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Mistwalkers - Mishka's Wa
Chapter 2
Weddings

Chapter 2
Spark trod slowly along the road to the Keep, as he had done many times before, his head low, his eyes watching for loose stones & ruts in his way. The rider jerked & creaked on his back with each step. The willow frame was holding, so far, but the damp air was causing the mud on Spark’s flanks to run & flow & itch. He wished for his warm stable & a good brushing. He scarcely noticed the thickening rush of the fog as it swept toward him from the ramparts of the Keep. Still intent on his footing & his burden, he was suddenly alert to his master’s voice, borne perfectly by the mists like a shout across water. Spark’s master was screaming, screaming as if a madman. He stopped & turned his ears to the troubling sound just as the fog took all his sight from him & enveloped him in a profound silence.

                                                                                   *

I woke again to the sound of low voices as the light was waning around me. It was disorienting, as it dusk’s glow did not seem to have a direction. The dull orange glow of the setting sun was nearly constant all around our camp. I became aware that all the captains were back & breaking camp; I cast aside Lairik’s cloak & gained my feet. As I took stock of the camp, I suddenly remembered Spark & his burden. “Polset!” I called, “what of Spark & the rider?” Captain Polset turned from girding his horse “No sign of either, Mishka. The last I saw of him, the fog had rushed around him as he walked. Then,” he paused, “my attention was taken by other events.”
 
I moved carefully to the edge of the camp, just beneath the reach of the oak’s branches. There the fog was thickest, nearly solid. I hesitated a moment, then stepped into the vapor. Immediately I was taken by a sense of falling, though I felt no rush of air against me. My thoughts leapt back to my leap from the limb, & my throat caught a tang of bile. Then my feet were on cold, flat stone & the mists swirled clear before my eyes. I could not stop the cry of shock that left me as I found myself in a gray stone room, cool & damp, with pale yellow light slanting in thru a high window. I reached for my blade & drew it quickly, backing into a corner. My eyes flew about the room: it was small, barely twice the width of the height of a man, with tall walls knit with blocks of granite & a flagstone floor. Opposite the window stood a thick planked door with rusting iron hinges held to the wall by great bolts. Moss grew on the walls away from the window’s light, & cold water lay in pools among the flagstones. A stained grating sat in the massive door, just above the height of my eyes.
My ears strained for a hint that my outcry had given me up: naught heard I but the drip of the dampness upon the rock. I stepped quietly to the door & put my eye to the rough grating. Through a wee crack I could see a long hall of stone, with rusted torch sconces standing empty. A stair led to the left, & another door stood slightly ajar at the end of the hall. No footprints showed on the damp stone floor. Encouraged now that my discovery was not to be immediate, I turned my attention to the window. Returning my sword to its’ scabbard, I jumped lightly & caught the edge of the window opening & pulled myself just to the stone sill. An ancient iron frame allowed me to improve my grip, & I dared to peer over it, the bright yellowish light flooding my face.

At first I could make out nothing but the pale light; as my eyes adjusted, I could see that I was high above a deep valley, with empty fields surrounding my prison. I picked out a low stone wall & a broad gate breaching it. Beyond the gate I had a vague glimpse of high mountains through the pervading mists. Recognition caught me – I knew this place! I was in the Keep at Ramakai, the keep of my Grandfather, Elder Kateman. But how? I tried to make out the treeline above where we had camped, my eyes straining to make out the trail that Spark had followed. The yellow light obscured detail, & my hands were growing cramped; I soon abandoned my search & dropped again to the stone floor. Leaving the wondering of my arrival to be pondered later; I resolved to leave this room & explore the Keep, hoping to find out why there were no folk about, & no lookouts to spy Spark with his cadaverous burden.

Back at the door, I grasped the iron latch & pulled up carefully. The rusted iron screeched in protest, but came free. Pulling the door open only enough to squeeze out, I pulled it nearly closed behind me. Sword in hand, I crept to the stair which led upwards into darkness. The door at the hall’s end would have to wait: I dared not risk more creaking of iron. The stairway curved sharply, a defensive place, thought I, not good for an invader trying to climb to the ramparts. At any moment, I expected the bite of a blade to find me from around the next turn. A small landing afforded me a brief respite, & I stole a glance thru an archer’s slot in the rock. From this vantage I could make out the path of the languorous river close by, & I could see that the fields were unattended, crops taken by decay & neglect. I started to wonder if I was alone here, in the home of my Grandfathers. At that thought I heard a sigh, as a heartbroken wind caressing a pine tree. I spun ‘round – nothing there. I turned back to my lookout, but could no longer see the river clearly. Shaking myself to dispel the dread, I resumed my trek on the spiraling star & gained the rampart gate, & moved out onto the narrow stone walk.

From my new aerie I surveyed the fields & valley, seeing neither man nor beast, or any evidence that they had occupied the Keep in recent memory. Paths were overgrown, fences fallen into disrepair, & gates broken or swinging open. Keeping my back to the gate jamb, I turned to peer into the courtyard where I had played as a child, reveling in the raucous cacophony of merchants, soldiers, & townsfolk which crowded it, engaging in the commerce of a thriving community. Exotic tongues, smells, & colors bounced around me & thrilled me beyond the scope of my experience. What a place it had been!  The Courtyard at the Keep at Ramakai!

I hardly recognized it. Broken wooden casks lay strewn as if dropped from the ramparts themselves. All doors around the courtyard were open or broken, or missing entirely. Watering troughs were dry & split. Rusted barrel rings lay littering the walks, some half-hidden in piles of dry or rotted straw & leaves. Leaves? Within these towering walls? That could mean only one thing – that the gates were breached so that the winds blew freely into the redoubt. And such winds as to blow the leaves across the wide fields that surrounded the walls! What had happened, here?
 
Again, the sigh came, & raised the hair on the nape of my neck. I edged farther out onto the rampart, crouching where I could feel the stone ’gainst my back & still survey the ruined courtyard. Confusion & uncertainty tore at my resolve. I thought of my Grandfather, Elder Kateman, & wondered if his heart still beat. I thought of the ruin of the Keep, of the rider’s summons which bore the seal of Ramakai, & then I considered my companions high above the valley. At once, I felt the sore need of my brother Lairik’s counsel, & knew I must bring him here with all speed.

I stole a glance above the lip of the rampart wall, looking out toward where my small company had camped. Still no view of them was afforded me thru the mist. Standing tall now, I descended the stairs, turned left to the door at the hallway’s end, & grasped the latch. The door resisted my pull for a moment, then swung free, nearly knocking me to the stone floor. I stumbled backward as the ancient iron showered me with flakes of rust & dust, blinding me momentarily. I regained my balance & shook my head to clear my eyes: turning back to the door, I saw it. The dry, powdering skeleton of a soldier of Ramakai, the emblazon barely recognizable on the remnants of his jerkin, leaning now 'gainst the inside of the door. The stub of a dusty arrow stood in his breast, his sword a few paces away, its' blade rusted along the edge & stained with old blood. I moved to him, & touched the arrow. Dust fell away, revealing a bright green shaft, the same color as the one that had taken Ascorle. I was struck with dread & revulsion & tore it from him, flinging it down the passageway, the arrowhead clattering sparks across the stone floor. Drawing my blade, I drew a ragged, deep breath & stepped thru the door into the gloom of the winding staircase.

Dust littered the treads as I stole down to the 1st landing. As my eyes adjusted to the dusky darkness I saw the stains of old blood on the stones. Dust sighed off the worn stairs behind me, & I stopped: turning back, I jogged up the stairs & retrieved the green arrow, knowing not why. In a moment I was back at the landing, & peered out thru the arrowslot.