-brown, full beard. His beard had gotten so long this season that he’d been able to braid a part of the front. It made up for the fact that he had no hair on his dome-shaped head. He grunted and tipped his head towards the table to indicate again that Draigh should come over.
Draigh approached him swiftly. Rickert did not do small talk. Little Mot scooted to the side to give him space to sit down, but Draigh waved the girl off. She was just a girl at fourteen, but her skill with her slingshot and daggers was equal to that of any adult. Her night vision was almost unrivaled. Of course, it was not as good as his, but it was excellent.
All of these things made for a good Watcher. But her age would have normally barred her from being one of them except for a single fact. A Fade had killed her parents. When a family member was taken by the forest, it was custom that anyone who wanted to join the Watchers was allowed. So Little Mot had been with them two seasons already and proven herself worthy.
“Won’t you stay awhile? Shift’s not ready to turn for half an hour yet,” Little Mot said with an almost shy duck of her dark head.
She had almond-shaped, nut-brown colored eyes and high cheekbones that looked carved out of golden wood. She hid them behind her long, straight black hair. He had a feeling she might have a crush on him. He was touched by it, but hoped she knew that there were others far more likely to care for her that way in return than him.
The heart wants what it wants. No matter what the head tells it, his own head reminded him as he pictured a smiling Adar.
“He’ll be storming to Donal in about two seconds after I tell him the news, Little Mot. You know that,” Rickert said and adjusted his teeth around his pipe stem.
“It’s not Donal’s fault.” Little Mot put both of her forearms on the table and rested her chin upon them. “The Council approved the artists’ decision on where the race should go.”
Draigh immediately became more alert. Adar was going to be in that race. His brother’s friends were as well. While there was some danger in it–several people had nearly fallen from rooftops last year–normally, a sprained ankle or dented pride was the worst of it. But this sounded much more serious.
“Is not the race being run as usual in South Thistleford?” Draigh asked, knowing if it was that Rickert wouldn’t be looking so grim.
“Oh, aye, the beginning of it is, but the contestants will detour out the South Gate and race to the Poplarspine, touch it and come back in midway through,” Rickert explained, clenching his teeth around the pipe’s stem so fiercely that Draigh thought that it might snap.
Draigh stood there, unblinking, as he tried to wrap his head around what Rickert was telling him. “We’re going to have the South Gate open the whole time and people are going to run out of it?”
It was dangerous enough to have it open briefly during the day. And while the winter months reigned, there were only a few clear hours where people were allowed to exit and enter. But the gate was shut quickly between such outings.
“Would take too long to open and shut it after each runner. Said it wouldn’t be fair,” Little Mot answered with a grimace. Despite her tender years, she wasn’t a fool.
“They’ve even set up torches to light the contestants’ way to the Poplarspine,” Rickert said with a dark laugh while anger shone in his eyes at the foolishness of this. “Of course, that will light the monsters’ way too. Dinner by torchlight for them!”
“At least it will make the monsters easier to see,” Little Mot answered with a twist of her rosebud-like lips. Her hands stroked her sheathed daggers.
“Oh, true, true! Until the blood spouting from throats extinguishes them,” Rickert grunted.
He took out his pipe with his rough hands and went to light it with a taper. Little Mot cupped the end for him so that the opening and shutting doors of the Guildhall didn’t blow it out. He puffed on it mightily until the whole bowl of the pipe glowed a cherry red.
“No one will do it! Not even Cohnal!” Draigh shook his head. “To go outside to the Poplarspine at night? Won’t happen!”
“You and Little Mot here are two of the only young people I’ve ever known not to believe they were immortal,” Rickert answered with a trickle of sweet smoke issuing through his lips.
“And those that don’t think that, want the money. They’re offering a 1000-coin purse for whoever wins this year,” Little Mot added.
Draigh was nearly staggered. The race had always had a minor prize at the end, something like a bottle of wine or a nice jacket, but nothing of that much value. It had always simply been for bragging rights in the end. He found himself breathing, “One-thousand–”
“Because of the danger, you see,” Rickert said with another billow of smoke that Draigh thought wasn’t just exiting his mouth, but also his ears. “The North Thistlefordians must be entertained! And with that kind of coin, who is going to object?”
Draigh felt numb. He turned away from Rickert and Little Mot almost in a daze and started towards Donal. It was as if this very race was being set up in a way that not only would play to Adar’s strengths–of everyone, his brother practically lived outside of Thistleford’s walls while most barely ventured out except in summer–but also to Adar’s needs. His brother wanted to partner with Bialair in the apothecary. Not to be a worker, but part owner and that amount of coin would allow Adar to do just that. He would reveal his abilities to get such a prize.
The line will be crossed.
