For my 500th post on the blog, I’d like to share a short story I wrote a while back. Hope you like it!
Alster, the butler, came at first light to wake Lord Anton. This was always a difficult task, to draw his master out of unconscious night and force him to heed the responsibilities of the day. Alster knew that Anton would wake not wake gently, but with a raving, white hot wrath at being disturbed—an irrational certainty that this day should be somehow different from every other. Alster stood beside his master’s bed, just out of reach of any flailing limbs.
“Lord Anton, your breakfast awaits you in the great hall,” Alster said in his measured, calm voice. Immediately the peaceful air of the room was shattered.
“Damn it, you fool! Do you know who I am?” Anton screamed as he ripped the bedcovers away from his body. Alster responded with the careful ease of one used to these outbursts, the poise of a servant who expected anger as a matter of course.
“Yes, sir—that’s the trouble, you see. The Governor is coming to visit today. I thought it likely that you would want time to ready yourself before he arrives.” Anton was silent for only a beat before changing his course.
“You’re damn right I want to ready myself. I was already awake! Get out! Don’t you dare set foot in this room until I come out, you understand me?” Alster bowed deeply and left the room. The manor beyond was silent in retreat. Minutes later Anton emerged from his chambers and walked the long corridor that led to the great hall. He might have imagined himself to be alone if not for the voices behind the walls that spoke in soft whispers—the fearful talk of those who knew better than to let the lord of the manor catch even the slightest glimpse of them. They remained always hidden from him.
A dream of hellfire within him as memory of the last night would not let go—his mind saw burning and his hands felt the cold of spent ashes scattered over the world. It was a comfort to know that he had not forgotten—that this vision of past and present would stay with him into the future. Still, there was no escape from the turmoil that plagued him at having to share his refuge with others. To be a loving master for these vermin who crawled the halls of his fathers. To let them walk this hallowed ground where those far greater than them—far greater than even himself—had once reigned. His inheritance was to rule this land won with the blood of his forebears, and he did no more than that.
Yet still I must suffer those voices behind the walls, he thought.
Breakfast passed in silence, the banquet table empty but for the seat Anton occupied at its end. The windows along the dining hall showed a sky exactly the same color as the stone walls, and below it the manor grounds stretching bare down a gentle slope to the edge of the woods. It was the dark time of the year, when the sun gave up its struggle to light the land and settled for a breath in the sky each day before the return of night. If only this day would pass—if only it could carry him along with it unfeeling, unknowing, with no decisions beyond giving himself away to its listless current. If only the Governor would come and go, leave him to the comfort of his home, his duties—but it was hours still before the man would arrive. He had much work to do.
A shadow crossed the edges of Anton’s vision.
“You there!” He shouted as the form darted across the entrance to the great hall. A small gasp, laden with fear, breathed out of the darkness. He could almost feel the hand that shot to cover the unseen mouth as though it were clamped over his own. “Come forward.” A moment’s hesitation passed through the space between them. No doubt the servant was wondering if attempting an escape was preferable to facing the Lord himself. Anton waited a breath too long for compliance—he heard footsteps carrying away from him down the hall, picking up speed into the deeper places of the manor.
Enraged, Anton gave chase, tearing down the hallway after the retreating, nameless thing that defied him. All was dust and shadow, sweeping past and fading behind. At the end of the corridor he came out upon the second-floor landing and stopped, listened, waited for some sign of his quarry. All was silent and still upon the house. Down the marble stairs he swept to the manor doors, ready to tear them open and continue his chase into the grounds. When his hand grasped the wooden deadbolt across the middle, he realized that no one could have escaped and yet secured the doors behind them. His target must still be inside, and had no doubt already found a place of refuge.
Cheated of exhilaration, Anton prowled upstairs to his study. There awaited his daily duties at the stroke of a pen—the signing of documents that would be sent far and wide to county seats, mayoralties, high courts and, on occasion, the office of the Governor. Anton removed a sheet from the pile of waiting forms and held it up to examine the missive. He read less than a sentence before a noise from the hall interrupted him. A soft voice spoke there, in a place that demanded silence.
