2097 words (8 minute read)

Not Whither, but Whether

Cass’s horse was moving at a brisk trot, its gums pulled back with exhaustion. It bucked slightly to signal its annoyance, but Cass already had her hands on the reins, bringing them to a sudden stop.

She looked back to Edwin, wrinkling her nose. Edwin took the hint and swung down to the ground, stiff on his feet. The bard breathed a sigh of relief at the removal of Edwin’s stench, as she nimbly hopped off her horse in turn.

At the edge of a forest lay an abandoned fortress, its true size obscured by the rampant growth all around it. Moss and lichen had worked themselves into the cracks in the mortar, and trees hugged all around the edges as if they were trying to hold the building close, like a mother would a child.

Edwin lingered on the fortress, taking in its decrepit state.

“What’s this?” he asked.

Cass let out a slow breath as she tracked Edwin’s vantage point. “Home,” she answered. “For the last few miserable winters anyhow.”

Cass’s gaze suddenly dropped, wandering over the grounds as she took a few tentative steps forward. She caught the look of confusion on Edwin’s face and pointed towards the woods. “They roam at night.”

“They?” Edwin repeated, raising an eyebrow.

“Stray corpses, left behind by the Gravewalkers. Let’s just say they’re not exactly in the practice of, eh, laying the dead to rest anymore.” She chuckled to herself as she continued. “Unrest, really more like it.”

“I fail to see the humor.”

“Then I suppose I’m just too clever for anyone’s good,” Cass replied with another laugh -- until Edwin abruptly reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders.

“They were human once, no different than you or I,” he growled, an inch away from throttling her. He brought his face in close and dropped his voice to a strained whisper. “Not fodder for your blasted amusement.”

“Hm. Perhaps too clever for my own good, then,” Cass offered with the tiniest smile, but received no such expression in return. Seeing this, she tried a different approach. “Perhaps a little more respect was in order?”

“More than a little, I think,” Edwin said, his voice dropping even further. He was too tired to stay angry for long, as he released his grip on the bard.

Cass caught herself and straightened up. With an uneasy cough, she reached for the reins of her horse to tether it to a nearby stump. In doing so, she spied Edwin scoping the grounds in earnest, a veteran soldier still, despite the years that had passed.

“Over here, m’lord.”

After a few tense moments, Edwin reluctantly turned and followed the bard to a heavy thicket of underbrush. Cass prodded it a bit with her foot before kicking the loose vegetation aside, revealing a wooden trap door underneath. As she pulled it open, Edwin could see a stone staircase, descending into the ground towards a warm glow. He looked back to Cass’s horse, lazily chewing the tall grass in the clearing.

“Your horse?” Edwin asked.

“Let them try,” Cass snickered. The irritable steed echoed Cass with a loud snort and a toss of its mangy head.

As Cass dropped beneath the earth and down the staircase, Edwin gave one last look to the expanse behind him. The crescent moon was barely illuminating the earth, lending the senses more to sound than sight. Edwin could discern the weeds rolling back and forth in the breeze. A rodent was scampering beneath them, cresting the brown warmth of the dying plants in the dark of night. It all appeared very clear for Edwin, everything the way it should’ve been for the moment.

One more glance, then he made his way after her.


The steps were steep and the space not very accommodating; Edwin’s shoulders brushed against the stone walls all the way down to the growing light beneath. A cobweb caught his cheek and worked its way into his mouth. He couldn’t reach for it in the tight quarters and was forced to futilely puff away for the rest of his descent.

At the bottom was a corridor much wider than the staircase, but one just as littered with cobwebs. Edwin followed Cass’s torch to the end and reached the source of the light, a great, wide chamber that shot up and out to the sides.

His attention was immediately drawn to the dome ceiling above, painted with figures he’d never seen before, a tapestry of dark shades of crimson and evergreen. Their details were nearly impossible to make out, but they charged his imagination. Like the days of his childhood, his mind was wandering towards great and far-off adventures. Creatures of the dark, robbing kingdoms of their princesses and having only Edwin to stop them.

Evelina, he thought, my princess lost, and Mela, my lost princess. His imagination once again faded into the past, into the shadows. As his gaze dropped downward, he saw that the floor, the furniture, the walls, that they were littered with artifacts. An underground museum of antiquity, illuminated by the dull shine from hundreds of flickering candles. Dust hung about most of them, propped on wooden stands, crammed into shelves of cabinets, piled into corners. Others showed care, hours of love spent in cleaning them to former glory. Old rusty swords rested against shields that bore crests of families long extinct, while some bore images and colors of the times of houses, all unfamiliar to Edwin. All from a time before the Brotherhood had done away with all of that, a time when blood had ruled all. A time before a family of men allowed the unification of high and low, all under one banner.

It all seems trapped in a circle now, he mused.

There was also a sea of literature that rolled about the room. Scrolls of yellowed parchment and books with cracked leather-bound covers that spilled out before him, scattered amongst a menagerie of cracked skulls and melted candles.

