IX. The Winter Eunuch

The first wondrously crafted flakes of snow began lightly falling from the equally white sky when Avagan led Gav up to a high tree in the Great Forest where a small cottage stood inconspicuously. There were two beds in the cottage, a fireplace and a stone table for food preparation which also worked as an oven when it was placed on top of the fire.

The golden haired snakeman had vast stores of wood, water and grain under the floorboards of the cottage. They would have been able to live comfortably for several weeks on the top of the island-like tree. The only thing he did not have was game as it did not keep as long as grain and water.

The view from the tree tops reached far in all directions. It was quite clear why Avagan had chosen his home, as the tree was the tallest as far as the eye could see. Even the stone castle could be seen from the cottage. It was not hard to miss such an imposing structure that was like a mountain in of itself as it rose in the midst of a scenery of vast valleys and rolling hills. It was like a cat crouched in waiting to pounce upon anything that disturbed its peaceful sleep. It cast a long, dark shadow over the tree tops which shivered as if in fear when the frosty wind blew through them.

“How many of these places do you have?”

“Almost a dozen and I am currently building a few others”, Avagan answered after lowering his face towards the fire place.

“And here you have been an observer for all this time?”

Avagan nodded and reached his hands towards the flames. The cottage door and windows were tightly shuttered and the only light came from the fire and some candles that stood on the stone table. They had moved from tree hideout to the next during their journey for Avagan to make sure they were still in good condition, hidden and safe. They had visited five others just like the one they were in now moving along the road that moved through the heart of the Great Forest all the way to the river which they had followed to the east.

In some of the cottages there had been a single bed, but in others, like this one, there was two. When Gav had wondered about it Avagan had refused to answer, but after travelling together for weeks he finally caved.

“Once I was not alone, I was held company by my wife Ijait who I brought here from the comforts of Ferngard. It is the worst thing I have ever done. She was not happy to live in the wilderness in the midst of the human heartland away from her social circles in the capital. We both come from lines of high rank and she was used to the comforts of life. She liked moving from home to home even less. I had built three before I brought her here.

“She was with child in those days and longed to stay still, the warmth and comfort of civilisation and the waiting hand of her servants. When the ceris was to be born, I took her back to the city. After birthing she refused to return with me. Ijait and my son Ereior stayed even when I returned. Last I heard Ijait had a new mate and a daughter, Acetres.”

*****

In the morning they went hunting. During the night the world had been covered by a thick layer of white frost. They had raided Avagan’s stores donning winter boots and cloaks to stay warm in the chill. The snow had the advantage of revealing the tracks of animals. They moved silently in the fresh blanket as silently as they would have moved were there no such layer.

Avagan had given Gav a bow and a spear which were better suited for hunting than the young man’s usual weapon, the battle staff. It was effective against sentient beings but beating a wild hare to a pulp was challenging even for the faster reflexes of the snakekin.

When the sun rose bringing greater light they located their prey. A small herd of roe were grazing peacefully between the sparser trees. The dawn was still and no wind blew allowing them to approach the shy animals. Too late one of the roe signalled the others of the danger and the herd dispersed into the woods. One of the roe was caught by an arrow piercing its heart. It seized in the grips of death and Gav speared it to end its suffering. The spark of life dimmed from its eyes leaving behind only a corpse.

*****

Dragging the body of a roe, especially such a big buck, up a tree was hard work, but the strength of two snakemen was sufficient to make the task easy enough. Gav observed whike Avagan pulled on sleek leather gloves, pulled a knife from his belt and slashed the animal’s stomach open. The intestines fell out colouring the wood platform crimson.

The Dratoan then grabbed a big dish and lifted the intestines into it careful not to make any holes in them. Setting the dish aside he took out the next tool, a long, thin knife that had an exceptionally sharp blade. Deeming the already gleaming metal seemingly inadequate Avagan sharpened the blade further. With care and the sure hands of a surgeon he removed the roe’s skin carefully coming out with one solid piece. It was a long process that took all of Avagan’s concentration. When the skin finally detached, the snakeman tied a rope in its four corners tying it tightly to a frame he had rigged to the platform a long time ago.

