Queen of Salt and Blood (Part Three) by Nixx Winters
The Third Day
She wasn’t dead.
This wasn’t a pleasant realization. She’d wished for death in the courtyard. Lying here now, a thousand punctures and lacerations bruising her to the bone, Coran thought she’d rather die than face the pain. Maybe she would; maybe it had started with her necrotic heart.
One eye was swollen shut and she didn’t bother to open the other. This made the sound of someone breathing akin to the rumble of thunder in her chamber’s cold silence. She inhaled slowly, discreetly: Cinnamon, amber, whisky. Her chest swelled, tightened at the familiar blend. Coran worked a hand into her pocket and clenched her scissors. She’d rolled, risen, and buried them in Baynbridge’s face before he’d raised a hand.
He shackled her wrists and laid her back on the bed, snatching her scissors away. Blood beaded and ran the length of his jaw.
Coran saw Cormac, the fine red mist like spring rain on his neck, and withered. She slumped and curled into a ball, panting. ‘You’d be dead, if I wasn’t injured.’
‘Maybe try to keep each other alive,’ he hissed, throwing her scissors to the vanity.
‘Fuck yourself. Fuck your mother–’ She paused to drink whatever he pressed to her lips, something bitter and fire ridden. ‘And fuck her again for good measure,’ Coran hissed. ‘It’s what she likes best.’
‘Your mouth is a horror.’ Elis cradled her hand and pressed a torn, worried bit of foolscap into her palm. She held it before her good eye, and waited for a wave of nausea to pass.
Trust B and no other- Ally in secret – Follow the letter- Love our son – My heart, C
‘Ally in secret. Hah! You’re a rutting, pus-bollocked–’’
‘Shh!’ Elis grabbed the note away.
‘Give it to me!’ Coran wailed, louder than she meant to. ‘It’s all I have.’
‘It has to be burned. I’m so sorry. Cormac’s plan-’
‘What plan is that? My son is gone. My husband is dead. And my lover. The uprising. All dead. So when does the successful portion begin? Victory? Why don’t we move to that part?’
‘Taunton…’ There was something about Lord Taunton she should understand. It was important. She slackened. Elis’s tincture seeped into her, easing her wounds and beckoning sleep. ‘Go away. Let me mourn in peace.’
‘No! You don’t get to mourn him. Not now, not either of us.’ Elis rubbed his eyes, his forehead. ‘I don’t know how to do this without Cormac, but we have to try.’ He took her hand and gentled her torn, scabbed nails. ‘Think of your son, Coran. If you have no other reason to fight, then do all things for him.’
She turned her face to the pillow and sobbed. Tears burned her cuts, set her eye and lips on fire again. Elis smoothed her back until it passed.
‘I want vengeance, Elis. I want…’ she hiccupped softly. ‘I want revenge.’
Taunton. Revenge. There it was: Taunton deserved revenge.
Elis rested his head against her temple. ‘We’ll have it.’
‘Tell me,’ she whispered, separating from herself. She was dying. The living part of her slipped out into the room and through the window, and ascended to the Grey Hall to reside with Hejl. All that remained was animal, made to kill. Machinima, to settle accounts.
‘I swear it to you.’
She slipped her lips over Elis’s and cried out her pain into his mouth. He held her face so gently, but she didn’t want to be gentled. She tore at his doublet, opening her wounds and painting crimson over his skin.
Elis protested. He pressed her away. Coran bit into his flesh, and twined herself around him, and broke his will.
She wept softly all the while he took her, because he made her feel just alive enough to be miserable.
In the trembling awful silence that followed, when she was alone and enough hours stretched ahead for her to contemplate the height of her window above the courtyard, a whisper hushed against Coran’s ears.
It was Elis’s tincture, and her terror, eating holes in the sanity she had left.
But while the sound came from without, the voice came from within, a vibration in her chest like the beat of hooves.
Restore the nine-fingered god.
No. No bargains, not even with her own mad thoughts.
You have felt my wound. Serve me faithfully and I will reward you.
The entreaty hummed, flowing into her with a strength she didn’t possess. What wound? ‘I don’t want rewards,’ she whispered, eyes closed, trying to hear beyond the voice for footsteps, for guards coming to take her.
I will give you vengeance.
Coran flopped a weak hand over her heart and nodded. Vengeance. Her soul was worth vengeance.
The bargain was made.
The Fifth Day
Coran pulled the linen veil from the peak of her hennin, translucent fabric all she could do to hide a swollen face. It wasn’t safe to show her grief, or her wounds.
