Crick lay in the gloom and stillness a while. Just one more pile of bones heaped upon many more.
He stirred. The hall groaned like a dead forest in the harsh breath of winter. Or the arthritic near-dead rising from their night’s slumbers. All around him, skeletons rose. Some continued to lie there and would have provided gnawsome treats for the hounds in the days when the court of Feathergale had kept hunting dogs.
Crick stood and swayed. His skull housed only the ghost of a brain and yet that gauntleted fist had packed the power to daze. The shock of it still raced a convoluted circuit around his frame like teams of devil horses dragging rattling carriages. His bones felt the hoofbeats, the grind of the wheels and the lash of the driver’s whip.
As did the bones that were no part of him.
He tipped his skull forward, peering emptily at the leg that protruding through his ribcage. He stood a little unsteadily, but on two feet, so the fibula and tibia – complete with foot attached – definitely belonged to a comrade. He grabbed it and pulled it out, searching the mound of fallen for its owner. It was hopeless. The destroyed dead formed a deep-pile wicker carpet, a puzzle impossible to separate by ‘sight’ alone. Many were smashed beyond beyond recognition and would never walk again regardless of how many legs they possessed. They might crawl though…
Crick discarded the limb.
He scoured the littered remains for his blade. A replacement shield. And an arm.
There was no shortage of spares.
He stalked across the pile. The bones shifted underfoot. It was like treading on a glockenspiel. Glock! Glock! Glock! Hitting many a bum note, producing a dull clunk or a soulless clink. Glock! Glock! Glock! No matter how light his tread.
There was his sword, a rusty cross lying on an open grave. Crick stooped to recover it, cut the air with a practice swing. Then he chopped his splintered remnant of forearm off at the elbow. Clean, swift, painless.
He fished around in the bone pile, poking and prodding with his blade until he uncovered a suitable arm with hand attached. Carefully, he counted the digits with the tip of his sword, making sure there was a full set of fingers and a thumb in the right position for a left hand. He crouched, knees creaking like the hinges on an old garden gate, used the flat of his blade to flip the bone up in the air. It twirled like a baton in a dark carnival –
– before falling – falling – falling –
– to meet his waiting elbow joint.
It locked into place, simple as that. Good as old.
Crick did not claim the remotest understanding of how the magic worked. If magic was its true name. Mending the dead, it seemed to him, should qualify as miraculous at the very least. Even if the living would fear it as the darkest of miracles.
It was a quality of Feathergale. Like the wind, like the dust and the stones and decay and shadows.
It was nothing so alive as spirits. But it resided here, nonetheless. In the walls and floors and ceilings, deep in the foundations. Perhaps, over the centuries, it had even sunken roots in the mountain. Either way, it belonged. And Crick and all the other guards belonged to it. It was a power of age and time and Crick thought of it only as the House. He served the House and the House looked after its own.
Later or sooner, all these leftover bones would assemble themselves into servants of some descripton. Nothing would be wasted, no bone unturned.
But the House worked its darkest miracles unseen even by its guards. Only the Lord of the House would look on from his throne.
Crick lurked in the banquet hall, under the watchful sockets of the Lord, just long enough to find a second-hand shield. It was a serviceable target of bronze and leather and it sat well on his borrowed arm.
Thus equipped, Crick returned to the stairs. And ascended to his landing to return to his patrol. Resuming his rightful place in the House.
Later, they came to speak with him.
Two of them. Crick dredged the dry lake of his memory for their names. Gallows and – and Thwart? Yes, that was them. Not their names in life, of course. Memory would not reach beyond that veil to catch that kind of detail. The question of names, of who you were, amounted to minnows, guaranteed to slip the net. No. Feathergale held you together but you had to forge a new identity in death. A new identity to grow old with all over again.
Old, old, old. These two had died years before the man Crick had been and when Crick had enlisted in the ranks of the dead they had already risen to the right hand of the Lord of the House. That is, Gallows was the Lord’s right hand and Thwart was right hand to Gallows.
They crept towards him, skull-hollows hinting of secrets.
Secrets in life, as far as Crick could recollect, tended to pounce. You were ignorant of them. Then they leaped into full and sometimes terrible view.
This one stole into Crick like a burglar intent on leaving some new treasure in his possession. Thwart leaned close, touching his fore-skull to Crick’s. Dark travelled from eye-socket to eye-socket like bats migrating from cave to cave. They flapped blindly about their new home, their whispering wings slowly slowly mutating into ideas then into words.
Words, Crick suspected, not meant for the House’s ears.
The Lord Of Feathergale is weak. We want you to be the new Lord.
Crick was honoured. And suspicious. Deeply suspicious.
Why did honour feel colder than death?
[To Be Continued…]