The Court of Wolves and Rabbits

Chapter One

 

A Drunk and a Traitor

“All you can see is white,” the girl began. “It’s everything and nothing all at once. Terrifying and energizing. You can be as big or as tiny as you want when it takes you over. When it blinds you, you can see anything.”

“Sounds moronic,” Madame Ambassador said as she slugged another gulp of the burning liquid in her flask. “How can you see everything when you’re blind? Hmm? And it can’t be everything and nothing all at once, that’s beyond ridiculous. God, you Fog Folk and your crazy ways.”

“Says the woman guzzling whisky at half nine in the morning,” Nettalia mumbled under her breath.

“Oh does the murderer have a problem with my drinking? Well, I better quit it now. Don’t want to earn your ire now do I?” the woman’s fur shawl slipped from her shoulder, drawing the eye of their driver for a few seconds longer than necessary. When he finally turned back to his horses he yanked hard on their reigns to stop them slipping on a weak stone shelf that would have thrown them mercilessly down into the sea.

“Gastille, can you focus on the road for the love of all that is Holy? Please?”

“Apologies, Ambassador Dulain,” he muttered as sweat bubbled and fell down his freshly reddened cheeks.

“Apologies indeed. Now, girl, do I need to lock you back in that dusty old cage or will you stop judging me and let me enjoy the rest of this miserable journey in peace?”

Nettalia wanted to scream. She could feel it welling up in her throat and rattling her teeth, demanding to be set free. She was a runner by nature. Fields. Mountain slopes. Along the muddy bank of her beloved river. She ran and she ran and she felt free then. Only then. A rush of something (dread? disgust?… guilt?) swept over her and the bleak future she was heading towards, locked away in some cell beneath whatever stupid court Dulain was taking her too, smacked her head on, unrepentant in its fury and enormity. Drowning her and burning her all at once. She would muster a smile if it killed her, if only to offset karma’s waiting dungeon. Maybe it wouldn’t leak too much if she smiled now, that’s how it worked, right? She gripped her nails tightly into her palms, thankful she’d bitten them down to the quick over the past three days and nodded curtly at Dulain.

“That’s better,” she took another swig before proffering the flask to the fifteen-year-old girl. “No? Fine then. But I’ll have you know that it is not the cheap beer swill of goat herders in my diamond inlaid, silver flask. Oh no, no, no. Only the finest Beraishan whiskey for me. I bought it from the Coven King’s own private merchant. Yes, girl, you’d do well to keep that dumbstruck look on your face. You thought I was some fuddy duddy, didn’t you? Some rich man’s wife he’d sent off so he could play farmer and the cow with a buxom blonde from Slagetown?”

“Tell me,” Nettalia pulled her face back to its ordinary scowl and relaxed her hands into the soft sheen of the silk pillows beneath her, “about the Coven King.”

“Him? Why? Surely you’d much rather know about the fabled city of Aznar’ki? Oh how exquisitely they have carved elegance from the brutish nature of stone. Marble arches of polished brilliance stand soldier to soldier with the magnificent bronze statues of fallen Lords and triumphant scholars. Majestic, that’s the best way to describe Aznar’ki – full of majestic halls, majestic homes and majestic palaces. Oh fine then,” Madame Dulain shook her head in disbelief that she was the only one that ever seemed to care about the meticulous town planning that had gone into forging the greatest city of the Three Continents from nothing more than the ashy ruins of a war torn kingdom. Such is life, she shrugged. “The Coven King is every bit as monstrous as you’ve heard. Yes, he has one green eye and one pink. And yes, he is missing one arm in which he has planted a branch that has now grown into his skin. No, of course he can’t flex the branch like he could an arm. And yes, he is indeed dying from his stupid pride as the branch is poisoning him more and more by the day. Was that what you were going to ask?”

“It’s no fun if you don’t let me ask though!” Nettalia felt aggrieved that the Ambassador had been able to strip all the fun out of the Ghoul King of the Dominions of the Coven Lords. “You should have let me ask.”

