The Line of Illeniel
Michael G. Manning
I moved quietly through the darkness, till I reached the door I sought. There was no ambient light, nor did I bring any with me; I preferred mage-sight for this task. Light would only increase the danger. Stretching out with my mind I explored the room beyond the door; my task would be easier if it was empty, but I felt a presence there already. A dangerous aura hovered around the form within, causing me to break out in a sweat as I considered my options. I checked my shield again; making sure the spell covered me fully. Briefly I considered my sword, but I knew it would be useless against this foe.
Carefully I reached for the handle, checking to see if it was locked. It wasn’t, naturally enough… the being within the room was waiting for me. The huntress only locks the cage once her prey is inside. Slowly I eased the door open, hoping for darkness within. My foe needed light to see, while I didn’t; it was perhaps my only advantage.
The room was brightly lit, dammit.
“Hey sweetie, I didn’t expect to see you up this late. You weren’t waiting on me were you?” I kept a cheerful tone in my voice, but I knew she wasn’t fooled.
“Where the hell have you been?” Penny growled. She had that tired grumpy look on her face that people sometimes get when they have been sitting up half the night. I took it as a bad sign.
No one has ever accused me of being terribly bright around women, so I decided to try honesty. “I was sneaking around behind your back,” I replied. Hmm, that sounded even worse out loud.
Penny was exasperated, “If you were doing that at least it would make sense!” Her eyes flicked upward, indicating a place above my forehead, “There’s a twig in your hair by the way.”
“I was sneaking around!” I protested. “There’s this girl see… and she just wouldn’t leave me alone! So, I went out…” This was a blatant attempt to make her laugh… she didn’t.
“Please! There are several that have been making eyes at you, but you haven’t the sense to even know who they are! Don’t give me your stupid stories. You went out to the miller’s house didn’t you?” She had obviously been hanging around with Rose Hightower too long. The woman was a terrible influence. The house she was referring to had lost a child the previous night. It was the third disappearance in less than a week and people were starting to get panicky.
The first had been a young woman, Sadie Tanner, but no one had made much of it. She was a teenager and there were rumors she had run off with a fellow from a nearby village. They became more concerned when a small boy vanished two days later. Some claimed he had been snatched from his bed, but I figured he had been taken while making a trip to the privy during the night; either way he was gone. The last one had been Rebecca, the miller’s daughter. She was only thirteen, and no one believed any of it was coincidence anymore.
“To be perfectly honest,” I began dishonestly, “I did not go to the miller’s house, but I did happen to pass by there.”
“Pretty damn close I’d imagine. You have mud on your boots.” She gave my boots a disapproving stare. I was tracking mud on our dirt floor. Why she cared that mud might follow me in and get on a dirt floor I never understood. We were currently living in a small ramshackle cottage near the gutted remains of Castle Cameron. It was a step up from a wattle and daub hovel, but not a big enough step to have an actual floor. Ah, the luxurious life of a true aristocrat!
“Well I did in fact walk along the river bank for a while and…” I had already given up hiding my purpose, but Penny enjoys a good interrogation.
“You walked so far you got mud all over your rear end too!” She was standing close now, and looked worried. “Why did you think you had to sneak out?”
“I didn’t want you to worry.”
“So waking up to find you missing from the bed, after three other people have disappeared, and then waiting up until nearly dawn, hoping you would be back… that’s not supposed to worry me?!” She seemed to be taking it well.
“Hmm… I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective exactly. You see the idea was that you would not wake up and thus when I returned in the morning you would never have suffered from all the worrying and such.” It had made perfect sense when I formed my plan the day before. I had waited until after nine in the evening, and once I heard Penny’s distinctive snoring I eased my way out of bed. I spent most of the night walking through the woods near the outskirts of the village, or sitting on the bank near the miller’s house, hence the mud on my pants.
Penny wrapped her arms around me and leaned her head against my chest. She was upset, but not the ‘throw things at you’ sort of mad I had expected. “I would have gone with you if you had just told me,” she said softly.
Sure, I would take my fiancee out on dark nights to hunt for a bogey-man that was snatching people away… when pigs started flying. “Listen, Penny, I know you ‘would’ go with me, but I can’t drag you into situations like this. If something happened to you, I don’t know what it would do to me.”
“Turn that around and look at it from my perspective,” was her reply. The conversation didn’t go anywhere productive from there but eventually we gave up and went to bed. She hadn’t had any more sleep than I had, despite my clever plan, so we both slept late the next morning.
As you might guess already, being the revered Count Cameron had not turned out to be quite the ‘happily ever after’ I had expected. Actually it was looking more and more like a lot of work. Since my grandfather’s untimely demise the estate had fallen into disrepair. The old castle had been gutted by fire; my father’s doing I am told. My uncle, the Duke of Lancaster, had taken over the rents and done his best to maintain the basic services required, but he had seen no need to restore the castle himself.
Now the Cameron lands consisted of one small village, and it was quite a stretch calling it a village. Mainly it was a collection of dwellings… most of the farmers traveled to Lancaster to sell their goods and barter. Penny and I had moved there shortly after I had received my title and we were currently in the most exalted building to be found. Luckily the good Duke had been keeping the rents and taxes for the past sixteen years, minus his portion of course. In practical terms that meant he had given me a sum amounting to slightly over nine hundred gold marks.
At first this had seemed a princely sum, especially on top of the two hundred I had won from the late Devon Tremont. How naive I had been! It truly was a lot of money, but the cost of restoring a feudal keep is considerable. I would have been quite happy just upgrading our cottage to a more traditional half-timbered, wattle and daub home with a field-stone foundation. Stone floors and solid walls; who could ask for more? But to my dismay, Penny had been taking lessons from Rose Hightower, who convinced her that this absolutely would not be satisfactory.
There had been a number of positives though, my parents had moved to Washbrook, which was the name of our village. They resisted my attempts to give them money but were more than willing to help in the restoration of Castle Cameron. Having a full time blacksmith in the area had been a boost to the economy all by itself. I had also hired a number of stone masons and carpenters, though I tried not to think about how much it cost.
Penny’s father had also moved to Washbrook and I had spent considerable time exploring my new talents repairing the injury to his back, so he was back at work again. The money I was paying to the various workers also seemed to have sparked a boom in Washbrook’s fortunes.
Over the past sixteen years the people’s taxes had largely vanished with nothing returning to stimulate the economy. Now that I had returned, most of the money that had been paid over those years was now being spent to rebuild and people had new hope. At least until some of those people started vanishing.
One of my responsibilities, as their liege, was protection. Ordinarily that would mean a place to hide in time of war, the castle, and guards to patrol the roads and keep the king’s peace. I had neither. The castle was a work in progress, but it was still uninhabitable. Guards? Ha! I could barely afford to pay the workmen I had already