“I hate to be that person,” I lean toward the guard next to me, “but, like, are we there yet?”
We’ve been walking for twenty minutes with the guards; the only sounds are the buzzing of the lamps and the clunking of the guard’s heavy footsteps. The only response I get from the young man is his eyes shifting slightly beneath his helmet.
I roll my eyes and shift my gaze back to the ground in front of me. Finn fiddles with his sword hilt, seemingly unaffected by the entire situation. I start to hum to give me something to do.
Finally, the path hits an incline. Five more minutes later, we reach the top of the hill, and Finn whispers a soft curse as my eyes widen at the sight.
There’s a city in front of us, or at least what’s left of one. At the bottom of the hill we climbed, a large wall, at least ten feet tall and made of stone, stretches out in front of us in a circle. We can see most of the city within the wall: stone houses, interwoven streets, people milling about. But the far half of the city looks…dead. Crumbling stone walls, smashed and flickering lamps, charred earth. Any building beyond about half of the city is gone, a few wooden beams and roof shingles and stone foundations scattered here and there. For some reason, it looks like pictures I’ve seen of the aftermath of wildfires or volcano eruptions. My breath catches when I think I see the white shine of bone amidst the charred landscape. It’s almost a straight split, a direct line between the livable half and the destroyed half, between life and death, and the dead half of the city looks like a completely different place than the nearer side.
Before I can take in any more, I feel a sharp jab in my back. I whip my head around to see the guard with the spear, looking almost apologetic.
“What the hell happened here?” I ask the guards.
The awkward silence between the guards increases its awkward rating from a ten to a twenty. No one says anything; they just force us on, down the hill to the city.
“Elizabeth.” Finn says softly. “I happened.”
I study his face, confused. He looks…disgusted. Then, I remember. He said he got too close when fighting. Damn…
“But, that was…” I lower my voice and grab his arm. “That was, what, ten years ago?”
He clenches his jaw. “Yeah, it was.”
“He destroyed us.” The lead guard snarls from ahead of us. She doesn’t even turn around.
“Yeah, maybe.” I say. “Maybe, but that was ten years ago! Like, I was seven when that happened. Why’s that whole half of the city still like that?”
But she’s done talking now. We keep on to the city, my question still hanging in the air. I look to Finn, but his eyes are scanning the city furiously. He doesn’t have an answer. But he’s looking.
Continuing on the path, we’re lead directly to a huge wooden gate in the stone wall, which swings open slowly when we approach. More guards on the inside, who opened the gate, stare at us as we pass. But their eyes and their body postures, all I can see of them, are sharp and alert. I see some jaws clench, hands twitch on spear-handles, heavy breaths.
We wind our way through the city, people peeking out around corners to catch a glimpse of us. Everything seems to be covered with a certain layer of dust, making everything have a hazy brown tint. The people, hanging in little clusters, are few, with simple clothes and normal features. When I catch their gaze, however, they all look away hurriedly, going back to their everyday business of pretending that I can’t see them stealing looks.
Eventually we reach a clearing in the midst of the city, and the stone road opens up to a much larger building than the others. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it from the hill, the freaking stone castle.
It looks like it came straight out of a storybook. The stone walls build up into tenements and towers, all right on top of one another. Looking almost like the builders ran out of space, the building is much taller than wide, almost squashed up on itself. But it’s beautiful, tall and cold and beautiful.
“Wow…” I gasp, looking up at the many towers of the castle.
“Eh.” Finn gives a little shrug, and I give him a crazed look.
“We’re looking at a huge, beautiful castle, and all you say is ‘eh?’” I laugh.
“Oh, E, this is nothing compared to some I’ve…” He trails off at the head guard’s glare.
She turns back forward and growls, “Wait until you see the other side.”
The guards force us onward, around the side of the castle to a gate. So we could see the other side.
The castle mirrors the city. And the back half of the castle is on the dead side of the city. Ashes floating softly in the air, this side was crumbling, every tower and wall and gargoyle. It looks as if someone cut the castle in half, right to the left of the gate, or someone accidentally stepped on a child’s sandcastle. Charred dust and bricks create a slope from the top of the building to the rubble at the end of the open space around the castle. Beyond the castle’s destroyed half is a land of dark soot and broken things. The skeletons of buildings stick out of the ground with a firm layer of dust. Besides the dust, it looks as if the destruction could have happened yesterday. A few guardsmen walk around and through the destroyed half of castle, seemingly unbothered at the sight.
Glancing at Finn, he looks puzzled, like he’s about to say something, but then he seems to decide against it.
We’re ushered in through the gate, into the livable half of the castle. The inside of the castle is surprisingly unremarkable, as we weave silently through a few corridors. It’s real medieval with these stone cold hallways. The only difference between this and a medieval castle is that there are small electric lamps flickering on the walls.
Finally, we reach a huge doorway, but the guards stop. Head Guard Lady gestures at the door. Finn gives me a warning look then heaves the door open. And we enter alone.
The room we take a few steps into is just as average as the rest of the interior. A relatively small room, maybe thirty feet across, with the same electric lamps giving off barely any light on the walls as in the corridor. Two guards stand at the door, and they close it behind us. The floor is covered with that same dust, making the entire room look foggy. Through the haze, at the opposite end of the hall, sits a plain wooden chair. My eyes wander from the floor up the chair to the man sitting on the chair.
