Ties That Bind: Part Two
Harwood woke to an unfamiliar jostling as the carriage traveled along the bumpy road. He was unsure where he was until he recalled drifting off at some point, having been picked up by one of the Earl’s servants the night before. Just the coach’s exquisite interior was enough to jog his hazy memory.
Curious as to how far he’d traveled, the Eyrie peered out the window, squinting in the intense light. Rolling hills speckled with wildflowers steadily passed by as the carriage lumbered forward, a slight breeze causing the plants to sway. The fields of green were interrupted by small settlements; cottages build by what could only be the residents of the outskirts of Brightvale. The humble abodes slowly began to progress into larger houses. He was nearing the city.
Harwood had never thought much of Brightvale. Though he had never visited it himself, he’d learned enough to know that it contained intelligent scholars and ridiculously fancy windows. However, as the carriage pulled over the cobbled streets, he saw a great deal more. Brightvale proved to house happy, wise residents, but it also had a well-maintained security system. Guards were spotted every so often overseeing the city’s activity. King Hagan ruled his land with a clever mind.
The atmosphere of the city was bursting with life, crowds of citizens bustling underneath green and gold banners. The distinct clang of the blacksmith’s blow rang through the way. The country’s telltale stained-glass windows decorated many high class buildings, gleaming in the mid-morning sun.
Nicer than Meridell, at least, the Eyrie thought, taking in his surroundings. The charm was lost to him, his thoughts concentrated on the reason he was being brought here rather than its scenery. Whatever the Earl needed of him, he could only guess.
Soon the coach drifted out of the main part of town and back into the countryside, bringing him to something of a secluded meadow. Just a ways down the path was a grand manor, sitting atop a hill like a king atop his throne. It was one of the largest houses Harwood had ever come across, great ivory columns supporting its massive roof. However, the Eyrie saw no point in spoiling oneself with such loud extravagance. He doubted the Earl even visited every room in that big a house.
When the carriage came to a halt, a stuffy white Blumaroo opened the side door, a look of disdain on his lumpy face. “Come,” he said quietly. “The Earl has been kept waiting.”
Following the butler’s demands, Harwood was led inside the manor. As soon as he stepped foot in the lobby, he could see that the Earl clearly went out of his way to make sure every aspect of his home looked flawless. Everything shone with cleanliness and order, every painting and chair arranged just right. The Eyrie had never seen such a waste of time and money, not caring for it at all.
The Blumaroo butler directed Harwood through many long hallways, each more ideal than the last. Soon they stopped at a single door that stood out from the rest. The butler knocked in a brisk manner, then turned the knob without a word, ushering his guest inside.
Harwood was taken aback by what he saw, but it wasn’t any sort of interesting finery decorating the room that stunned him.
By no means had he been expecting a ghost.
Lord Norbury, a rotund Gnorbu, floated a few inches off the ground. His entire body was transparent and tinged an unearthly shade of blue. His mane billowed and swayed, as if there was some sort of draft that only affected spirits. With his hollow, bloodred eyes staring as they did, it seemed that he was something to be found wandering the Haunted Woods, not a figure of power among the living.
“Well, if it isn’t the man we’ve all been waiting for.” The Gnorbu’s voice was deep and rounded, echoing in a ghastly way.
“Lord Norbury.” Harwood greeted him with a quick nod, recovering from his surprise. “You sent for me?”
“Yes, indeed. I apologize for not stating my purposes. I’m sure you’re wondering why you’re here.” The Earl withdrew a piece of parchment from his waistcoat pocket. “I have a favor to ask of you, Mr. Harwood.”
“In a hurry to get to the point, I see. Well, in short, this is a message from Isis, sorceress of the Lost Desert.” The Gnorbu’s solemn stare bore into the Eyrie. “She’s called on my niece to be her apprentice, and I need someone capable to accompany her there. I’ve heard of your expertise as a defender, and I need you to keep her out of harm’s way. If an enemy was to kidnap her, they know I would pay dearly to get her back.”
Harwood’s gaze narrowed. “Just an escort? With all respect, Lord Norbury, this mission suits lower rank defenders. I have more important things to tend to.” And with that, the Eyrie turned to leave.
