The Watcher’s Keep
A fire was already laid in the hearth when Alexandra and Peter finally arrived home. Supper was on the table and Molensa was just starting to pour some wine into a simple iron goblet at the head of the table. Peter noticed there were two extra place settings, each sporting a goblet of wine. There was also an intricately carved white hazel wood staff cradled in the stand next to the door. The staff sported a bronze wolf’s head pommel, brightly polished and well worn on the top. He knew what this meant, they both knew.
“Oh, there you two are at last,” Molensa said, appearing a bit more annoyed than they felt she should be. “I thought you would both go to bed hungry this night, you stayed at the Abbey so late after lessons.” Molensa was a large woman. Not obese, but clearly someone who enjoyed eating good food. Her silver hair was pulled back and tied with a scarf as always.
Peter knew immediately they had been caught. “We did not stay late after lessons today,” he said quickly. “We were… we did not go to the Abbey this morning. We were out in the forest, near to the Silver Stream waterfall.”
“Were you out in the woods with that old hermit again?” Molensa asked pointedly.
Neither of them could lie to her, she could read it in their eyes, and besides, she wouldn’t really care. “Yes, we went to visit Karoel,” Alexandra spoke up. “We wanted to spend some time with him before the Harvest begins. We did not mean any harm, we just wanted to hear more stories about the Old Days, before the world was broken and the Great Rift was formed.”
Peter joined in, “From the time when there was still magic in the land, and there were elves and wizards and dwarves and dragons and griffins and —”
“Enough! That will be quite enough of that!” Molensa barked, glancing quickly toward the closed kitchen door. “I will not have you speaking such prattle. Brother Cadresean will be disappointed that you two have not learned your lessons better than this. There are no such creatures as dwarves or dragons, there never were, and there will be no more such talk in this house.”
She was not really angry they knew, just cautioning them. Talking of the Old Days was considered blasphemous in the Church, and was not allowed anywhere in the lands of King Leondis Tarbane. You most certainly did not speak of such things with a Julean monk in the house, bound by the laws of their Order to report all such heresy directly to His Holiness the Archbishop in Solenta. Compromising Brother Cadresean was not going to happen tonight if Molensa had anything to say about it.
The heavy door to the kitchen opened slowly and three men filed through, engaged in a quiet discussion. The first was Bairden Oldsted, the master of this house and guardian of the twins. Bairden was a large man by human measure, with dark, strong, weathered hands that had long held a chisel and hammer in the service of the King or his Lord. His face was kind, with wrinkles set deeply around his eyes — as much a sign of his nature as his deep belly laugh. His face was partially hidden by a thick growth of beard, which always seemed to shelter an escaped fragment or two from the stonework of the day. Today was no different.
The second man was much smaller, dressed in the plain brown robes of the Julean monks, which made his pale skin appear almost ashen. He sported a wild shock of jet black hair that seemed to have been pasted across his high forehead. He could have been a wraith next to the two larger, healthy men.
He was a stranger, though the children had seen him before. He was a recent arrival at the Abbey, and they knew him to be from the Royal Court — a counsellor of some worth attached to the Church. Not a High Counsellor to be sure, and not truly a monk or a priest, if you can believe the back room gossip at the Abbey, but a man who was obviously feared by the local Brethren. The whispered dread that swept through the monastery was enough for the children to appreciate Molensa’s earlier actions and caution. The staff at the door was his, they knew, and it was reported that he used it to discipline some of the less pious monks.
The last man to enter was dear Brother Cadresean. His enormous brown robe, ruffled and wrinkled as usual, was tied awkwardly around his equally enormous belly, and he was chewing on some scrap of the upcoming meal that he had stumbled upon while the men were talking privately in the kitchen. His normally rosy cheeks were particularly pink this evening, and his shaved head wore a gloss that made it gleam like highly polished marble. He liked to sample the fine wines and ales that the Abbey produced, and it appeared he had been imbibing this evening already.
“Ho, ho there you little lost lambs, have you been playing tricks again on a poor bedraggled monk,” Cadresean bellowed at the children. Sheepishly he glanced toward the pale little man who had moved over in front of the fire, and who pretended he had not heard, or just ignored this roaring greeting for Cadresean’s favorite students.
“Ahem, I mean where have you two been all day,” speaking more now as befit a monk of his Order, and the Head Master at the Abbey in Alnen. “You have worried your dear mother sick, and you have missed your lessons today on top of it.”
Mother? Alex wondered to herself, Did he mean Molensa?
As Peter opened his mouth to reply, Molensa piped in quickly, “I am so embarrassed Brother. I had forgotten until just this very minute that I sent the children on an errand today, to Hilldale to pick up the makings for tonight’s dessert. I know how much you appreciate a bit of sweet fare after supper, and there was not a pound of fine chocolate to be had anywhere in Alnen. I am so deeply sorry to have caused you to worry. I must be losing my faculties in my old age.”
“That’s right,” chimed in Alexandra, “chocolate and almonds for bearded crumb pie, Brother. Your favorite dessert I believe. Mother, I am surprised at you, forgetting that you sent us on such an important errand.” Alexandra decided to play along with the ruse, without really knowing why.
Peter looked around confused, first at Alexandra, then at Molensa. He was just about to open his mouth and disagree when, “Don’t say a word Peter,” Alexandra said to him in the silent speech that the two of them had secretly shared as long as they could remember. “Keep quiet and let’s see where this is going. I am afraid of this pale little man from the Royal Court. He frightened me at the Abbey and he is even more frightening here, now. Not only that, but Brother Cadresean called Molensa Mother! He of all people certainly knows better than that.”