“Could fancy me a collector of historical odds and ends, I suppose,” Cass said, as she plopped down on a makeshift couch. It was worn out in a loving manner and probably the cleanest thing in the room because of it. Cass grabbed a bottle from the floor and pressed it to her lips; a hard swallow followed. “But not of decent wine,” Cass sighed. “The depravity of being piss-poor.”

“Try something else besides pilfering burial grounds,” Edwin said as he continued to gaze around the room.

“Not just burial grounds, you know,” Cass retorted.

“Of course. Where else then?”

“As of late, the Fields of Sorrow,” Cass answered as she swung from her couch to a low-standing wooden table. “As I’d like to call them anyway.”

She cleared away books and goblets and slapped down a map. Her finger pointed towards a hastily drawn skull, nestled between two mountains. “There’s something about it that I haven’t quite figured out yet, but for your intents, we’ll just call it the site of just another vain, insufferable war, duly forgotten along with so many others.” She took a deep touch from her wine bottle, to the same grimace as before. “Forgotten to all those with exception of the, ah, intellectual sort.”

Edwin’s frown made Cass pause. “Ahem, well,” She pressed on after catching Edwin’s stony expression. “Speaking of grand tales . . . we have yet to discuss yours.”

“There’s nothing to discuss,” Edwin grunted back.

Cass smiled, something that Edwin had already decided annoyed him, as if he was being manipulated. He wasn’t some lovesick fool and he was tired of being charmed as if he were. Stranger still was the thought that a woman could make him feel that way, almost like a piece of meat to coaxed and tenderized . . . but the lute was already in Cass’s hands. She laid back into the couch and began to strum, her fingers plucking and pulling, with deft, quick strokes.

“No?” Cass seemed to sing out the question. “There’s no merit to the travails of the Knight Proper?”

Her words cut sharply into Edwin. “No,” he insisted. “And stop saying the Knights Proper. It’s the--”

“--Konig Protectorate,” she finished for him. “Of course, m’lord.” Cass didn’t let him off the hook though, as she waited patiently for the rest of his response.

. . . the matter’s settled, there’s nothing left to do.”

Cass’s smile grew even wider, the grin of a conniving jester than anything else.

Whether the weather is whetted for heroic endeavors . . .” she began to sing, plucking her lute a bit harder now. “Or wet for to wither your miserable bones . . . run hither or thither but never ye shiver . . . it matters not whither, but whether you go . . .”

As she finished, Cass simply got up and walked down another corridor. “Come, Sir Misery and Suffering.”

Edwin’s jaw tightened, but he nevertheless followed Cass into a small stone chamber that looked fit for a servant’s sleeping quarters. A meager cot sat at the back with a water basin tucked beside it. A few candles were spread about, but there, on the wall, was the one thing that captured Edwin’s true attention.

A magnificent suit of armor, along with a burnished sword . . . now free from the cemetery muck where Edwin had last made use of them. They glowed with reflected brilliance, the artifacts capturing what little light remained in the chamber.

“Recognize these?” Cass asked, knowing the answer and smiling wider than ever.

“Where did you . . .” Edwin started.

“A collector, remember?”

Edwin finally pulled his gaze away from the suit of armor to look Cass directly in the eyes. “Speak plainly, bard. This. All of this. What’s it for?”

“I told you,” Cass said, her expression a touch more serious now. “You have a grand story in the making and I want to tell it.”

“And I already told you . . .” Edwin’s impatience was mounting. “There’s nothing I can do.”

“Well, what if I said there was a way . . . a way to see your daughter again?” Cass asked, her own patience being tested as well.

Edwin froze. “How?”

“Bah.” Cass’s smile began to rise again in her face. “Details aren’t important. It’s whether you’re willing.” She walked over to a wooden chest that Edwin missed when he first walked in.

“Whether or not you have the conviction to finally tell her how you truly feel,” she said.

Edwin’s eyes narrowed at her last comment, but he remained silent.

And when Cass stood up, her expression seemed to be have been devoured by her own newfound conviction. No laughter now, no smiles. Serious and taut, she spoke without joke or song. “Because surely, if saving the good people of Riesenstadt wasn’t reason enough for you . . .” She grabbed Edwin’s hand and forced something into it. “. . . then perhaps the chance to finally set things right would suffice instead.”

She paused before continuing, letting the moment wash over Edwin. “For the Knight Proper knows the meaning of love, just as much as he knows the meaning of duty.”

Edwin looked down into his hands. Soft and tiny, there it laid . . . Mela’s doll from years past. Rescued from the cemetery, cleaned with the same care as the armor.

He heard Cass’s footsteps trailing out the door as he continued to stare at the doll.

“Consider my words, Edwin Talmaris,” Cass’s voice echoed through the stone walls. “And by the Gods . . .” Edwin turned quickly to see the bard’s face peeking around the doorway. “Will you please make use of a proper bath? I thought the dead were outside, not in here.”

Her head disappeared from the doorway again and her voice returned to echoes from the hallway. “Words of gold, sir knight! Words to consider!”

** Shout Out to Rick Monge for the song!