Henry’s footsteps resonated in the vast corridor he walked through. It was stone, which had darkened over the years, though the floor was polished tile - a subtle design of green and gold knotwork that stretched all across its length. Streams of golden light spilled through arched windows, while lanterns, their bulbs dim except for the evenings, hung at forty-foot intervals on marble columns.
One was able to see most of the western countryside from here; green fields, bright gardens and orchards, emerald forests, and a river that wound its way through the hills like a sparkling snake. It was the apex of spring: Wide Earth.
As the chamber of the eld-tet drew near, Henry began walking more slowly. He did not fear this room, but he was not sure if he was ready to face its demands just yet.
He had not been sleeping well. As Deidre, his beloved wife, grew worse, so did his nightmares. They no longer slept together. The doctors - those infernal know-it-alls with their useless charms and false remedies - had said it would be ‘for the best’ if she stayed in her own apartments. Sometimes, in the dim hours of the night, he could hear crying and screaming. Despite all his power, he could do nothing to help her, and that was the worst agony to his heart.
A pair of large wooden doors faced him at the end of the corridor. He stopped in front of them, took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and then cleared his mind of any troubled thought. His khef was at the eighth level, able to do the mental equivalent of slapping yourself in the face to become fully alert in a mere instant. The ache in his body - and his heart - became a detached thing which he could regard impassively.
He opened one of the doors and stepped through it.
The chamber of the eld-tet was a place of palaver, going back to the days of Arthur and his band of knights. In most paintings, this room was always shown as being divine; a round table of great size and majesty, seats that were no less than imperial thrones of gold and silver, and ethereal light that seemed to come pouring down straight from Heaven.
The truth was this room was rather modest and practical in appearance, at least compared to some artist’s exaggerated visions. There was a table, yes, round and wooden just as the legends described, but there was nothing grand about it (aside from its impressive age), and as for its size, the diameter did not exceed nine feet. The seats were the plain, hard-backed kind with dull burgundy-colored cushions for comfort. There were only six slim windows to allow light inside and, during the evenings, a bronze chandelier, hanging from the bare rafters right over the table, would provide the necessary illumination.
Despite its lack of romantic grandeur, the room’s importance could not be denied. Just by being there, to smell the old wood of the table and to pace the same floor that Arthur had paced so many years ago, was something that still put some awe in Henry.
He recalled the first time he had come here. He was only a boy, his small fingers gripping the rough hand of his father, his eyes wide and amazed by what he saw. His father had brought him to the table and said something that he would never forget.
We are a part of ka’s wheel.
Now, thirty-seven years later, his father long in his grave, Henry walked to the
table to take his place there. Those who were seated when he entered now rose to their feet, their greetings brief but respectful. Henry took a moment to look upon the faces of all of them.
To his left was Castor Icarion, who was the same age as Henry but seemed older due to the weary lines under his eyes; two seats away was Randolph Gatewarden, lean and gaunt, with a long gray moustache - a gunslinger’s moustache - that went down past his chin; beside him was Fardo Oxblood, his surname being a good description of his character, tough as boot-leather and just as pretty. Not only were they his closest friends but they were also his ka-tet, one that formed long ago when they had all been young.
Also at the table was the next generation: their sons, their students, their successors. None of them were past the age of twenty.
On Randolph’s left was Christopher Johns. He was big, blonde, rarely ever spoke and often wore a heavy face. Next to Johns was Robert Allgood, almost the exact opposite; bright and charismatic, his knife being the only thing sharper than his tongue. By Fardo was his son, Cort, a lad of good strength who had the same scowl as his father but not the wrinkles or the scars. And beside Henry was his own son, Steven. To Henry, looking at Steven was like looking at a mirror image of himself twenty years ago, except for the smoother features of his mother.
There were other gunslingers, of course. Gilead had a good share of ‘prentices and young guns, but older gunslingers, like Henry, were hard to come by these days. Some of them were retired, some of them were serving in other baronies, like strands of thread trying to keep the tapestry of All-world from falling apart, but the sad truth was that most of them were dead.
After Henry took his seat, Fardo was the first one to speak. His voice was grizzled, like he had a throat full of sand.
"The Grays have returned."
It had been years since anybody had ever heard of them. Henry wasn’t there to see the end of their leader, the giant David Quick, who fell from the sky like Lord Perth in a war-machine of his own device. However, he was part of the band of gunslingers that saw the Grays flee to the west, who left a cloud of dust and a vow of revenge behind them.
Char, they had shouted, over and over.
Henry frowned, "Are you sure?"
Fardo nodded, "Aye. They destroyed the outpost at Talbot’s Head. Even left their sigul just to let us know it was them."
The outpost at Talbot’s Head wasn’t a terrible loss. There were dozens of stronger posts all around the North’rd Baronies. However, something troubled Henry. The Grays were harriers, not soldiers. They would go after weak prey - small towns, settlements, anything that didn’t require a lot of effort to pillage and burn to the ground.