Donal’s head lifted before Draigh stood before him. The other Watchers cleared out of the way, seeing something in his face, and not wanting to have whatever it was turned towards him. Donal stood up from the leader’s chair. He was half a foot taller than Draigh and about that much wider. He wore a leather harness across his broad chest and a cloak of wolf’s fur over his shoulders. His long legs were sheathed in heavy leather pants and thick, fur-topped boots. His long blond hair hung to his shoulders. He’d gathered some of it into a braid to keep it out of the way. His blue-green eyes–the right one marred by a scar–were fixed upon Draigh.
“I take it you just heard the news about the race?” Donal’s low, pleasant voice asked. He glanced down the table and said with a tight smile, “Thanks to Rickert, I’m sure. He already gave me an earful about it.”
“Why did he have to?” Draigh asked. “You know this is madness. Someone is going to get hurt. Someone might get killed!”
The talk in the room seemed to go quiet all at once and Draigh felt all eyes upon him. He rarely spoke, but when he did people usually listened. He never though allowed emotions to lead him like this. He firmed his expression. He would use logic to stop this.
Donal put a hand on his right shoulder and urged him towards the stairs to the lower floor. The lower floor of the Guildhall contained rooms where certain long-time Watchers lived. The beds, walls and floors were draped in furs from the animals that had been caught over the years. Donal often took to sleeping there instead of his princely home in North Thistleford.
Donal claimed to find the rooms cozy, but Draigh found them suffocating. There were no windows as they were underground so breezes were an unknown thing and it mattered not if it were noon or midnight as the rooms were always bathed in candlelight. Now Donal clearly wanted to speak down there out of the eyeshot and earshot of the others.
“Please, Draigh, let’s talk it out below,” Donal asked, his eyes pleading.
Draigh allowed himself to be led down the broad, heavy wooden steps to Donal’s quarters at the end of the hall. Besides the fur-strewn bed, there was a table that was piled high with maps. Books detailing all the creatures in the woods were set up in neat rows. Parchment, ink and quills were at the ready for Donal to dash off orders. Donal offered him the chair to sit on, but Draigh shook his head. He would not sit. So they both stood.
“Why would you allow this to happen, Donal?” Draigh asked, keeping his voice low.
Donal’s eyes flashed with fire. It was clear that Draigh had hit a sore spot. “I am the leader of the Watchers, Draigh, not the mayor of the town!”
“Your role is to keep everyone safe! If you were to say a thing should not happen, because it threatens the town then it shouldn’t happen!” Draigh protested.
Donal let out a bitter, sharp laugh and ran a hand through his hair, loosening the braid further. “Do you not think I tried?!”
Draigh blinked. Of course, Donal knew this was madness. Donal was very aware of the dangers that opening the South Gate and all the rest of it would cause. He would have objected to it. But it was still going forward.
“I was reminded in no uncertain terms just how far my power goes!” Donal’s jaw flexed. “And it isn’t far enough to stop the race or change its course. The Council and mayor decided that this will go forward and the Watchers are to provide security!”
“Who is offering this prize?” Draigh asked. “And why?”
Rickert assumed it was to ramp up the entertainment factor for the North Thistlefordians, but surely they weren’t that cruel or bored. Or were they? This kind of money spoke intent to have this race go forward.
“Who do you think?” Donal asked, meeting his gaze squarely. “I’m surprised you didn’t know in advance considering how close Kharis is with your brother. But maybe they didn’t tell her either. Not that she doesn’t find out enough on her own.”
“The Helemaers are behind this? Kharis’ parents–”
“The grandparents,” Donal corrected.
“She doesn’t know. She would have told Adar and he would have told me. And she would not want this! So why are they doing it?” Draigh asked.
“She’s turning 18, too, Draigh. It’s a year to celebrate as the Helemaer Scion comes of age,” Donal reminded him. He looked so very sad. “Surely you know that her marriage will be the event for our town? It will determine what other settlements we’re more closely aligned with. It will bring in great wealth to the city and more opportunities.”
Draigh realized that he had not thought of this. His mind had been so fixed on his own problems and finding a solution that he had not considered how turning 18 would affect their friends. Kharis’ friendship with them–and her humble manner–had made him forget that she was the Scion.
“She would never want anyone hurt. She would rather give the money out in a–a lottery or something,” Draigh pointed out.
“Her grandparents want it done this way.” Another one of those sad looks. “I doubt she has any say in it.”
“But–but surely they listened to your objections, not just as the leader of the Watchers, but as… You’re… you’re a North Thistlefordian, too. Your family–”
“Is second tier, Draigh!” Donal shook his head in disgust. “It would almost be better if my line weren’t part of the Elder Families.”
“Because I could act simply as a citizen representing other citizens. But no, I have the added bonus of being also in another power structure altogether that forces me to…” Donal slammed a hand down onto the desk. “It’s not just the North Thistlefordians, Draigh. It’s everyone who wants this.”