All in the house knew that any noise was forbidden in the hall of the master’s study, and yet some insolent soul was now speaking in hushed tones just beyond the door. Could this be the same beast as disturbed him this morning? Was this creature purposefully dogging his footsteps on this most important day? Anton ran to the door, ready to throttle whoever stood in the hall. He threw it open and reached out into nothing but empty air. Rage threatened to consume him, his breath like fire in lungs heaving. Twice he had now been defied, and twice the guilty had somehow escaped him.
“Where are you‽” His scream echoed off the walls and washed back over him. Halfway down the hall a door opened. Anton stepped toward it with intent to strike out at whatever guilty face emerged—his wrath was unchecked, the taste of bloodlust thick in his mouth. Then he saw that it was only Alster, and the stoic look on his butler’s face lessened Anton’s rage despite his best effort at stoking the fire.
“Is something the matter, sir?”
“Someone, Alster! A shadow follows me, disturbing my peace, defying my rules. I want something done about it!”
“I instructed all the staff this morning, sir, that they are to remain in the kitchens in order to make ready for the Governor’s arrival. I myself have just finished preparing his room. All else is being attended to by the staff.”
“Then it’s not just my word that they defy, Alster, but yours as well! There is a traitor in these halls.”
“Indeed? That is most troubling.” Alster stepped closer to Anton, his eyes darting around the hall as though the walls might lean in to eavesdrop on their conversation. “Forgive me for saying this, sir, but I have long suspected that we might have a…disturber among us. I hesitated to inform you earlier, for fear that I would impede your work, but now it seems impedance is unavoidable.”
“You must find the beast, Alster, and bring them to me when you do! I wish to punish the fool who would stand against me.”
“Very good, sir. And what of preparations for the Governor?”
“Leave it to the staff! Find the lurker, Alster, find them and bring them to me!” Alster bowed low and retreated down the hallway. Anton’s mind was in too much uproar to finish his work. He abandoned the study and went to the central staircase, filled with a sudden longing for fresh air. Above his head stretched away the spiral stairs that snaked to the tower roof, and he climbed them in a darkness of thought that was unshakable, like nothing that had plagued him in recent memory. It crossed his mind that death was the only true safeguard against deceit. A dead man cannot betray.
Just as Anton reached the top of the stairs, with his hand against the door to the ramparts, he realized his oversight. It was a simple matter—according to Alster all the staff had been ordered to the kitchens, so who could the disturber be? The only servant not accounted for, the missing one, would be known to the others. A simple matter! Anton abandoned the rooftop and descended the tower stairs. At the landing he turned and strode quickly toward the main hall. The manor was silent. No voices whispered, save that in Anton’s head which repeated urgently, ‘find them!’ Through the dining hall was a short corridor that led to the cellar entrance, and steps beyond sweeping down to the servant’s passages. He reached this door and tried the handle. It was locked. Not to be kept from his target, Anton took aim with his shoulder and put all his weight against the door. The frame shook but did not yield to him. He turned away and screamed out in frustration.
“Alster! Come here!” The butler’s footsteps approached echoing out of the front hall; his face bore deep concern when he saw Anton.
“What is it, sir?”
“Why is this door locked, Alster?”
“It is just as you instructed—I locked it to ensure the staff would complete their duties before the Governor arrived.”
“As I instructed?”
“If that were so, Alster, how was a servant able to disturb my breakfast? How could one escape this door if it has remained locked all morning?”
“You are quite right to ask, sir. I have been pondering the matter myself and have come to a rather frightening conclusion.”
“Which is?” Here Alster leaned in close to Anton, the two men almost touching, and whispered.
“There is an intruder in our midst.”
“Impossible.” Anton’s voice dripped with disgust at the very thought.
“There is no other explanation.”