He looks…normal. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. He’s young, probably a twenty-something, with shoulder-length, dusty brown hair and a strong jaw. Wearing simple black clothing and a sword at his hip, he sits rigid, back straight in line with his shoulders, alert and attentive, but his eyes, which are locked with Finn’s, tell a different story. His eyes look weary, while the rest of him seems to be on full tilt. To be honest, he just kind of looks like that guy at the gym. That guy who’s trying just a little too hard, and it’s so obvious from his eyes he just does not want to be there and does not want to get in shape.
My brain gets back on track when the guy heaves himself to his feet, never taking his eyes off Finn.
“Finnegan. You’re back at last.” His voice is rough, actually making me swallow in response.
Finn looks him up and down, and he’s got that confused face on again. “Sigiwald. How long’s it been?”
The guy laughs, which turns into a cough. “Too long.”
“No.” Finn says forcefully, and he begins to slowly walk toward Sigiwald. “No, no, I mean really. How long has it been?”
I raise my eyebrows. What the heck is Finn doing?
“Well, about ten years, I suppose.”
Finn halts abruptly, halfway between Sigiwald and me, and he stiffens a little. “Well, you don’t look a day over twenty-two!”
Sigiwald clenches his jaw but doesn’t say anything.
Finn moves right along. “You should meet my apprentice. This is Elizabeth.” When he says my name, he gestures forward, so I step up to his side.
“Ah, yes. I’ve heard…rumors that you’ve taken an apprentice.” He looks unimpressed.
I’m slightly offended, but Finn says, “Yeah, funny how times change.”
Finn’s talking way too much. Even in front of someone who probably wants to kill him. Like, I haven’t known him for too long, but I know him well enough to know that this ain’t right. He gives me a little look, and I can tell something’s changed. Then I see it. His confused-face is gone.
“So, tell us, dear old Sigiwald, why exactly you’ve called me here today?” Finn rubs his hands together and begins to walk around Sigiwald. “I mean, why now? You’ve had all the time in the world. If it’s just to kill me, well, you could’ve done that any time; I mean, some people think it’s already happened. Although, I am still here, so maybe it’s not as easy as people think.”
Sigiwald doesn’t move but says slowly, “Well, like some others, I thought you were dead for five long years.”
“Mm, was it that long, though?” Finn looks at me over Sigiwald’s head.
The man, now staring at me, made the first facial expression I’ve seen from him. Anger, I guess? He whips his head around to Finn.
Okay, now I definitely feel like I’m missing the joke.
“I called you here now, as opposed to earlier, for one specific reason.” His right arm slowly raises, until it’s level with my eyes, his index finger straight out and unfaltering.
“I called you here because of her.”
“Um, I’m sorry, what?” I laugh. “What exactly are you…”
Before I can finish my sentence, the two guards from behind me next to the door run up and grab my arms, holding them behind me. I feel a tiny jab on left side of my neck as the guard levels his spear to my neck.
In the same instant, Finn draws his sword and levels it at Sigiwald, laying the end gently on Sigiwald’s shoulder. All of Finn’s jovial demeanor disappears, his eyes cold once again.
“Bad. Decision.” Finn whispers.
I stand perfectly still, not looking at Finn but instead studying the guards next to me as best I can. They’re young, breathing as heavy as I am, and I feel the spear shaking on my skin. They’ve got, uh, helmets which is a disadvantage for me, so I have to aim for….not the head. Um, they, um…
My thoughts are tumbling away from my head as all I can think about is the cold steel on my neck. Focus! Focus, come on, what has Finn taught me?
Sigiwald says something. I miss it, unable to hear him through the thundering in my ears. Why’s there thundering? Oh, heartbeat, right.
I jerk back into existence when Finn says my name. But he still isn’t looking at me, just Sigiwald.
“Oh, but it has everything to do with her.” Sigiwald says. “She brought you…back from the dead, one might say. What else could bring the great Finnegan back to the wegferends but a lowly girl to train in his masterful ways?”
“I can’t help but notice a tone of sarcasm.” I say softly through my rapid heartbeats.
He looks back at me. “I can’t help but notice the same. She doesn’t believe that’s true, does she?”
I roll my eyes. “She’s also literally right here.”
Sigiwald turns back to Finn, the sword slightly scraping his neck. “I’m not sure I see why the great Finnegan would come back for her. She hasn’t even figured it out yet.”
Okay, now this guy is annoying me. I wish my heartbeat was still thundering so I didn’t have to listen to this. “‘Figured it out?’ Of course I’ve figured it out.”
My eyes connect with Finn’s, and he almost seems to smile.
“Really? Well, perhaps I underestimated you. Please,” Sigiwald says, “let’s make it a game. Prove it to me, or that sword goes through your throat.”
Shit. No one says anything. I think wildly. What has happened?
“Kill her, and I kill you.” Someone says. Finn probably.
My heart starts thundering again, and I try to focus. My eyes dart wildly, from Finn and Sigiwald and back to Finn.
“Do you really think that matters anymore?”
What did Finn say? ‘Funny how times change?’ Uh…
“It always matters.”
Oh. Oh, no way. That’s impossible.
To Be Continued in next Thursday in The Forever King: Part 3!
Featured Image found at: https://pixabay.com/en/uchisar-city-mountain-castle-65014/