"How did they breech the defenses? It should have been able to stop any mounted attacks."
"Maybe they all dressed up as whores to get through the gates.", Robert chimed, "Probably better lookin’ than the real ones they got up there."
There was a quiet chuckle all around. Fardo, though amused, couldn’t resist falling into his old habits, "Shut your face, maggot."
Nor could Robert. "Yes, sir."
Fardo responded to Henry’s question, "The outpost was old and poorly guarded. Probably caught them by surprise, didn’t give them a chance to secure the battlements. The Grays might’ve even used siege machinery. We can’t be certain, for there were no survivors."
Steven spoke up, "I say we go after them. It sounds like they’re just asking for a fight."
Henry paused in thought before asking Fardo, "Do you know where they were headed?"
Castor, however, was the one to reply, "They were riding hard to the east, I believe."
"East," Henry repeated and, after a moment’s thought, then concluded, "…Delain."
Robert blinked, "Delain? Why would they want to go there?"
It was Randolph who said that. The elder ka-tet gave each other solemn looks, while the younger seemed fascinated by this.
"You mean," Steven asked, "the grael?"
Castor nodded, "After Arthur-Eld was slain, all of his treasures were said to be taken away by priests to be safely hidden until the High King’s return. Most of them have been lost or stolen or destroyed. The grael, however, has stayed in Delain for all this time."
Robert chuckled, "And what a wise choice for a hiding place. Its probably being used as the royal bedpan."
Steven frowned, "Wouldn’t the grael be safer here, in Gilead?"
Castor looked at Henry, "I have to agree."
"I don’t think the Grays are powerful enough to raze Delain.", Henry reasoned.
"No, of course not," Castor smiled, "but I believe that returning the grael to the Barony Seat would be ideal for raising morale. Don’t you think so?"
There was a murmur of agreement. Henry knew there was rumblings of discontentment coming from the common baronies - even talk of revolution, which, fortunately, was all hot air from weak men - but he held on to the hope that whatever ailment this world had taken on would soon pass and the wheel of ka would continue to spin.
A pause. Then, he decided what to do, "I suppose you’re right. I seriously doubt the Grays will ever attack Delain, but I do worry about the outposts at its borders. Tomorrow, Castor, Randolph, and I will…"
He was interrupted by Steven, "What about us?"
"You’ll stay here."
Steven gave his friends a look, "We’re not babies anymore. I’m sure we can handle ourselves, and the Grays, should it come to that."
Henry knew the reason for Steven’s argument. There was a glimmer in his son’s eyes that Henry knew all too well. It was the prospect of glory and battle, two things that often ran hot in the blood of young gunslingers. Not only could he see that glimmer in Steven’s eyes, but Robert’s, and Cort’s, and even Christopher’s. He couldn’t blame them - after all, twenty years ago, that same glimmer could’ve been seen in his own eyes. Despite this, he was still doubtful.
"He’s right, Henry.", Castor said with a rueful, we’re-getting-too-old-for-this smile, "It should be them to go, not us."
Henry looked at Randolph for his opinion, who just shrugged and said, "I’ll follow your judgement." That was ol’ Randy, after all. Just like a leaf in a strong wind, except when push came to shove, his guns were as deadly as the rest of them.
Henry sighed, "All right. Steven, I leave this up to you…"
Steven nodded, "Thankee-sai." He was doing his best to suppress an eager smile, as were his friends.
The rest of the palaver was of easier subjects: the growing stock of well-bred horses in Mejis; the preparations for the banquet of the upcoming Fair-Day; the need for more cartridges in the armory. As the meeting came to an end, Castor leaned over.
"Henry," he muttered, "I need to speak to you."
Castor pressed, "Its important."
"You heard what I said."
A pause. Henry knew Castor didn’t approve of that kind of dismissal but, at this point, he didn’t want to deal with anything for the rest of the day. He needed to sleep.
Castor nodded, "Very well."
They all rose. Steven and his friends grouped together to discuss the details of their quest with the kind of zeal that brought a melancholy smile to Henry’s face. Castor, meanwhile, managed to catch Fardo’s ear; the two were standing in a corner. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could see just by the hand-gestures alone that Castor was being pushy, while Fardo seemed defensive, nearly to an annoyed level. Randolph quietly made his way out of the room and Henry moved to follow.
Steven stepped away from his ka-tet and caught up with him. "Father…"
Henry held up his hand. "Not now. I want to rest."
"No," Steven retorted, grabbing his arm, "listen to me. You don’t look well. Have you been sleeping?"
Henry was surprised by his son’s forwardness. He considered reprimanding him, but, instead, he resigned to his insistence. "No, I haven’t."
Steven lowered his hand. "How is mother doing?"