Anton considered Alster’s claim, then cast his mind out to the dark reaches of the manor, probing at alcoves and passageways for the touch of a stranger. Almost he felt that he could hear someone breathing, as of a hidden soul within the walls of his home. In a moment he became convinced that Alster was right.
“Stand aside, Alster. I will find the fiend and bring them to justice myself.”
“Very good, sir. Shall I wait here until you return?”
“You shall. I won’t be long.” Anton turned his back on Alster and faced the rest of the manor, where evil awaited him. His home had become a labyrinth of the unknown. Every door was closed upon mystery, every corner had terror waiting behind it. He fought to ignore the creeping dread that lay within him—whoever disturbed his peace could not change the fact that he, not them, was master here. All responded to his will; the very stone in the walls recognized his lordship.
Through those walls pattered the sound of rain. Rain on the windowpanes that disappeared when Anton looked out of them and left only an empty sky of whitish gray hanging over the long months. It was this sky that gave light to the barren passageways, unlived, unwalked until now—after the passing of the defier. At the first door he reached, Anton went through and lost his way. There was a softness beneath his feet, not stone but bare earth interwoven with a mere trace of resistance. Here the walls dripped with dampness that pooled at their base, eating away at the edges of the floor so that Anton feared collapse. He passed quickly over and through another doorway into a windowless room. He was left without sight beyond a dim glow, far overhead and already fading quickly. The stone floor was only a glimmer beneath his feet. The cold became oppressive, and he wrapped his coat tightly around his body. He hurried on. The darkness fell behind him, and he was left in a room that felt somehow familiar. Its atmosphere was thick and cloying, pulling with invisible hands that melted away as they touched him, like a constant liquid desire to lay down on the stone flags, give up and stay there in warm comfort forever, waiting for another to come drag his body away. The very soul of the this room seemed to resist him, and Anton felt each step as a dead weight dragging along behind. Then he was on his knees, fighting against the grip that clung to his arms, his hands, his eyelids. His eyes were half closed when the doorway ahead of him—his only escape from this dread room—slowly opened. A hand reached through, ghost white and fleeting, then disappeared into the hall beyond.
“You there!” Anton’s voice was weak, but his strength returned as a tide risen to a wave, sweeping over him and washing away the exhaustion of the melting air. He struggled to his feet and stumbled toward the door. It gave way at his touch and swung outward into an empty hall. He looked up and down its length but saw no sign of the hand that had saved him. “My eyes deceive me,” he whispered.
The hall stretched past doorways lit one by one with strange light. Anton went to the first one. He could not tell if it was his hand that reached for the door or if the door reached for him, but it swung inward nevertheless. He entered a room not barren but filled with a hollow jolt of fear that flew with a specter of memory and vision—his eyes ablaze, nose and throat burning with each breath of the acrid smoke that billowed toward him. Yet the flames were silent, and no warmth touched him as he stared at Memory, its face of fire a familiar sight. It was Memory that plagued him with these visions. Memory which kept him from his quest. Abandon Memory, and he would be free to find the usurper. Anton swept out into the hall with new purpose, and the flames were extinguished as he closed the door behind him.
“Where are you?” He screamed it to the empty walls, the long row of doors shut against unknown horror.
“I’m here.” A voice replied. Anton froze. A hand lay against the wall at the end of the corridor, pale white, extending out of the last door ajar. In the room beyond, the voice sounded as if the tower itself were speaking, whispering its final secret, begging him to come and listen. The hand retreated, and Anton followed. He reached the door and it gave way at his gentle push. In the center of the room was the one he sought, the defier who stood against his command and escaped every breath of retribution. Her body might have been crafted from moonlight, with hair the color of a winter sun above eyes that fell against him like hail of a thunderstorm, tearing away at everything within him until he stood flayed open before her. He was a book of simple lines to be read, cast away, and forgotten. Anton reached out, longing to touch her, but she retreated from him deeper into the room.
“Who are you?” He asked.
“I am your servant.”