With the roe hide behind him, Avagan then cut the meat into even strips separating the lighter meat from the dark into two new dishes.

“The cold is beneficial to the handling of the game as there is little danger of the meat ruining”, he spoke as he worked. In the end all that was left was a pile of bones that they neatly piled on the edge of the platform.

“Those the animals do not take, we will use”, he answered to Gav’s curious expression, but did this little to explain his actions to the young redhead. Next they turned their attention the intestines dividing them to edible and useable. Avagan hanged the stomach to dry as it could be used as a water skin or a pouch for medicines. The heart and the liver were deemed edible. The intestines they threw down from the edge of the platform to be eaten by the forest animals.

*****

The sun was already creeping down to sleep when the roe had been processed. Avagan had left the roe hide to dry as he planned to tan it to make much needed clothes. He disappeared for some moments only to return with two bird eggs. He took some of the grain crushing it into flour and mixed it together with the eggs.

He rolled out the dough and placed in the sliced heart making two pockets of dough which cooked to a golden brown over the stone table that was now placed over the fireplace as Avagan turned them to let them cook smoothly. A delicious smell filled the cottage and Gav felt his hunger rise. They had not eaten all day.

“A pasty with heart”, Avagan offered. Gav took it with gusto and let his teeth sink into the soft, hot bread.

*****

The weather turned colder day by day. Nothing happened for a long time until one day a white clad form travelled by Avagan’s tree. The form was creeping quietly to not be observed. The human was always different and every time it came out of the castle it was stopped by the castle warriors. Something was going in the castle. The two snakemen were unsure why the messengers coming from the castle were being so secretive, but it was obvious that whatever was going on, the lord of the castle did not want the news to be carried beyond the castle walls.

“How in the blessed heavens can we find out what is happening?” Gav voiced their mutual frustration. He turned to Avagan.

“Are you able to surmise something from their behaviour?”

Avagan had to think for a moment before shrugging.

“I am unable to pinpoint it.”

Gav growled irritated.

“It is unusual that this lord would act dishonestly. I have observed his whole reign and never have I seen him to be unjust or working against the benefit of his subjects. I have heard him called noble and fair by the farmers who have moved in the forest.”

“Thank you, I feel so much better.”

Avagan did not react to Gav’s sarcasm, but observed as the first messenger to have passed their way stepped into the clearing that was located at the base of their perch. Before he was able to do anything to stop Gav, the young snakeman had surged over the edge of the platform and climbed lower to hear and see what was going on.

The messenger stopped under the tree and turned towards the castle. As he expected the castle gates opened and the castle knights rode out. He crouched down and opened a cage. He took forth a dove that had a scroll tied to its foot. Only after the knights had moved closer did the man throw up the dove which opened its wings and flew unwaveringly towards the south. The knights had expressions of disbelief as they surrounded him.

“Your lord will never defeat the king, or my lady”, the human said with an unnaturally high-pitched voice.

“You would not speak such foolish words, Eunuch, if you knew sir Joarik”, one of the knights countered. The Eunuch cackled.

“That snakewoman has poisoned your minds against the kingdom and the king, traitors.”

“Our loyalty is to our lord alone. We do not decide who his loyalty belongs to”, the knight answered proudly. The Eunuch kneeled to the cold ground revealing his bare feet from under his black cloak. They were dark blue from the cold.

“Honour to the fatherland, death to its enemies. Honour to the fatherland, death to its enemies…”

The Eunuch repeated his mantra his high pitched voice echoing in the air unbroken even when the knights dismounted and tied his hands. Gav saw his opportunity and swooped to the ground grabbing the Eunuch. The knights were surprised to see him and were unable to react when Gav had already disappeared back into the tree. Recovering from the swift sight, the knights shrugged and rode back to the castle. The message had been sent. There was nothing more they could do.

The Eunuch did not move but allowed Gav to drag him up the tree to the platform. Avagan glared at him furious, but when his gaze moved to the Eunuch he became curious.

