I was in the market for a small castle, maybe a well-appointed holdfast, somewhere up in the Highlands where I could relocate my clan away from the Archmarshall’s court with all its endless violence and deceiving. I was on my fourth castle tour of the day — another pre-Schism pile of stone upon a hill — and I was starting to think of little else but supper.
“The murder holes’re all original,” the brawny, long-haired druid was saying.
I was worried I’d given him the wrong impression.
“Genuine tenth-century arrow slits.”
I should’ve left my claymore with the horses.
“Dungeons down these stairs. Or you can take the trap door from the hall.”
Neither of us laughed. The druid was moving quickly, like he’d done this a thousand times before.
“Armory, scullery, falcony, kennels. Nice throne in the Great Hall on your left. This way, your grace.”
After all the castles I’d seen that day I’d’ve sooner milked the Archmarshall’s prize stallion than climb another spiral bloody staircase, but the druid was already following it out of sight. I girded my belt and followed. I should’ve left my claymore with the horses.
I came up onto the roof and the vista took away what little breath I had left after all those stairs. The sun was going down behind the western hills, and to the north the moors rolled away golden and irregular and empty. It was a vision of peace I had dreamed of many nights before. There was nothing — no one — for miles, unless you counted the enormous crows watching us and murmuring from their perches on the corner turrets.
“I’ll take it,” I said when I had breath enough to do so. “Eight thousand.”
“Ok,” the druid said without any expression. “It’s yours.”
The crows laughed.
“It’s getting dark,” the druid said, dipping his head to pass through the doorway and back down the stairs. I almost didn’t notice the faded letters carved into the lintel as I followed.
The druid stopped on the stairs below me. “So you read the old signs,” he said.
“Champion. Cobalt?” I translated literally.
This time he glanced over his shoulder like he was afraid someone would overhear us. The crows had gone quiet. Their feathers had taken on a blue-black hue in the last, horizontal light.
“It’s… a type of granite. Locally quarried. Highly desirable. Makes a lovely finish for your countertops and crenellations.”
Then he turned abruptly and we went back down the stairs. I saw him off as far as the murder holes, watching him ride away with a bagful of gold for down payment and a promisory note signed in my name for the rest.
The steps were even longer and steeper than before, but I was eager to return to the roof and watch the stars come out. The sky was low and cozy. The moorlands were infinite. I could send for the clan in a couple of days. For now, I was alone for the first time in years. Alone in the castle. My castle. Alone except for the crows.
The crows were the first sign that something was wrong. They no longer lauged or chattered. I lit a torch and went closer to investigate.
It was hard to claim that the crows had turned to stone. The blue-black granite was so cold and weathered that it was clear the ancient gargoyles had been brought temporarily to life by a druid’s charm.
Whatever glamours had been spelled over the place were fading fast, and as I rushed down the stairs, a crumbling, decaying ruin of a castle emerged in place of the charming little hideaway I’d thought I was purchasing.
Hinges rusted before my eyes. Tapestries melted off the walls. The scullery stank of mildew and the sea. There was smoke coming from the great hall.
I rushed in, expecting to find that my castle was on fire on top of everything else.
But the smoke wasn’t so much coming from the great hall as being drawn into it. Into a shape. The shape of a person seated cross-legged before the throne, her back to me, a pearled crown on the ground beside her.
“Welcome,” she sighed.
“Who are you?”
“I am Veltar Sufaltar.”
“The Cobalt Champion?”
She laughed as she unfolded herself and stood. She was taller than I’d expected. Taller than I was.
“Champion of Archmarshal Kelefyr’s Cobalt Lists. Rewarded not with the prince, as promised, but with this ruin, doomed to wait here for the next vassal who would pay good gold to take my accursed place.”
“And that’s me?” I asked.
I didn’t trust my legs to hold me so I eased myself down to the clammy stone floor. “Isn’t there some kind of contest?”
“Oh,” I said. “You mean, the one to see who would pay good gold for a castle without taking the time to have it properly inspected.”
She smiled. “It was glamours all the way down.”
“Listen,” I said. “I have an idea. Why don’t we go get the druid and make him take your place instead of me? I have a clan and kids to take care of.”
Being angry at the druid was less painful than confronting the sense of encroaching doom.
“Faellenear was my agent. His father was my agent before him. Et cetera. Et cetera.”
“Still,” I pleaded.
“It’s not so bad,” she consoled, moving through me on her way out of the castle. “You can keep the champion’s crown. And the crows aren’t such bad company, once you get to know them.”
I watched her stride out from the ruin and swing into the saddle of my horse. When I tried to follow I felt my entire being begin to dissolve.
I returned slowly to the hall and lay on its cold, clammy floor.
I can wait, I thought, curling up for a sleep that wouldn’t come. At least I have my claymore.