Red Ryder - Chapter 13 by Rtesian ()
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Red imaged the Xiloi gesture for an interrogative, a curled pinky, then a picture of a rock. "Are you sure?" They waited just inside a copse of trees edging the open space surrounding Verlon Manor, as a two-man patrol walked past the thirty-foot high east wall. Lukas returned an image of him facing her. "Yes." His back turned would have meant, no.
The three-month return trip to the Manor had provided ample opportunity to improve their communication. Irony of ironies and courtesy of Maila, she possessed a far greater vocabulary than Lukas and spent the time teaching him. For two days they had hidden here watching the routines and confirming the Count's presence.
Both guards rounded the corner and as one Lukas and Red dashed for the wall. Lukas reached up stretching past his 7-foot height. Like steel cords, muscles rippled along his furred arm as one clawed hand began digging into the mortar between the large, irregular wall stones. When dug-in feet could hold his weight, he signaled Red. She leaped atop his back, arms circling his neck. In a feat of strength no one witnessed, Lukas began to climb. Just below the parapet they paused, ears straining for any sound. Nothing. Red clambered up and over landing on the walkway with a muffled thump. "Wait here. It might be that I'll return needing to get back down fast. Here in the shadows anyone looking up will never see you."
Already oriented to the Manor's general layout, Red assumed a casual pace. The few people she passed, including guards, nodded and smiled at a familiar face. As a man of habit and routine, the Count and Countess would be seated for their evening meal. Entering the interior, Red paused before a turn, took a deep breath, loosened her sword, and stepped into the hallway. Halfway down, two guards stood at the entrance to the dining room. Both nodded at her approach. She stopped, smiling at one. "Greetings to you, good sir."
"Good evening to you, Lady Red." She nodded toward the other guard. "Is he a friend, do you know him well, is he a good man?" Puzzlement creased the guard's face. "Yes, Lady Red. Yes to all your queries."
Red's hand became a blur before it stopped with her unsheathed sword point pressed under the other guard's chin, freezing him in place. Her voice iced over and her eyes became intense focal points. "Then open this door or I assure you your friend's head will be on the ground." The guard paused for the briefest of moments then opened the door. Keeping the sword pressed under his chin, Red prodded the other inside. The Countess turned her head even as shock covered its face. Count Verlon rose from his seat. "Ryder! What is the meaning of this?"
"Order the guard to leave the room and lock the door or I'll open his neck right here." Furious eyes ablaze, Verlon did so.
When the lock clicked, Red screamed at him. "Did you know? Was all your help a setup? Did you pray I would never return?"
"Did I know what?" Verlon yelled back. Red's arm rose, sword pointed at the Countess.
"Your wife killed my mother and my grandmother. Jealousy drove her. Did you cover for her?" A slow swivel turned Verlon's head toward his wife. Her voice became indignant.
"Who is this woman? This is utter nonsense." "Nonsense? Does the name Marlen Dragonrider mean anything to you?" Red retrieved a letter from her tunic, tossing it onto the table. She switched focus to the Count. "That is the agreement between the Stone Queen and the Countess. You will recognize her seal. Ask your Bursar to confirm the withdrawal of 7,000 Crownes from your treasury. To buy what? Unfortunately for your wife, though the sum flatters me, it bought her nothing. Marlen's corpse feeds the carrion birds." Red's voice lowered to ice. "Did you know of this?"
Verlon watched the color drain from his wife's face. His head lowered and his eyes closed at the realization of the massive betrayal and lie he had lived with. And yet, the treachery could not deny his love for her. His voice, just above a whisper, spoke of the agony roiling within. "I knew nothing of this."
The moment lengthened, deepening the emotions filling the room. Red locked her gaze onto the Countess. "My grandmother died a brutal and horrible death. Only the happenstance of a kind hunter killing the Lycanthrope increased the time I had with my mother before she too succumbed to the same horrific death. Everyone thought a curse had befallen my family. One that would eventually consume me. It was no curse. Only the insane jealousy of a bitter woman." Red tightened her grip on the sword and stepped toward the terrified Countess. The enclosed room swelled Verlon's clear voice.
"No! I will not have my wife's blood spilled in my home." Again his voice lowered, filled with regret and sorrow. "I love my wife." His eyes brimmed and gazed into Red's. "And I loved your mother. But a man cannot be a slave to two masters. I failed both. It is my weakness and infidelity that started this terrible chain of events." He looked at his wife. His voice hardened. "Innocents died. Neither of them deserved it. Guard!" The door swung inward. "Escort the Countess to her chambers. Allow her to retrieve only the clothing she can carry. No jewelry. No money. Take her to the province's boundary and see her off. She has family to go to but is permanently exiled from this land." His gaze shifted back to her. "If you ever step foot again in this province, I will have you killed on the spot."
Weak and shaking, she stepped toward the doorway. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed and weeped. She turned in entrance. "I love you, Verlon." He looked away. The door closed behind her. Verlon slumped in his chair letting quiet fill the room. Red walked over to lay a hand on his shoulder. "Forgive my doubt." Verlon's hand gave a dismissive wave.
"Under the circumstances, I would have thought the same. I have lost a lover and a wife. And a daughter? What of her?"
"You have not lost her but my destiny lies elsewhere. I am sworn to help the Xiloi, the ones you know as Lycanthropes. We will be your allies. Your friends will be our friends. Your enemies will be our enemies." He rose to grasp her shoulders. "Will I see you again?"
"Whenever I am needed. And you are always welcome in Xilo." They hugged and let the moment lengthen. "I love you, father."
"I have always loved you, my child." Verlon pulled back. "Now, may I escort you to the gate?" A smile brightened Red's face. "I have a faster way out. But come. Walk with me." They reached the east parapet where Verlon had a good scare when Lukas rose from below the wall. Verlon smiled at Red.
"It eases my heart and soothes my soul to know such a powerful friend is by your side." They hugged again. He whispered into her ear. "Good luck to you and fare thee well." Red climbed onto Lukas' back.
Verlon's eyes widened as he watched them climb down a wall intended to prevent just that. The two raced one another across the expanse, exuberance and joy etched on their faces. They disappeared into the woods to enter an uncertain future. A howl, fierce and defiant, rose above the trees.
Author's Note: I struggled with this novelette format to find a balance between what to include and more importantly, what to exclude. From the beginning, I wanted to limit the story's length. After all, this venue is for visual imagery not the written word.
I had great fun discovering the story only slightly before you did. In hindsight, it's subtitle could have been the 'Tragedy of Love'. Nonetheless, I hope you too found my alternate fable entertaining. I'm thinking hard on how best to present it for the visitors to my website.
And what of the Xiloi? They have often been laughably mistaken for Yeti, Bigfoot, and Abominable Snowmen. However, though their numbers are small, they continue to thrive in one of the wildest, most remote regions on Earth: the Kunlun Mountains of Western China. How do I know this? Well, that's another story. :-)