His movements were a distant cousin of life, once removed. In that respect, he was no different to any of them. But his joints complained and protested, obeying only grudgingly. As though he had slumbered so long his frame had fallen into disuse. Yet Crick had seen him rise during the battle to stand against the Priest. Perhaps this was a symptom of that weakness that Gallows and Thwart had identified in him. Perhaps it was an ill effect of bathing in the warm glow of the Priest’s holy symbol.
The Lord reached his full height with a final jerk of his spine. Dust dislodged from his eye sockets and fell in light, dry showers. He was an imposing figure, despite his poverty of flesh. His eye-hollows were not as hollow as others. The darkness that lurked in his skull appeared deeper, a thing of some substance.
Crick considered backing down a step from the throne.
But – surprising, he thought – and very little surprised the dead – how much shorter the Lord appeared without his crown.
Surprising too, how much taller Crick felt with the weight of metal encircling his skull.
He would have picked up his shield, but that would have necessitated a bow. He met the Lord’s nightstone gaze, hollow for hollow. And he drew his sword.
He would need a grander blade once he assumed the throne. Perhaps the Lord’s hand-and-a-half sword that gleamed, propped against the side of the throne. Perhaps that Knight’s greatsword should he choose to return and donate it, along with his corpse.
Crick’s thoughts were steel. Forged of more mettle than they had ever been in life. If memory served. But it never did. It merely fell in a slow tumble like the dust from the Lord’s eyes. The light had to be right to catch a single speck and even then it couldn’t be grasped with any certainty. Not with such treacherous gaps between fingers of bone.
But past was immaterial. Now was all that mattered.
Crick merely had to be strong now. This moment. To stand firm, sword in hand.
Long as his sword was, the Lord would have to bend to reach it. To bend was to lose.
Hollows met hollows, trying to excavate each other. To mine the darkness within. A wordless, weaponless duel.
Behind him, Crick sensed Gallows and Thwart skulking in the doorway. Watching. Willing him to win. Lending him their darkness so that no matter how deep the Lord dug he would find more.
The Lord’s neck protested louder than any of his other bones as, slowly, he bowed his head.
It sounded enough like Crick.
Crick stepped to one side, allowing the Lord-no-longer room to step down. Crownless, he descended from the dais and froze at the base. The litter of bones about the banquet hall had finished assembling into a ramshackle congregation. The diverse and debilitated subjects shuffled and skittered, as though uncertain as to whom they should swear allegiance.
Crick decided to settle the question.
He raised his sword, aligning its arc with the bare-bone neck of the Lord-no-longer.
Two voices that weren’t voices bolted from the shadows. Shooting into Crick to ricochet off the walls of his skull.
Gallows and Thwart advanced through the throng, stepping over – and on – some of the more prostrate creatures among them.
Feathergale does not slay its own, Gallows reminded him.
The House wastes nothing, added Thwart, gesturing at the reassembled pieces of the fallen.
He will serve us, appended Gallows. He will serve you.
Crick looked down on the Lord-no-longer. He turned his once-regal head and Crick saw nothing of menace, nothing of substance in those hollows. Just an old dead fire, raked ashes in a cold hearth.
Gallows and Thwart flanked him to divest him of the chainmail.
Crick presented his rusty sword, hilt-first. You will take my old patrol.
The Lord-no-longer curled ancient knuckles around the blade’s grip. Then he retreated, sloping away across the hall and through the doorway, bound for Crick’s landing.
Crick’s landing no longer.
Crick raised both arms, ready to receive the mail shirt. Gallows and Thwart were quick to attend him. As they dropped the garment over his head, the rings of mail snagged once or twice on the thorns of the crown, but Crick refused to remove it even for the purposes of robbing himself.
Minor snags or catches were nothing to him.
He was Lord of the House. He was Feathergale.
Word came at dawn that Feathergale was under attack.
Drumming on the earth like a rain of steel and leather. Footfalls and hoofbeats on the mountain paths.
They pummelled the dirt tracks, beat down to the heart of the mountain and echoed up through the foundations of the House. Hundreds. Not enough to shake the stone – these walls and halls had withstood far greater storms. But enough to trouble the dust. Grainy clouds drifted down from cracks and crevices and the chandeliers shed motes where they had shed no light for centuries.
Crick, Lord of the House, rose from his throne.
He moved with smooth purpose. Like the flow of molten steel from the weaponsmith’s forge. He collected his sword – the Lord’s sword. Gallows and Thwart fell into step behind him. The ramshackle cohorts of the Mended followed, shambling, hobbling, scraping and crawling in his wake.
He sensed the rest of the Household guard descending from the battlements and high towers, the galleries and landings, the wings North and South and East and West. The House disinterred more guards from graves in the gardens, while others dredged themselves up from their murky beds at the bottom of the moat.
As Crick walked, the crown shifted not an inch on his skull. His coat of mail chinked and jangled like a million tiny bells, muted and dulled with age, but shimmered even in the best of halflights the House could muster.
How much brighter it would shine in the morning air. At the head of Feathergale’s legions.
The trespassers had returned with an army.
So Lord Crick marched out to meet them.
[To Be Concluded…]