The Lord sat in his study, behind his expansive desk of finest mahogany, waiting. The Lord was not a patient man, nor one disposed to acts of charity, he conducted every aspect of his life with an almost clinical precision. Everything about his study had been carefully selected to serve practicality while still retaining the ability to demonstrate his wealth. The carpet upon the floor was plush and thick and decorated in a pattern of alternating gold and cream rows; The Lord himself loved it, however, his servants hated it for it proved incredibly difficult to clean. Book cases full of books on everything from plant life to business strategy lined the walls on both sides of the room and behind his desk where he liked to keep his most frequently used tomes. The Lord let out a long lingering sigh and glanced at the wall opposite, his eyes alighting on his map of the world. He had commissioned the best cartographer in all the land to make it for him many years ago, back when he held ambitions of world conquest. Smiling at the memory, the Lord settled back into his comfy chair with its high back and pushed a hand through his thick sandy hair. He glanced at his wristwatch as he did so and picked up the book he had left on his desk. He expected his servant to arrive in the next hour with the day’s reports, the man was never late and the Lord intended to spend the time till then reading.
Far away, at the other end of the manor, the Lady of the house stood in her own large room where she too liked to read when the moment took her fancy. Where her husband’s room was decorated for practicality, hers was instead decorated for pleasure and perfectly to her tastes. Fine paintings hung on the pale yellow walls in ornate frames of gold and pearl. The paintings for the most showed landscape scenes of the surrounding area, the one depicting the woods of Tinara to the south of the manor was a particular favourite, in part because it showed The Woodland Court in all their splendour, sadly few people had seen them in many a century so no one could verify its accuracy. Her absolute favourite painting however, depicts The Queen of the Wind and covers the wall from ceiling to floor. In it, the Queen stood resplendent in robes of blue, the colours swirling like a restless sea while soft clouds of brilliant white frolic in the sky above. Her hair streams out behind her caught by a gentle breeze and a look of calmness and warmth fills her face. The Lady had spent many countless hours kneeling at her feet, looking up into her unquestionably beautiful face and praying with hands clasped for the strength to continue her unhappy life. Things got easier when she met the boy, at first she had thought of him as a pleasant distraction from her plain life but now she welcomes his company, anticipates his visits and takes great joy in the good they do together for the people from the village to the east of the manor.
At present she stood by the window, looking out over the rolling hillsides that surround her home, deep in thought. The muffled sound of feet treading on the polished wooden floor reached her ears announcing the presence of another, she felt her heart quicken a little in surprise even though she knew who it would be. She turned, her dress rustled as she moved. Behind her stood a figure cloaked in a knee length cape, beneath this awkwardly hanging fabric trousers of brown and sturdy boots poked out; with the hood raised the Lady could only discern the shape of a strong jaw graced with a line of dark brown hair. The Lady smiled as recognition flooded into her eyes.
“My Lady,” the figure said, moving further into the room and lowering the hood a fraction. The action revealed a face full of mischief, chestnut hair fell to his cheeks in delicate but untidy waves and a pair of intelligent brown eyes shone out from under sculpted brows. “I would have been here sooner but your kitchen staff proved difficult to avoid.” He added bowing slightly. His voice, when he spoke, was soft and held the hint of laughter.
The Lady nodded and walked away from the window, moving towards the man. “I’ll admit you worried me slightly, you always do but your here now. Shut the door, then you can tell me how things went.” She said taking a seat on the nearby couch and motioning him to close the door.
The man obeyed then crossed the room to join her, “Don’t you want to hear all about my adventure with your staff?” he asked, his tone was serious but she knew without looking his eyes would be sparkling with jest.
“You weren’t seen, that is all I need to know for now but I promise you can tell the tale in full one day.” She said kindly. “Did you find everyone? Will they help us?” she asked in a hushed whisper, chiding herself inwardly for her weakness. She had taken the same precautions she made every visit, clearing the rooms near her of people and setting up some little tripwire attached to loud bells; no one could possibly sneak up on them.
“Well...” he hesitated and reached into a hidden pocket before continuing on. “I managed to find everyone, more or less, some of them ran. I don’t think they recognised me. Miller attacked me, he definitely recognised me though. As for help, that they all agreed to do; Miller aside of course, but he’ll calm down soon enough.”