Raulo’s guards, his Fists, flanked the privy chamber door. She had never seen a Guilan, only heard of them and now she understood why Raulo’s were called ‘fists’. Meaty lumps bigger than any Aubignon man, made for nothing but to crush and pummel. Empty of feeling, of life, a flesh golem made for terror. They didn’t stand in her way or open the door ahead of her, inert. Like machinima in the Great City, they only activated when it was time to work. In this case, to kill.
She revisited all Elis instructed her to say and not say in the breath of the door’s opening.
Lord Taunton had given Cormac’s letter to the king; he was the traitor she’d accused Elis of being, buying her husband’s position for himself with blood. Now it was time to see if she could act out Cormac’s farce, play the witch and the ill-used wife all at once. If she couldn’t, Coran supposed it wouldn’t matter – not for longer than the distance from the privy chamber to the execution yard.
She tripped at the chamber’s threshold, startled by darkness save natural light from a wall of windows, and by mounds of rushes upon the floor. Rats dragged something through curling fronds already reeking of piss and stale wine, and a faint odor of hound shite. There had been silk runners, once. Gold sconces. Velvet-cushioned stools for the council. Once? A month ago. It felt like centuries. Raulo had reduced a hallowed room to a moldering barbarian sod house in days.
He stood behind a map table far ahead, near the dais, a spot of sunlight glinting from the greasy shanks of his silvering head, bowed low over whatever he studied.
As Coran grew close, she realized it was a woman weeping softly, her torso prostrate on the table. She gripped the table with scabbed fingers, her nails torn away. Raulo fisted her tangled brown hair. Her shift rucked up her bare backside and covered his open britches.
Coran pressed her eyes shut, and swallowed a sour taste in her mouth.
Raulo didn’t stop when he saw Coran. He didn’t even hurry, which Coran thought, blinking away tears, would be a kindness to both women present. He went about his task with sounds that could easily have been words; it was all guttural gibberish to her ears. Something slipped from the neck of his shirt, a white finger suspended from a leather thong. Stone or marble.
No, salt. Coran caught the crystalline glint. It swung like an awful pendulum in time with his body.
Coran looked away, and tried to think only about what it was, why he carried it. A wave came over her, dizziness and thickness, like the crackle of air during a storm. The same sensation she’d nearly succumbed to in the throne room.
When he tore away at last, panting, the doors behind Coran opened on cue, and the Fists lumbered in. They moved like clockwork, pausing, turning, gripping the woman’s upper arms and dragging her from the table with sinister detachment. They raised her between them. Her face was a patchwork of violence, a bottom lip crusted by a deep black line. Angry red edges spoke of infection. Her eyes were swelled shut by more than tears. Coran felt the same agony in her own face, still fractured. She felt it for all the women of Auldearn.
The woman’s hair fell in a rat’s nest to her waist, covering her breasts where her dirty chemise had been torn. It must have been glorious hair once, not the hair of a servant, but a noblewoman.
Coran gasped, and squinted, hardly recognizing the face of a queen she’d attended for four years. Adela’s hair was her only identifiable feature now.
Bile rose fully into Coran’s mouth, and she choked.
Raulo fell into a chair behind his map table, still panting, and zipped at the laces on his breeches. ‘Taunton have give your letter.’
She hated the way he pronounced have like cave. Like northern-wastes trash.
‘Yes, your grace. Lord Baynbridge told me of the accusations, that my husband was selling me to Halkirk for my… abilities.’
He flicked a half-folded paper on the table. ‘He want a list of men. Helpers. You’ll give it.’
‘My husband’s conspirators?’
‘Ja. You write.’ He sized her up. ‘Witch?’
‘No, your grace. Natural magic.’
‘Witches have powers from within. Dark blessings, or colored souls. My magic comes from power that is in the air, salt and dust all around us.’ Minimal, but accessible.
‘How much?’ He didn’t care about her explanation. He probably didn’t understand her words.
‘All the energies of the universe,’ she said grandly, hoping he’d realize she was lying and kill her on the spot. ‘It manifests as many things. Dreams that tell the future!’
Raulo grunted his pleasure at this. ‘I have son. He will take you.’
‘I cannot bear children. Our marriage wouldn’t be a benefit.’
‘He can wed.’ Raulo flicked his fingers at her. ‘Second son for you. Hora.’ He turned away, done with her.
Whore. I can be a whore. For him, for his son, for whoever he decides to share me with. I can be Adela. We all can.