"Maybe you should see for yourself." There was sharpness in his voice that Henry regretted.
"I try," Steven sighed, "but I’m not sure if she even knows I’m there."
Henry nodded, trying hard to remain stotic, "It would still be good for her, I think."
A moment of silence passed between them.
Henry smiled, "I hear a girl has taken a fancy to you."
Steven smiled back, "Yes, we’ve been seeing each other."
"What’s her name?"
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle of Arten."
"Gabrielle," Henry repeated. A pretty name. "I hope to meet her soon."
"I’m sure you will."
More silence. The conversation between Castor and Fardo turned ugly, ending with the latter storming away. Cort looked as if he wished to follow, but was distracted by Robert, who was telling some kind of rude joke that involved a plump chambermaid. Henry thought about inquiring what that quarrel was all about, but, he figured he’d hear about it in due time. Steven watched Fardo leave, then looked at his father.
"Its between them.", Henry sighed, "You should go back to your friends. You have to prepare for tomorrow."
Steven nodded, "All right. We’ll talk later."
By the time Henry reached the eastern wing of the castle, where his bedroom was - the same bedroom that he shared with his wife only two months ago - he was on the verge of exhaustion. Everything ached and he wanted nothing more than to simply collapse upon the large, goose-feathered mattress and sleep and sleep and sleep.
However, once he reached the door, he suddenly thought of Deidre. He wanted to see her. Even though his body was screaming at him for rest, his heart just wouldn’t listen. He started down the long hall that lead to his wife’s apartments.
His hands were trembling. He dreaded this walk every time he had to make it. Each time there was always a small hope that she would be cured, that she would go into his arms like she used to a thousand times before, to kiss him and tell him that everything would be all right from now on. And each time, after seeing her, that hope would be broken apart, and all that was left as he would walk back to his room would be heart-wrenching sadness.
Her apartments were luxurious, to say the least. Seven rooms: two lounges, a dining room, a bathroom, a parlor, a study, and a bedroom. All were beautifully furnished, worthy of a queen, but Henry doubted that his wife noticed or appreciated any of it.
As he quietly entered the parlor, he saw his wife’s lady-in-waiting, Rachel, seated upon a sofa, mending a torn dress. She looked up and smiled at him, inclining her head, "G’d aft’rnoon, m’lord."
Henry gave a weak smile in return. He looked towards the open door of the bedroom, "How is she doing?"
"Good, I s’ppose. She’s been quiet. Dr. Crawley left me some tonic to give to her at supper."
"Tonic…", Henry repeated, looking at the small purple bottle that was left on the table. He had a notion to throw the damn thing out the window. Of all the doctors, he disliked Crawley the most. He was short and bald and called his wife a ‘withering rose’. He hated that even worse than Deidre the Mad, which is what she was called in circles of gossip, but never to his face. In his presence, her name was always spoken with false, sympathetic smiles.
As if sensing his thoughts, Rachel asked, "P’rhaps I shouldn’t?"
Henry sighed, answering truthfully, "I don’t know."
Rachel nodded, watching as he began drifting towards the bedroom. Henry knew she worried about him. She had even, in a subtle and respectful way, offered herself as his gilly, which Henry had politely refused. He could never bed another woman than Deidre, not even if it were in the boundaries of noble etiquette. He paused at the door, mustering up the courage to step inside.
She was seated by the window, away from the bed. A spinning-wheel was set up in front of her. She would do this for hours, spinning and spinning and spinning, leaving bundles of thread on the floor. As she did this, she would be in a daze, sometimes staring out the window and sometimes staring at nothing at all.
She was beautiful. The memories of first seeing her under the apple-tree in the grove came flooding back to him with such passion that he fought hard not to lose control of himself. Her hair, dark and graying, was long enough that, when unbound, fell down past her waist in silky waves. Her eyes were soft blue, like the early light of morning, and he found that he was always easily lost in them. The time before her illness was like a dream, vague and elusive, when the world seemed brighter
(when the Tower was brighter)
and they were both happy.
He watched her for a moment before going to her side. He swallowed. His throat was dry. "Deidre?"
The spinning wheel turned. She stared at nothing.
"Deidre, can you hear me?"
"I spoke to Steven today. He’ll be riding to Delain soon."
"He said he would come visit you."
Henry kneeled down beside her. Tears were welling up in his eyes. He held them back.
"Please talk to me. I don’t know what to do anymore. I’m lost, and I’m confused, and I feel very alone. Please…"
Henry covered his face in his hand, then rose to his feet. He felt the absurd urge to simply lay down on the floor and fall asleep there, just wanting to be near her.
Instead, he gave his wife one last look
(like a withering rose)
before leaving, going right past Rachel without saying a word. Going back down the hall seemed to take an eternity and when he finally reached his room, he fell right down onto his bed with all of his clothes on. He found he was too tired to even cry himself to sleep.