“Are you hurt?” she asked, turning her head to look at him with eyes full of concern. He shook his head and she moved on. “Miller has proved to be a fickle ally in the past; perhaps it is for the best that this does not involve him.” A sudden creak and clatter of plates smashing on the floor interrupted the quiet room cutting off any further words she had to say. Her eyes widened into horror when the first sound mingled with the unmistakable tingle of bells.
“Miller won’t really prove a threat, here, take this. It contains a copy of my findings, burn it once you’ve read it, for your safety.” The man murmured, pushing a neatly folded piece of parchment into her had as running footsteps echoed near the door. The Lady grabbed tight a hold of the parchment and tucked it into her dress, hiding it from view just as her husband’s servant burst into the room followed by several out of breath maids, each wore an identical look of shock at discovering their Lady with company.
“Run, Tsuno.” She mouthed praying he alone would see. “Run and the Wind guide you.” Tsuno moved slowly into the centre of the room, the window directly behind him and flicked his hood back up; the Lady caught the hint of a smile on his face as he did so. She allowed herself the ghost of a smile, at least he looked calm.
The Lord’s servant had scooped up an exquisitely decorated cup half-full of tea from the hands of one of the maids while his Lady wasn’t looking and chose this moment to hurl it with full force at Tsuno. Tsuno dodged, instead of making its intended target it met with his shoulder, tearing the fabric where it broke and scalding the rest, the Lady could see steam rising from his cloak in waves. Tsuno looked unfazed but took a step back towards the window, “Maybe, if I visit again, you can serve something a little less lethal?” he said addressing the servant politely; he then turned to address the Lady. “Pray, forgive me my hasty exit my Lady, I hope to live to enjoy your company again.”
The Lady looked at him, a little shaken by his drastic change in attitude; he was making himself out to be the bad guy in the situation when clearly the one in the wrong was the servant. She had no more than a second to wonder as to his reasons before he turned and ran straight through the window. She gasped and stifled a yell. The servant ran to the window and looked out, yelling, “Guards, stop that man!”
Tsuno leapt through the glass; thankful the window was on the ground floor and hit the ground at an angle with a roll. He didn’t trust that man not to launch more tea-cups or something heavier at him as he made his escape. He ran down the green hill that sloped up to the manor, gravity adding to his speed, he had scarcely reached the bottom before he heard the man sound the alarm.
Away behind him and off to his left the call was answered, fear shot trough him then. Fear at what he knew would come, the Lady had warned him often of her husband’s Scent Hounds and how violent they had become due to cramped conditions and lack of food. The image of the servant’s smug face after he threw the teacup came back to him then along with a suspicion that maybe that had been his true reason for acting as he did. Tea was probably an easy smell to find out in the open air. Tsuno turned right, sprinting round a hedge and heading into the forest of Tinara; he welcomed the shade with a smile and forced himself onward. He wove between the trees, occasionally bumping his shoulder into their trunks in the hope of disguising his scent. He was beginning to tire when he heard heavy feet, pounding through the earth beside him and caught sight of their looming shadows. The hounds had reached him quicker than he thought.
Up ahead a clearing came into view, Tsuno raced the pack towards it; anticipating the attack they would take he jumped and skidded along the ground face first spraying dirt into his eyes in the process. He felt the air ripple as they raked their paws over his head before landing with a heavy thud on the ground to his side. The hounds snarled deep in their throats, angry at being cheated of their prey. Tsuno pulled himself to his feet hastily and frowned, not all the hounds were accounted for, he been told the Lord had seven. They stood at a standoff for the briefest of moments, the sunlight glinting off the line of spikes along the backs of the five Scent Hounds while thick saliva pooled around their wide mouths twisted into snarls. The biggest of the pack pawed its foot on the ground, the sign of attack Tsuno been waiting for and he took off, running quick as a hair into the safety of the trees. The pack gave chase, snapping at his heals and crisscrossing each other, desperate to please their masters orders to tear intruders limb from limb.
Tsuno tripped and took a bash to the head from a low hanging branch, feeling dazed he ran on too terrified of his pursuers to slow his pace. Just as panic was beginning to set in the wind whistled a familiar call, he heard her voice as clear as if she ran beside him not a pack of ferocious killers. At the next fork, take a right. He did as instructed following each direction without question, without thinking, her voice had never let him down. Up ahead is a ditch, you should manage the jump. He did so with ease. Good, now when you see the ruins of a bridge pause under it. Tsuno felt his spirits rise a little when it came into sight; he bounced down into the now dry river bed and pulled himself into the crumbling bridge wall. The pack had fallen behind but he could hear them now, closer than before, thundering towards him, whether it was the bridge or luck he couldn’t say but they ran on, passing the ruin as if they couldn’t see it. He took a moment to catch his breath, he felt sure he was going to escape. The feeling was short lived. The other two Scent Hounds crashed down behind him.