“Then why do you defy me?”
“I had to warn you.”
“Warn me of what?”
“Alster?” Amon faltered, and let his hand fall.
“He does not serve you, Anton—he is warden of your prison. While he is here, this place is not a home to you. It is incarceration.”
“No. I am Lord of this manor.”
“You are Lord of nothing, Anton.”
“If I am that, then the Governor would not be coming to visit me,” Amon said, and was surprised at the uncertainty he heard in his voice. “The Governor would not visit a Lord of nothing.”
“Look outside, Anton,” the girl grasped a fraying curtain and pulled it aside. Night spilled in around them, and she gestured wildly at the blackness. “The day has passed, and the Governor has not come.”
“This is witchcraft,” Anton gasped through his despair. The girl smiled, though her eyes were filled with sadness.
“I am not the one who has cast this spell over you. I have only removed the veil from your eyes. Who reminded you time and again of the Governor’s coming? Who has been there at every moment to shepherd you away from reason, from any chance that you would discover his treachery?”
“He controls you, Anton. Are you not Lord of this manor? Will you be kept beneath the hand of a servant?”
“I will not.”
“Then destroy him. Destroy him, Anton, before he builds the walls of your prison yet stronger.” She stepped toward him, him frozen to the spot, her face like the rising moon above a black horizon, growing larger until it filled his vision and her breath washed sweet over him like a night wind. He reeled with the force of it, felt at the door behind him and ran from her, from that room, running to the center of his prison to find the true deceiver. Through halls that echoed with his steps he flew, down the central staircase and back to the door that led to the servants’ quarters. There Alster waited.
“I know what you’ve done,” Anton gasped when he stood face to face with the old man.
“I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“You’ve lied to me all this time. I know it was you, Alster. You won’t imprison me anymore.”
“Imprison you, sir? I hardly think so. Come, the Governor will be here shortly, we must prepare for his arrival.”
“The Governor isn’t coming, Alster! Night has fallen, and he’s not here! You won’t keep me any longer.”
“What on earth are you taking about? You are Lord of this house—I am but your servant.”
“You’ve stopped me all this time from leaving, from learning the truth.”
“I don’t know what this madness is that has awoken within you, my Lord, but I assure you that if you want to leave, I cannot stop you. Come,” he strode quickly away, and after a moment’s hesitation Anton followed. Alster went to the main hall, to the front doors, and lifted the deadbolt from across them. Then he placed both hands against the aging wood and pushed. The doors swung open and the night beyond melted away, a border drawn between the outer darkness and the light spilling from within. Alster stood aside and bowed, his hand extended through the open doorway. Anton was dwarfed by the world that flooded in. It rushed past him like a gale, filling the manor behind him until the whole building was overflowing with it. His heart quailed, and his voice was almost too feeble for even his own ears to hear it.
“Close the door, Alster.”
“Yes, sir.” It was done; the rushing wind died to silence.
“I’m sorry, Alster.”
“I don’t know what you mean, sir. Shall we continue our preparations for the Governor’s arrival tomorrow?” Anton’s eyes widened, and his shoulders stiffened.
“Yes, we must! Instruct the staff that no expense should be spared. Lock them in the dungeon until everything is ready if you have to!”
“As you wish. Will you have something to drink, sir? You appear troubled.”
“It’s nothing, Alster, nothing… Yes, I will have a drink. Have it brought to me with my dinner—I will be in the lounge.”
“Very good, sir. Is there anything else you need?”
“No, Alster, that will be all.”
“Goodbye, my Lord,” Alster said as he walked away down the hall. The sound of his voice was swallowed into nothingness, and Lord Anton soon forgot who had spoken.
He went to the lounge, where a fireplace in the far wall overflowed with spent ashes. He walked to it and sank into an armchair he didn’t know was moth-eaten and torn. He smiled, all the day’s troubles forgotten, surrounded by the crumbling walls of his tower and waiting for a servant to bring him his dinner.