Saturday, April 26, 2014

Chapter Fourteen, Scene One - A Change of Heart

The chill of winter came upon Nûmidëa quite suddenly, with no warning save the arrival of the first calendar day of winter. Duke Osric and his family had never made much of a celebration of Winter’s Night, nor paid it much attention at all, but they couldn’t help but notice it this time. Fires were lit throughout the manor-keep, to try and warm up the chambers suddenly chilled by the cold air.

Osric sat at his desk in the main hall that day, as was his custom, while servants hustled about their own tasks. Someone eventually came to light the fire in the hearth behind him, and he sat back in his chair to stretch his muscles, which had gone stiff from the cold. Looking down at the hearth, he mused a moment on the coming warmth, anticipating its heat on his back, radiating outward to eventually fill the large hall.

As a servant approached with a lit taper and held it toward the stacked logs, Osric’s brow suddenly went up. “Hold!” he exclaimed, raising a hand to ward off the servant for a moment. “What is that?” he asked, pointing at a crumpled piece of parchment in the corner, near the wood.

“I-I do not know, m’lord,” the servant stammered.

“Bring it to me.”

The servant nodded, and quickly reached down to grab the parchment, then turned and handed it to the duke.

“You may proceed,” the duke said, turning away. The servant gladly lit the fire, and left the room before his lord could catch him with any other surprises.

As the flustered servant departed, Osric turned the parchment over in his hands, slowly spreading it out on his desk, flattening it in order to see what was written there. Was it some writ from a fellow duke, something that had irritated him enough to make him simply toss it away? The gods knew he’d received enough of those lately, the duke of this manor or the duchess of that place, writing him letters, people he’d not even known existed but who suddenly found reason to try and form alliances with him, or even feign friendship, as his influence in the court had risen over the past few years. And no wonder they should try, he thought, knowing how useless most of them were in their supposed service to the king. The king himself confided in me that the lot of them were a conniving, back-stabbing bunch of ingrates, and me the one servant who he had some reason to trust. As they saw their own stars falling at court while his rose, it should come as no surprise that they might try to make a connection with him, and perhaps share in his good fortune.

Well, let us see who it was that so irritated me, that I should crumple up a perfectly good piece of parchment and throw it in the fireplace to await winter’s first burn. He smiled grimly, focusing his attention on the carefully-written letter.

It began:

Balfrith, son of Osric,

To Duke Osric, of House Aethelred,

Greetings.

It is with a heavy heart…

Osric’s brows rose, and he frowned, but he read the letter all the way through, then read it again, and yet a third time, absorbing the words. Finally he sat back in his chair, pondering, holding the letter up to let the light of a lone sun-ray play through the thin parchment. Lines of light showed the creases that he had flattened out, a complex and random web that made it difficult to read the words written there. But he knew what they said - and he needed time to think on them. He stood, parchment still in hand, and left his desk, to go up the stairs to his private chambers.

He never left his desk early in the day, and his servants took note of this, though they knew not what could have inspired this change in behavior.