“What are you talking about? The North Thistlefordians aren’t the ones being asked to run outside the wall–”
“No, they aren’t, but the offer of 1000 coins is too big a windfall to turn down. That’s more money than most families could see in a lifetime,” Donal reminded him. “And the poorest ones? It’s enough to drive them mad with just the thought of so much wealth suddenly within reach!”
“You don’t need to remind me of that, Donal. I’m one of those people who–”
“No, you aren’t. You don’t care about money. It would have been so much easier to court you if you did!” Donal laughed rather wildly. But he was looking at Draigh with affection then. He cupped Draigh’s face. Draigh fought not to stiffen. “You’ve never cared about gold. But other people do. They care very much.”
“Yes, I suppose they do.”
“If I were to stand in the way of someone winning such life-changing money, what do you suppose would happen?” Donal’s eyes were pleading with him to understand. “They’re willing to die to get that money. They’re willing to kill for it. There would be a riot at best!”
Draigh stepped back towards the door of the room. “How long have you known about this plan?”
Donal lowered his head. “Since I asked you to invite Adar on the wall with us. I take it that he said no?”
“We–we got into an argument,” Draigh admitted, though really it was an argument that he had avoided mostly.
Donal’s thick, blond brows drew together. “Was it about… us?”
Draigh just stood there. Frozen. Unable to speak.
“He fears that he’s losing a brother,” Donal guessed with a sigh. “But that’s the furthest thing that will happen when we marry. He’s welcome in our house, Draigh. No matter what.”
Draigh nodded. But he had not intended to make Adar that offer. The whole point of marrying Donal was to get himself out of the temptation zone that was his twin. He needed to have physical and emotional distance between them. And here was Donal offering to have Adar right back next to him again!
“I know,” Draigh answered thickly. “He’s just not used to change.”
Donal’s thumb ran along his jawline. “You’re twins. You shared a womb together. You have a bond that few can understand.”
When Donal spoke of him and Adar being twins he was always positive about it. There were no dark insinuations like there were from Mama Lucke. That was why Draigh felt guilty about accepting Donal’s affections when he did not return them. Donal was a good man. He deserved better.
“I have to go speak to my brother,” Draigh said. “He can’t be a part of this.”
He thought of the witches he’d seen massing around the town. He thought of Mama Lucke smelling them. Adar would literally be running into their embrace.
Donal nodded. “Do you really think he’ll agree not to race?”
Ignoring the fact that his brother did want to be part of the apothecary, he knew that his brother would not be motivated solely by money. “Adar does not love coin either–”
“No, but his friends will be out there. I can’t imagine that he would let them face the darkness alone,” Donal pointed out.
And with those words, Draigh knew that Donal was right. While his brother would definitely see how dangerous this all was, he would believe that he had to go race to keep those he cared for safe.
“And if anyone could win this race, it’s him. He knows the woods like no other. And he’s faster than anyone.” With a rather impish look, Donal added, “Unless he wants to make Kerym’s year again and allow that poor boy to pass him once more.”
Draigh grimaced. He hadn’t been wrong that everyone had noticed Adar’s “loss” last year. “Cohnal is the likely winner.”
“Only if Adar lets him win.” Donal shook his head. “That cock of the walk needs to be taken down a peg.”
But with the amount of money that was now involved, it wouldn’t just be Cohnal’s pride that would be dented if he lost. He would lose out on the coin, too. And not just him would be jealous of such a win. Of all the years, this was the worst one for Adar to win.
He said he wouldn’t. He promised me that he would keep a low profile.
But that was before Adar had learned of Donal’s intentions to ask Draigh to marry him. He remembered the tone of betrayal in Adar’s voice when Aunt Cathe had told him about it. If his brother was ever inclined to push back against Draigh’s rules, it would be this night.
I shouldn’t have let him find out from someone else about Donal. But if I told him even part of the truth… he wouldn’t understand why I’m marrying someone I don’t love.
“Regardless of whether Adar races or not, I wish to be stationed outside the South Gate,” Draigh said firmly.
Donal already was nodding. “I figured as much. Your mastery of the blade and the bow is unmatched. Rickert has agreed to go out as well. Sam and Joanna will join you.”
They were good choices. Sam was excellent with an axe and Joanna could wield a broadsword with the best of them.
“I will be joining you as well,” Donal added.
Draigh’s head shot up. He frowned. “You should be on the wall. Having our commander–”
“Do you think I could be anywhere, but by your side in this?” Donal cupped his cheek once more. “It’s one thing when we’re on the walls together. But I will not watch on as you fight monsters from safety. You’re my heart, Draigh. I must protect you.”
Draigh swallowed the bitter bile in his throat. Again, he was sorry for not feeling what he should for this good man. But all he said was, “I must go find my brother.”