“And who is it you have so graciously brought to us as a visitor?” he asked. Gav gasped for breath and the Eunuch continued to be statue-like.

“This is one of those messengers… I thought… Maybe we could interrogate him”, he was able to say breathing heavily. The Eunuch was a small man. Avagan lifted him easily and carried him into the cottage placing him in the middle of the floor. The man continued sitting frozen in his stance uncaring of his surroundings.

“What is your name?” Avagan queried.

“Eunuch Carisis IV, the most faithful servant of her grace, the lady of the castle, Frenna and the sworn enemy of all unnatural creatures.”

The Eunuch’s high pitched voice shocked Avagan.

“What do you know of the goings on of the castle?”

“These matters do not belong to animals. They may know a name and fealty, but no other words shall pass the mouth of Carisis.”

The Eunuch spoke as if they were not there or completely brainless unable to understand the insults meant for them.

“I will show you who is an animal! I shall break each bone in your body, if you do not speak.”

The Eunuch only smiled at Gav’s temper.

“It were an honour to die at the hands of animals. It would be my last deed and the ultimate sign of my loyalty to my mistress”, he hummed contently. Gav rolled his eyes unable to believe his ears. A cruel smirk twisted Avagan’s normally serene face.

“So be it. You are of no use to us either way, but your mistress, she is beautiful is she not? I believe she would look even more breath-taking lying peacefully in her bed, lifeless.”

The Eunuch’s eyes turned from blankness to complete horror at the thought.

“You would never”, he denied finally addressing them as intelligent beings.

“Yes. We are snakekin, soulless killers, with no respect for human life.”

Avagan’s every word seemed to affect the Eunuch physically like poison darts or burning flames clawing at his cold heart.

“Of course, we might spare her, if you were of use to us…”

The Eunuch was ready to believe whatever and the hope to spare the life of his beloved mistress turned too tempting. He grabbed the opportunity desperately.

“It… It woke”, he hurried to say not knowing what an important piece of intelligence he had just revealed. Avagan and Gav looked on with disgust as the Eunuch tried now to bend to their will. With a common movement they tied the Eunuch by the waist and hanged him in the tree at rider’s height. There the Eunuch Carisis IV was able to contemplate his life.

*****

“Do you still suggest we leave her there without any help at all?” Gav demanded to know. Avagan nodded and leaned back in a relaxed pose. He settled his hands behind his head.

“I am fatigued. Can we not speak of this later?”

His words were emphasised with a great yawn.

“Later?! She could be dead later!” Gav barked.

“Gav, you are too young to understand everything”, Avagan stated sitting back up.

“Too young? I’ll show you too…”

“And your temper is fiery as your hair and eyes. You take everything as a personal insult. And heavens is Ranadin way too young, but nothing can be done. The journey has begun.”

Avagan’s calm enraged Gav even more. He wanted to invade the castle and get his cousin. But he could not deny the elder man’s wise words.

“How far is it to Ferngard from here?” he asked after a moment when he had calmed down enough to think clearer.

“Three days with non-stop, direct travel, two weeks while evading”, Avagan answered automatically and his curiosity was woken. After a pause Gav continued:

“And you know the way, but Ranadin doesn’t?”

“Yes, I imagine it is so.”

He leaned forward as is typical for a person intrigued of a topic.

“When she leaves that place we must lead her, otherwise she will fall into the clutches of humans again. I do not think the heavens will be as kind again”, Gav reasoned. Avagan pursed his lips, tilted his head and shrugged in a sign of uncertainty and acknowledgement of the potential of the idea. Gav sat on his cot and laid down. The elder snakeman followed his example and a long silence fell over the cottage broken only by their breathing and the crackling of the fire until finally even that faded and they plunged into total darkness.

“Your idea has a merit, though it is interference in her destiny. Though it might be the will of the heavens that it is this way”, Avagan spoke suddenly. Gav who had fallen into the place between sleep and wake jerked awake, murmured in the affirmative before falling into a deep sleep.

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