A howling rush of wind blew past Harwood, blowing straight through him. It slammed the door closed with ease, blocking the only exit. The Earl seemed to have dropped whatever friendly façade he had put on for this visit. The room’s temperature made a steep drop as the Gnorbu glared at the Eyrie.
“I do hope you aren’t forgetting, Mr. Harwood,” he said. “I can strip you of your ranks in a second. The oath all defenders are sworn by is one you must follow as well, whatever your stance. I could choose anyone I wanted for this mission, and I felt that you would do the best job. Unless you’re keen on resigning?”
Harwood swore under his breath, caught between two unpleasant choices. He had hardly any say in the matter, and infuriated him to no end.
“Fine,” the Eyrie growled, “but you’d better hope there’s something in it for me.”
The Earl smirked, victorious. “Oh, you’ll be generously rewarded for your acts, if you’re successful. But let one thing happen to my niece and you’re out of a job.”
“Then we have a deal.”
“Not quite. You’ll be leaving later this afternoon after preparations are made. But first, why not join us for lunch? My niece has been awaiting your arrival.”
The Earl seemed to forget his slight quarrel with Harwood as the two sat at the immense dining table. Lord Norbury enjoyed flaunting his riches, taking the meal as an opportunity to serve some of the finest dishes in Brightvale. He was all but pleased at seeing how little his guest ate.
It wasn’t long before the weedy butler arrived, the person he’d been escorting standing at his side. A willowy, speckled Gnorbu of sixteen, the Earl’s niece looked to be the blandest thing in the manor. Her hair was short and wild, and her garments were no more glamorous than the average commoner. Some might have even mistaken her for a boy. The confident glint in her violet eyes dared you to try.
“Mr. Harwood, this is my sister’s daughter, Layla,” Lord Norbury announced as the girl seated herself.
“Charmed,” the Eyrie said, unsmiling. Just her appearance told him that this was going to be far from pleasant.
Layla was a bit ruffled by the defender’s response but decided to ignore his hostility, replying as if he’d given her a warm welcome. “Likewise, Mr. Harwood, sir. It’s a pleasure to finally be meeting you. Can’t thank you enough for helping me.”
He glanced at the Earl. “No thanks are necessary.”
“I still can’t believe it, you know,” the Gnorbu said, grinning to herself. “Out of all the young people in the world, the sorceress chose me as her apprentice. I can’t even begin to imagine all the new spells I’ll learn when-”
“Layla,” the Earl interrupted. “You’ll have plenty of time for talk on the way there-”
“Oh, no, please continue.”
“As I was saying,” Lord Norbury said, giving Harwood a dark look, “there are a few preparations that must be made before your departure.”
“Preparations?” the Eyrie asked with mild interest.
“But of course. This trip shall go as I, as well as my niece, deem it so. I won’t stand for anything otherwise. Certain precautions must be taken.”
Harwood shifted in his chair. “Meaning?”
“There are two main points you must-”
“I, for one,” Layla cut in, “am not traveling by sea. I get sicker than a doglefox when I have to sail, and I won’t stand for it.”
The Eyrie stiffened at hearing this ridiculous restriction. “Lord Norbury, I-”
“Don’t forget our deal, Mr. Harwood. But that isn’t my only concern. For safety measures, you and Layla will be bound by magic to ensure nothing goes wrong.”
Now he’d crossed the line. The Eyrie shot up from his seat, fur bristling in anger. “I resign. Find someone else to follow your blasted policy.”
“Now, we wouldn’t want anything unfortunate to happen,” the Earl warned, his eyes glowing a faint red. “We can’t be forgetting the possibilities. And it will only be for a few days at best. It goes my way or no way at all.”
“Have it your way, then,” Harwood snarled. Then he abruptly left the room, slamming the doors behind him.
Layla gave Lord Norbury a despondent look. “Uncle, you didn’t have to-”
“It’s quite all right, my dear. He’s lucky that I’m feeling tolerant. You’ll be leaving as planned.”
Layla sighed, looking down at her untouched platter. “Well, this will get interesting...”
To be continued...