Excerpt from the novel JEWELS
To call it a castle would have been generosity. A large circle of massive stones enclosed two long squat buildings, made of heavy gray bricks and thick brown mortar. Built upon a small hill, the castle had one entrance, a large wooden gate striated with iron bars. The gates' wooden surface showed ancient scars of attempted entries.
One of the buildings housed horses, grafens and even a mule, along with two large kitchens, a deep well and a shallow one, a forge, a small hayloft and a granary. A staircase next to the deep well led to a cellar where salted meats and bitter ale were kept cool.
It also housed one chained man, now broken, his putrefying tongue strapped tightly across his eyes.
The other building had a large hall, with heavy wooden tables and massive chairs. Along the walls were torches, now lit and glaring brightly in the fading light. The tables were blackened from decades of spills and sweat, and blood. The chairs loomed large, each one the work of an artisan now long dead. No two chairs were alike, and the depressions of many a seated hour were deep. Along the walls lay dozens of cords of firewood, neatly stacked. Though the day was slightly warm, the eight massive windows were shuttered.
The rest of the building held rooms, of various sizes, over 100 in all. Some rooms had fireplaces, others held washstands, still others were graced with a small reflecting pool, or a tiny garden. Beds were simple, sturdy affairs of planks and legs, chairs were scattered amongst many a bench and the only common feature to all was a red cord, attached to a hidden rope high above the ceiling, where rats and lice thrived without limit. Why the ropes had never been gnawed through was a mystery no one ever thought to explore.
The meeting hall, with tables set for a small feast, was beginning to hear voices. Sashes of many hues adorned the visitors, many men and few women. All had been summoned, and though reluctant to leave their wanderings and other homes, the summons had brought more than expected.
The kitchen maids and servants bustled about, their faces tight with fear, saying nothing and praying to whatever gods they now believed in that this day should end. Heavy cauldrons of stewing meat and steaming porridge were stirred thickly, with great effort. The heat covered every chore with a blanket, but could not vanquish the deep cold felt by them all.
The meeting hall filled quickly, as the visitors were rushed there by anxious servants. Names were repeated, friendships renewed and the heady feeling of belonging infused the hall. One or two glanced about them, seeking familiar faces, and frowning slightly when they were as yet unrevealed.
A name surfaced, like a petal’s whisper against the skin: Mohg. The name meant nothing to so many, but to the few who knew it, it caused concern. Mohg had spurned The Baltok and all it stood for. Its ten members were called “feeble” and “fools”. Mohg was a magemaster of great ability, but no sense of proportion, of humility or generosity. Magemasters needed these things to be able to help and survive. The Baltok guided and most followed their reason.
But Mohg? A member of The Baltok? Rather a griffin guard a lamb! Mohg?
Word and rumor spread. The hall filled, and experienced visitors scrambled for chairs nearest the servants’ entrances, for when laden with steaming plates, they dispensed most of in the first several plates.
And still the name Mohg rode the air.
A sharp bell sounded, then again. Voices quieted and chairs scraped back and forth as the visitors gathered themselves. The lone table near the main entrance was strangely empty, its ten chairs devoid of face or body. The Bartok was not one to stand on too much ceremony, and their absence caused some discomfort.
Another bell sounded and servants rushed in, their arms filled with platters of meat, bread, vegetables and pots of boiling stews and soups. With frenzied gestures, the food was placed on the tables, ladles slopping into heavy bowls and causing angry retorts. More servants rushed in to serve heavy red wines and place custards amongst the crowded tables. Small protests became shouts as food was spilled, feet were stepped on and hot liquids stained robes, sashes and burned skin. Within minutes, the hall was in a muted uproar and with the final plate dropped heavily atop another, the last servant ran out of the hall, closing the door with a long furtive glance at the assembled magemasters.
Several minutes passed before the meal could be called genteel, as plates and platters and bowls were rearranged, food apportioned properly and the various mishaps corrected enough to allow for tranquil eating. The food itself was well-prepared, as expected, but heavy in texture, to some overly-spiced, and the red wine was sharp, metallic in its cool heaviness.
Without a sound, the servants’ doors closed, and iron bars dropped into place. Shuttered windows were barred, one by one, by silent clever fingers.
The meal was well underway when the main door opened slowly. Only a few noticed as a steely-eyed man with aquiline features, wearing long black and gray robes, no sash, stepped up to The Bartok’s table and placed his hands lightly on its rough-hewn surface, as if taking possession. He remained quiet, statue-like, as the magemasters gave him their undivided attention. A minute passed, and though broken by murmurs, nothing happened.
Then a red-sashed master, her hair graying though her skin remained smooth called out: “Where are The Bartok?”
The silent man cast his eyes over the tables and plates, as if caressing them. “You know better than I.”
The deep, cold voice surprised some and chilled others. But his eyes…his eyes...
“The food!” screamed one master, shoving himself away from the table and collapsing to the pitiless stone floor. Shock, pure numbing shock held the others frozen until the reality of such monstrosity slammed into their mind. Convulsive reactions swept through the magemasters, gasping, wretching, choking, screaming, moaning, yelling, cursing, some inflicting wounds on their faces as they clawed at their mouths, others trying desperately to seize a weapon.
At the very height of the convulsion, the man turned, a serene smile making him darkly handsome. He grabbed a torch and with careful hand, lit a pile of firewood to the left of the main entrance, then turned and did the same on the other side. Flames of angry red and yellow streaked from pile to pile, racing around the room as if hellbent to escape. The suddenness of the rushing flames whooshed air across the stricken mages, and only a few could adjust to the new threat. Before they could think of what to do, the man in the black and gray robe stepped outside the hall and with precise motions, closed the huge door, barring it shut. Muted screams pounded the walls and the shutters trembled desperately as the firewood, and the leather skins of fireoil contained within, turned the hall into a vast roasting chamber. Within minutes, the final screams died out, the shutters lay still and the walls crackled with the force of heat, despair and magic destroyed within.
Deep in the cellar, the last member of The Bartok heard the screams and tears flowed with foul slime down his mutilated cheeks.