Coran’s death wish faded at this thought. She had to save herself, her queen, and she had no idea how. Is there anything that can sway a man like him? The stone finger flashed to mind, and she held onto the obsession he showed for her magic.
‘I cannot have relations with men. It’s one of many things my husband was angry about. My powers steal virility and sexual energy.’ Coran pretended to hesitate. ‘I could be far more useful to you as an…advisor.’
‘You have child.’
‘No, your grace. He is the son of my husband’s cousin, Lord Thomys. I cannot bear children or have intercourse.’
His eyes skimmed over her. ‘Proof.’
‘That I can be useful?’
Raulo was backward and crass but not stupid. He was willing to put her words to the test. He slapped the table impatiently and motioned. ‘Bend. Bend.’
She swallowed. ‘It’s dangerous for you.’
‘Knulla,’ he barked, already undoing his laces.
Chamber doors opened. The Fists were coming to help her obey.
Raulo stopped with his britches, dog face screwing up into deep wrinkles. ‘Second son, what is this?’
The man was not much older than herself, and a copy of Raulo right down to filthy leathers and war worn hands.
‘Halkirk. It was promised as mine.’
‘Raulfe Ironside! Should I beat you for disobedience? Go back to your men.’
Raulo’s second son. It disgusted Coran that there was more than one Ironside, and that she’d had to behold any of them.
‘I took it from denHaag! It’s mine.’
Coran flinched at the name, heart torn anew.
‘I haven’t choose between you and Ragnar,’ brayed Raulo.
‘Ragnar is the elder! He takes your throne at home.’ Raulfe swelled, arms splayed. ‘Halkirk is mine!’
Raulo opened his mouth to speak. A grating sound came out, and then a meaty note, the wet grit of blade over gristle, a note sung by the sword buried in his gut.
He stumbled back into his chair. A red mist sprayed into sunlight and painted his lips. He fell from his seat and sprawled beneath it in the rushes.
Raulfe crouched, squinted. ‘He’s dead. He should no be dead.’
Shouldn’t he? Why not? Coran stared at the sword and wondered what she’d missed.
Raulfe’s eyes snapped to her. ‘I’d not have done. Witch!’
‘Yes.’ Coran braced to be the next victim of his sword, but she wouldn’t make the same mistake she’d made with Raulo. ‘I am a very powerful witch. And a seer.’
This sparked something in Raulfe, who tore the thong from his father’s neck.
Coran swayed, feeling a suffocating pressure like humidity when he held the stone finger aloft. The throne room, today on her entrance…The salt finger.
Fists lumbered in, their pikes trained at Raulfe. They slowed, moved as though in amber.
He held the salt finger higher. Their lumbering halted.
‘I’m king now. Do as I bid. Rengör avfallet.’ Clean the waste.
They turned back and scooted from the privy chamber like a massive pair of feet.
He should not be dead. She stared at the finger and understood, everything. Why the Fists obeyed. Why Raulo shouldn’t be dead. How Islip had conquered half the northern fold with a horde of barbarians.
This wasn’t natural magic, or even the black arts.
The nine-fingered god. You have felt my wound.
She needed to think, to plan. To plot.
‘May I go, your grace?’ Coran asked, staring at Raulo pale and congealing on the floor, wondering why the Fists hadn’t done as Raulfe commanded and cleaned him up.
She wanted to be glad Raulo was gone, but Coran had a cold suspicion she watched the blood of the more reasonable man ebb away.
Raulfe righted the chair and fell into it, tossing his sword onto the map table. ‘Ja. Get out.’
Coran didn’t turn her back, not for protocol but for fear of his range, and because of a threadbare sanity in his words since grasping the salt finger. All was madness perfumed by the stench of a thousand corpses, with magic in the awful mix.
A sound filled the arcade as Coran hurried for the stairs, foreign and disconcerting: hounds. Not the sleek docile companions of the old kings. A glance through the doors revealed a handful of wiry, patchy creatures with limbs all the wrong proportions. They circled something white, bared their teeth and gnashed at each other. Coran pressed herself against the door, as though that could hide her scent, and craned for a better look.
Feet. Legs, pale thighs exposed by a rumpled chemise. Blood dyed the garment. One arm…Coran looked away. Long brown hair had been torn away in matted hanks. The hounds had been at their work once already. They vied now for a second go.
She ran for the stairs.
Taunton would have Raulfe’s ear before she reached her apartments. He would whisper about her magic, her treason, her punishment. Time was thin. Where was the vengeance she’d been promised?
Taunton wanted a list, and she would give it to him.
END OF PART THREE