“You should be more original. Think outside the box and then normal things can’t disappoint you. Now why don’t you tell me more about the Fog and why your people worship it so?”

“I’ve told you already,” the girl huffed. “We just do. It’s meant to bring inner peace and tranquility and a fear of death all at once. Live each life to the max while understanding it won’t leave any impact on the world much longer than a few years. And even then, when the White comes, nothing will survive anyway.”

“The White?” Dulain’s curiosity was peaked so greatly that she stopped mid swig of her whiskey as a stone tumbled down onto of the carriage roof. “What was that driver?”

“Goats, m’lady,” he mumbled nervously. His top lip was sweating, Nettalia noticed, as he sat in his custom chair within the carriage, steering his horses through a carved window at its front. “Goats loosing stones from the mountain.”

“Well see that it is. If there are any goat plops on my carriage you’ll be cleaning it up before we get to Gershaw Keep, I promise you that.”

“Yes, m’lady.”

More stones fell onto the carriage roof making Nettalia and the Ambassador jump. It sounded like thunder crackling down the mountain, a furious roar by something hungry. And then a chant drifted in through the open driver’s window.

“Do goat’s sing?” Dulain looked to Nettalia, her eyes blurry but free of anything other than genuine wonder.

“No,” Nettalia shook her head as she slid slowly away from the driver, whose hands were white with the strain of holding the horse’s reigns.

An arrow pierced the wood with a sickening thwack that reverberated around the tiny box as the horses wailed in front. Nettalia could hear their hooves crack against the stone as they desperately tried to push themselves back along the winding track they were travelling. Three more arrows came in quick succession and let more of the cold, mountain air pour in through the holes they left behind. The chanting grew louder and Nettalia peered into the gloom of the falling twilight at a figure sliding down the mountain’s stone face.

“Bandits!” Dulain shrieked as the white in her hair stood on end and the black lay flat and lifeless by her ears. “We’re being raided. I will not tolerate this… this… NONSENSE. Stop the carriage. Did you hear me, driver? I said stop this carriage.”

The driver did so dutifully as the Ambassador threw open the doors to the rear of the carriage and stepped out onto the crumbling road. Nettalia tried to grip her arm but the whiskey had made her strong and she yanked the young Fog girl out with her. The stones scraped up her arms and fresh blood mingled with the older, stained and flaky, bloody hand print on the hem of her dress. The pain rocketed through her body as tears filled her eyes. Five shadows were swirling from hidden caves in the mountainside as eight more slid further down the steep slope that led to the snow peak at its tip.

“I implore you all to cease this foolery at once. I am Madame Dulain of Gershaw Keep, Ambassador to the Coven King of the Dominions of the Coven Lords and widow of the Knight of All Weathers,” the chanting paused for a brief moment of silence. “Yes, good, now we can talk.”

But Nettalia knew these people would never see reason. They weren’t the bandits the Ambassador had been briefed on before she left her decade old post at Asznar’ki, no, these were the Goatmen of the Mountain. Savages. Barbarians.

Cannibals.

She could run now. She was fast. Maybe not as fast as the Goatmen for they knew the mountain better, but what did they care if she ran? Surely it was the Ambassador they wanted? She could do it. All she had to do was move. And now. Her thighs tensed, her heart rate increased, ready to help her flee. Her instinct screamed at her to move her backside. Now was her chance.

She didn’t have to take you, you know. She could have left you to the mob. To their vengeful anger and vigilante version of justice. But she didn’t, her conscience whispered. She didn’t leave you.

As she stepped towards Dulain and tried to usher her back into the carriage, a stone came hurtling from behind her and cracked against her skull. The pain was immense, but nowhere near as potent as the agony of losing her brother, Dermot. It was the sudden blindness it brought upon her that made her heart clench in fear and her mouth turn dry and painful.

I thought death would be black? she thought to herself as her consciousness left her stranded, but death wasn’t black. No. The clerics were right.

Death was white.