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The Inquisitor (Chapter 20)
The horse faltered but a moment in an uneven rut in the track they followed, jarring the princess from her restless daze. As she rubbed the dream from her eyes, she noticed the sun had sunk mush lower in the afternoon sky.
In the distance, she could make out the castle she now called home. The princess marveled at how long she had dozed on horseback. Looking 'round, she spied her maid a few paces ahead, lightly carrying her horse's reigns. Up ahead, she could see prince Tarquinne deftly traversing a small stream.
The maid noticed she had roused, and slowed her pace to slide alongside the princess. "It is good to see you again, my love." Said the maid softly. "You have slept for quite some time, we have traveled many leagues.
"Indeed," said the princess, looking ahead to the keep. Round them , the land had flattened into richer farmlands, and at various intervals, the princess spied small rounded dwellings, covered by thatch roofs.
"And what of you, my love?" asked the princess, turning to the maid. "Did you rest at all?"
The maid nodded and flashed a brilliant smile to the princess. But as she watched her maid's face, a momentary flash of sadness crossed the bright green eyes. Quickly, she turned away and began pointing out meaningless details in the surrounding landscape.
After a while, the maid returned her attention to the princess. "You thrashed quite a bit in your sleep, my princess." She said softly. "Does something trouble you?"
"No, my love..." she replied. "It was merely dreams." She hesitated a moment, and then in a low voice, she continued.
"In truth, I have had many strange dreams of late."
To this the maid raised an eyebrow and listened intently as the princess went on.
"These dreams... they are terribly vivid... at times violent. And the strangest part... it feels almost as if they.... As if they do not belong to me at all... like they are pictures in a book... I wish I had better words to explain them." The princess recounted the strange dreams of desert battles and bottomless pits to the maid.
The maid pondered her words for a moment.
"Dreams are often like chaff blown about on the wind. You try to catch hold to them, only to have them blow through your fingertips. The ancients had shamans who would interpret dreams for their hidden meanings, but their knowledge was long ago lost upon the ages. I know not what to make of them; but know this. The truths they try to tell you will in time become clear." With this, the maid smiled gently, leaning over to steal a quick kiss from the princess.
As they rode along, the princess hope to herself that she might uncover some of the answers she sought with the object the old man had given her.
The sunk had sunk behind the horizon by the time the reached their stronghold, casting the sky in a deep velvet blue. The small forest track they had followed had turned to a wide smooth road, leading straight to the keep's main gate and portcullis.
As they drew near, they could see the castle had been festooned with colorful banners and flags from each standard. Torches burned merrily in their iron braziers, casting a warm and flickering orange glow on the stone walls. In the surrounding pastures were many horses, and outside the walls, a large group had gathered on either side of the wide thoroughfare.
Prince Tarquinne, who had finally decided to accompany them the rest of the way to the castle, explained they were citizens of the realm. They had come to take part in the upcoming festivities. Though the princess and maid spied many villagers and common folk, a great number of the growing encampment had the broad shoulders and measured countenance of warriors.
As they rode toward the gate, villagers and plainfolk alike swept off their caps as the prince proceeded through. To the damsels that followed, they gave small bows or nods. As they approached the portcullis, two guards stepped forward, one raising a gloved hand.
"Hail, my liege. Welcome once again. May the road have blessed you." Said he, bowing low to Tarquinne. Regarding the outlanders who had rode with them, they gave salute.
"Hail, worthy riders! Come down and be welcomed, if no mischief lies in your hearts."
"Hail, sentinels of the realm!" they returned, the senior of the two outlanders paying the proper courtesies. "Many thanks for your offer of welcome. But our lord commands we return straightaway, once we have seen our charges safely home. We bring word from our master, who sends thanks and good will to your Queen for her treaties and fine gifts."
The sentinels exchanged glances, but returned the courteous heralds of the outlanders. "Will you not tarry for the night? The sun's rays have passed on, and the forest holds many dangers at night. Come, your horses will be well cared for, and you shall have soft beds for your backs."
"Nay, good sirs. Our orders come directly from our lord, and his bow will be 'cross our backs should we disobey. But we greatly look forward to your hospitality during the upcoming tournament. Even in our own lands, we have heard many tales of the revelry during your festivals here. Welcome us on our return, and we shall drink enough mead to stagger the Gods!"
To this, the guards brightened greatly, and shouted hearty goodbyes and kind-hearted jeers as the outlanders turned to head back to their camp. As they passed the prince, they gave low nods, and drew alongside the princess and the maid.
"We have brought you through the wilds by orders of our lord, but should you ever require us; we offer our swords to you both, by our own oaths. May the heaven's keep you safe, until we meet again under the High Moon." The maid and the princess nodded graciously, and watched with heavy hearts as their cheery riding companions headed out under darkening skies.
The prince, the princess and the maid passed though the arched gateway, and led their horse to the stables. Several pages and stablehands ceased their milling about, and went straight to tending the tired horses as they travelers dismounted. One of the older squires informed the princes he was required to make straight for an audience with the Queen.
The princess and the maid, weary from the travel, headed off to their chambers. As they wound their way through the castle, all 'round was a buzz of activity. As they past the vast kitchens, delicious aromas tickled their noses, and their bellies growled loud protests. Along the way, they passed a few of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, who drilled holes in them with their eyes, but smiled great toothy smiles just the same.
Down they went, round the long spiraling stair, and into the Chamber of Delights, which led to the princess's chambers. They were surprised to see many torches and candles had been lit throughout the vast space, and the princess caught a momentary breath of the heady scent that had overtaken her that first night. Though it touched her nose for only a hairsbreadth, it lit her senses ablaze.
They opened her great wooden door, and fairly collapsed into her chambers. Weary from the road, they both longed for a steaming bath and a deep slumber. They stopped suddenly, both spying their visitor at exactly the same moment.
Their master, the Inquisitor, sat quietly in a great broad-backed chair, his hand folded and raised together to form a point before his lips. His hood lay back 'round his shoulders, and his eyes burned brightly from behind his burnished mask. Though they were both startled to find him waiting in the chamber, perhaps the most shocking part was his rich flowing hair.
It had turned completed white.