The third time the wail sounded, harsh and cold, across the sodden, churned mud of the courtyard, Ankallys sighed, and her shoulders slumped in resignation. She had forgotten; Ildris had been given her congedie only this morning, and there was no one left to answer the bell but she. Dropping her quill back into the inkwell partially hidden amid the clutter of her desk, she kicked back her stool, grabbed a heavy, well-used woolen cloak from its peg, threw it quickly about her shoulders, and padded swiftly down the tower’s well-worn stairs.
The brief sprint across the courtyard was unpleasant; her soft shoes sank ankle-deep in the mud, and she was cursing under her breath by the time she reached the gatehouse. The inner door was unlocked, and she tugged it open, grunting a little at the effort, and stepped into the gatekeeper’s chamber, long since vacant. Doffing her cloak (it was already drenched), she stepped to the peephole, quietly drew back the shutter, and peered through.
Directly, it seemed, into a pair of tired brown eyes not much older than her own. “Good morrow, mistress,” she heard.
“Good morrow,” she replied. “Your business?”
“My business is with your master,” the visitor replied. “But first, let me in, give me a dry sheet and a mug, and pay me. Then we can talk business.”
“Your name?” Ankallys asked.
“...is my own,” the visitor answered. She could see the corners of his eyes wrinkle in a smile. “Worry about what I bear.” And with that the fellow waved a heavy leather scroll case before the window.
Ankallys started. Magister Oras had talked of nothing but “the scroll” for weeks now; he was in a perfect fever, waiting for it to be delivered from Ellohyin, three hundred leagues upriver. “Who sends you?” she asked, thinking feverishly. What was the name her master had...
“Palvej, Lord Dredgore,” the fellow replied. “And that is the last question I will answer without a sack of crowns in one hand, and a mug of something cheering in the other.” And with that last sally, the eyes disappeared.
Dredgore. Ankallys tugged desperately at the rusted bolts – was it really that long since the Great Gate had last been opened? – and then, giving up, stepped back and hissed an incantation. Sparks flew from the bolts as they shot back, squealing, and the enormous, ironbound doors swung wide, screeching hideously.
The visitor stood just outside, one hand holding the reins of a tall gelding that looked like it might have been disposed to skittishness if it had not been so exhausted. The fellow pushed back his hood, revealing a tangled hedge of filthy brown hair, and bent at the waist in a bedraggled semblance of a courtier’s bow. “Your servant, milady.”
“Leave your mount in the tunnel here,” Ankallys said. “If you’ll help me close and bar the doors, I’m sure he won’t wander.”
“We’re both of us a little tired for much wandering,” the rider replied. Between them, they managed to thrust the doors to, and shoot the bolts.
“My thanks,” Ankallys said once the gate was secure. “Please follow me.” She led the way back out into the rain, towards the tower.
“Forgive me,” the rider interjected, hobbling slightly as he struggled against his saddle-aches to keep up with the young woman. “But you seem a little short-staffed.”
“My thanks for your concern,” Ankallys replied dryly. “Are you looking for work?”
The rider smiled. “I’m quick with a blade,” he said lightly. “You look like you could use some security.”
Ankallys turned in the door of the tower, a slight smile on her lips. She appeared about to speak, then shrugged, and snapped her fingers.
The rider looked at her quizzically for a moment...and then his eyes grew wide as he felt ghostly fingers clutch at his throat. The grip was fierce, and tightened quickly. Dropping his scrip, he clawed at his neck, finding no purchase. Then his legs shot out from beneath him, and he crashed to the floor, a terrifying weight on his chest, crushing the life from him; and yet there was nothing that he could touch. Spots swirled before his eyes, and the world began to go grey.
And then Ankallys was kneeling beside him, slapping his cheeks gently. The horrible weight was gone...but he could still feel the grip of icy fingers at his windpipe. He shuddered. Ankallys did not mistake his shivering for cold.
“Some servants,” she explained, “do not require to be paid. Or at least,” she added, “not in coin.”
“If you’ll pay me,” the rider croaked, his hand at his neck, “I’ll happily forego the drink and towel.”
“Not at all,” Ankallys replied brightly. “Besides, my master has been looking forward to your arrival for a fortnight now. I’m sure he’ll want to reward you himself.” So saying, she rose to her feet and brushed the dust of the hallway from her robes before extending a hand to the rider.
Ignoring her proffered aid, the visitor climbed slowly to his feet, then bent to retrieve his wallet. “Let’s be done with it, then,” he muttered. The rain might make a man surly, but so did abject terror.
“Very well,” said Ankallys, doing her best to hide a smile. “Follow me.”