Conspiracy whispered around Crick’s skull. Of course, it departed via his eye sockets faster than a fly will find its way out through an open window. But the memory of it persisted. It had become part of his thoughts, part of him.
He turned his hollow gaze on Gallows, then on Thwart. Why had they chosen to bestow this honour on him?
Strength, they seemed to say with their synchronised bows. You, Crick, wounded the female. Against the warrioress, you fared better than any of us. You drew the most blood.
But blood does not make a Lord.
Ah, Crick, there you are mistaken. All that separates a Lord from a common man in life is blood. In death, he has none, so where is that line of blood to be drawn? Why, from the living, of course. You have proven yourself the best of our warriors. A master at battle should be master of our House. Take the name of Feathergale. Take the crown.
Crick listened to the swirl of whispers in his skull. He had served Feathergale for a lifetime and beyond. Now he was asked to take command of this great House and have its guards serve him. Temptation, he had thought, was a thing of the past, a disease peculiar to the living. Gallows or Thwart or any of them could have presented him with a thousand treats or bribes and none would have kindled any appetite within his wicker-frame chest. But this –
This – what?
From patrolling a deserted landing to throne. From policing spiders and shadows and paint-flaking portraits to presiding over the banquet hall. From Crick to Lord Feathergale.
The greatest of promotions. But like an ascent into the heavens or a descent into the Netherplanes he had to ask, at what cost? Angels would ask you to part with your worldly goods and riches before they ushered you through the gates. Demons would demand only your soul. What, pray, did Gallows and Thwart want?
In the absence of his eyes, they read the gloom where his brain had once resided.
We wish to serve a strong master, a worthy Lord. A Lord worthy of the name Feathergale. Is your neck too brittle to support a crowned skull? Your shoulders too rounded to bear a mantle of chain? Crick, this is your time. Crick, arise. Crick, answer.
Crick did not answer. Crick reined in the eddying thoughts and coaxed them together into a picture. It was a grand portrait, alive with the smell of fresh oils: Crick seated on the House throne, Crick clad in shimmering mail, Crick’s skull filling the crown with its regal brow. Lord Crick. Lord Feathergale. Guards bowed to him and swore fealty to him.
Crick’s spine straightened. He marched between Thwart and Gallows.
He headed to the head of the stairs. Leaving the conspirators to follow. It was what they wanted, after all. It was only right to afford them the opportunity to practice.
Would he have to fight the Lord in a trial of combat? No matter if he did. Weak, they said. Crick would finish him as he would have finished the warrioress had she not been dragged from the hall by her knight-friend.
Yes, the battle for the House might easily have gone so differently had he been in command. Well, a difference would await the trespassers should they choose to return.
Yes, they would meet a new Lord. And the House would draw more blood.
You will not need to fight. The Lord is weak and it is not widely known but he sleeps while the House heals.
Bone did not lend itself to frowns. Crick was disappointed. No combat cheapened the prize, did it not? There was glory in taking power by force. But to steal it like a thief – where was the honour in that? Very well, he decided. If that was the way it had to be done, so be it. He would lead with honour and that would make amends.
Enter, Gallows bade him. And take what is yours.
Crick gripped his sword and shield and strode, taller than the curve of his spine normally allowed, into the banquet hall.
The House was at work.
Bones sifted and shifted. The undead carpeting the floor stirred, bones found bones and mated to form joints. Limbs found sockets and locked into place, skulls found spines or as many vertebrae as they could collect, ribs built cages around nothing. Femur nestled against pelvis, skeletal hands found skeletal arms, skeletal feet scurried like ivory spiders to meet shins. The banquet hall had become an assembly hall.
Spare parts built spare guards. Some were legless and crawled, others walked without upper torsos or sans skulls. Some were one-armed, others were un-armed. Incomplete as they were, they were bound by loyalty. They would serve the House in whatever capacity they could.
Gallows and Thwart had spoken true. The Lord slept on.
Seated with arms rested on the arms of his throne, his head hung to one side and the crown appeared a heavy burden for his slumped shoulders.
The carpet of bones clacked and clattered as it shifted and stirred. Crick’s footsteps were only one more set of snicks and clicks among the host of bone-sounds. He advanced, approaching the throne.
The Lord slept on.
Glock! Glock! Click! Clack! Glock!
Crick approached to within three feet of the throne and his slumbering Lord. At least two feet scuttled out of his path, as though sensing trouble. Crick closed another foot and another.
And one more.
The Lord slept on.
Crick sheathed his sword. Set his shield down at his Lord’s feet.
He reached with both hands, his own and his recently borrowed one. His fingerbones curled around the crown and lifted it from the Lord’s head.
The Lord slept on.
Crick raised the crown. Imagining himself a priest, ordained by the gods themselves, he lowered the thorned circlet onto his skull. It slipped a degree, metal scraping bone. Then sat, still and comfortable. A perfect fit.
The Lord of the House woke.
[To Be Continued…]