He ran and the hounds gave chase once more, these two were bigger than the rest, their heads reached up to his elbows and the spines along their backs looked about the length of his forearm. A fresh wave of fear pushed him onward; he stumbled along as the ground turned quickly to stones and mud. He could feel his shoulder throbbing dully in rhythm with the pounding of his feet, he pushed himself on and inched away, the hounds falling behind. He leapt a fallen tree and heard them growl in displeasure, the cry was echoed by the pack who reappeared; they burst through the surrounding trees and joined their brethren in the chase.
Tsuno felt his strength falling, the ground had hit an incline and began to climb into the hills, the trees on the slopes grew shorter and their roots twisted in snaking lines making the path difficult to navigate. He risked a glance behind and found to his amazement the hounds were further away than ever, he noticed for the first time how strangely they moved, not graceful but delicately, hesitant even, as if the sight of the twisted roots scared them. He felt a pang of sympathy for the animals as he moved on. The trees gave way altogether at the top, replaced by a carpet of grass in purest green and a few dense bushes. Tsuno paused to take in the lay of the land then flung himself down the other side, he had a feeling the hounds wouldn’t follow him to far now.
He was halfway to the bottom of the hill when the hounds reached its summit. The two largest hounds stood in the middle with the others filling out on either side, they gave one last collective bark, a sound that chilled Tsuno’s blood and made him glad he was no closer, the pack then turned and vanished back the way they came. You need to make a left up ahead; you’ll know you’re on the right path when you see The Spire. The voice said appearing once more. Tsuno wasted no time following her advice, he moved as quickly as he felt able towards the road into the village. The land ahead consisted of more gentle hills and many woods, in the distance he could just make out the tip of The Spire nestled in its forest. Tsuno decided quickly that avoiding the road would make him look to conspicuous, he walked lazily aiming to affect a look of untroubled ease. He meet no one as he travelled which put him on his guard, if it were winter he wouldn’t mind but in summer the roads should be full of carts or farmers taking their animals to market. Tsuno decide to take a short cut, he turned off the road and ducked into the brush at its side. It would be slow work advancing along bent double but something told him necessary, he heard the unmistakable sound of hooves on the path and froze.
He backed up slowly, retreating into the thicker bushes behind him, from this new position he watched the horse and rider come into view. The horse moved with unhurried grace, carrying its rider forward steadily, the rider himself was round and appeared to be dozing in his saddle. Fat Lou, Tsuno thought, only he could decide to ride a carthorse and give me such a fright. Shaking his head to himself Tsuno turned and headed into the orchard of apple trees nearby, he knew the owner of the plantation and from time to time he would pay him a visit. Today, however, he thought it best not to be seen. He moved through the long row of trees, occasionally taking a turn.
Emerging from the orchard as midday arrived, the sun shining merrily in the now cloudless sky, Tsuno rushed from one line of trees to the next a few strides away. He knew this small crop of woodland a little, mostly from disquieting stories of ghost men and otherworldly noises the locals revelled in telling anyone who would listen. He struck a path that skirted its heart, he didn’t really believe the tales but he didn’t plan on taking more chances today.
The darkness deepened the further in he went, followed swiftly by the temperature, the air was close and watchful; Tsuno looked from side to side as he walked suddenly fearful something would leap out at him. Tsuno, my child, you should not have strayed here. For the first time he had known her, she sounded genuinely afraid. Regretting his choice he moved down the path, hoping to emerge unharmed. He heard a noise, similar to the soft rustle of leaves, from beside him he looked into the gloom but saw nothing. The feeling of unease never left him, his instincts told him to run and he hastened to obey. Seconds later he was flying through the air, he had tripped on something heavy half buried in the earth. He tumbled forward, the wind wiping in his ears, he half fancied he heard a voice before slamming into the ground.
He groaned, fighting to stay conscious, he blinked his eyes and saw the blurry shapes of sacks and brick walls covered in vulgarly bright colours. He wrinkled his nose at the stench of something rotten and moved to cover his ears, the sounds of grinding, screaming, metal and shouting assailed him from all sides. His hand shot to his throat, the pendant was still in place. “I’m sorry.” He smiled before losing all grasp of the world to darkness.