I've been working on Poisonroot. I've written a couple of short pieces and one long one, and here is the long one. I'd write more, but it's late and I'm in a bit of pain after aikido class so that will do for now.
Duke Fennic’s manor stood in its own grounds, north of the river. A series of large buildings connected by passages, it seemed strangely deserted as Trip and Victor walked towards it. The iron gates stood open and it wasn’t until they were halfway across the sandy courtyard that they were intercepted.
They were ushered into a hall by a servant, evidently an eating-hall from the chairs and tables that stood around. As soon as they were in the room, the door behind them slammed shut and the servant’s footsteps could be heard moving away, almost running. Trip looked up at Victor, who raised an eyebrow. The place was deserted apart from a guard, stood next to a table on its own next to the large double doors at the other end.
The guard seemed ill at ease, a huge smile plastered on his face. It was unreal, Trip decided, not mirrored in his eyes at all.
“Why are you smiling like that?” he asked. Next to him he heard Victor grunt.
“Like what?” the guard asked through his teeth. “This is just… this is how I smile.”
“If it’s because you want us to feel more relaxed or something, don’t worry. I have a message for the High Father and-” Victor jostled Trip into silence. The boy looked up at him.
“Some things is best left unasked, Trip.” He said, and the conversation was over.
They stood in silence for some minutes before a herald came through the large wooden doors which opened into the throne room. He, too, had the same smile slapped on his face and above it he was sweating, eyes looking out in panic. He walked quickly up to the guard.
“Lewin, why are they not smiling?” he hissed.
Guard Lewin shrugged and went back to his fixed position smiling off into space. The herald let out an exasperated sigh and tugged his pink shirt down where it had ridden up at the back.
“Here comes trouble,” Victor murmured and they watched as the herald walked over to them, fake smile beaming.
“It is smile o’clock, gentlemen. You are required to smile.” His words were clipped and businesslike, sounding utterly ridiculous when matched with his face.
Trip frowned and looked up at Victor. The old man was returning the herald’s stare without so much as a blink.
The herald crossed his arms. “You will smile, gentlemen, or you will not see the Duke!”
“Ah,” Victor replied, “So it’s the Duke as wants us to smile, is it? Well he’d best be giving us something to smile about then!”
The herald leaned forward and his voice dropped to a hiss. “For the love of the Arbour, smile, or you will be the fourth ones executed this morning.”
Trip looked sharply at Victor’s hand which was moving steadily towards his sword. The herald’s eyes held true panic now. Trip put his hand on the Victor’s.
“I think we should smile. For the moment.” Trip nodded towards the herald, who was almost imperceptibly nodding his head. Victor’s hand stayed on the hilt of his sword for a moment, then he released it.
“Lead on, smiler,” he said gruffly. He curled his lips into something approaching a sneer and the herald’s shoulders sagged in relief.
They walked towards the tall doors, two guards opening them as they approached. The room beyond was long and bare, columns lining the route towards a simple wooden throne. Trip looked around at the bare stone walls as they moved down the carpet that was the only ornamentation in the room. People milled around, talking in groups of three, all with fixed smiles.
The duke was slumped in his throne, apparently uninterested in their approach. Trip could see that he was fat, quite old judging by his baldness and by far the saddest-looking person in the room. They stopped a few feet from the large wooden chair with its joyless occupant.
“Trip, my lord, and Victor the Victor,” the herald said. The duke moved one hand listlessly and the herald retreated as fast as he could.
The ruler heaved himself up slowly in his chair and looked at them. Trip felt his smile slip a little as the man’s watery eyes slid over him like cold water. If Victor felt unsettled, he showed no outward sign.
Duke Fennic’s voice was high-pitched, completely at odds with his physical appearance. “Why are you here?”
Trip took a deep breath. “My lord, I am from-” he began, but the duke cut him off with a stabbing finger.
“Why are you not smiling, boy?”
“Erm,” Trip stuttered, then plastered the smile back on his face. “No reason, my lord.”
“Damned right. Don’t you know this is smile o’clock? Where’s my wine? Get on with your story.” The duke waved his arms vaguely in the air once or twice.
Trip began again. “I come from the Library of Leaves, my lord, where I worked as part of the cataloguing department. It was attacked in the night, I believe by-”
“Boring!” yelled Duke Fennic. “Where is my sword?”
“It is now Happy Hour,” yelled the herald, who had walked back in and was standing behind Trip. He jumped at the sound and turned around. Suddenly the entire room was filled with the sound of people laughing and joking as, one by one, they filed out. The duke stood up and walked the few steps from his throne to Trip and Victor.
“Why are you not happy?” he asked, eyes narrowed.
Trip, totally confused, looked up at Victor with wide eyes. Victor’s mouth twitched, and then he burst out laughing, a huge sound in the empty room. Trip just stared, then he realised what Victor was doing. He gave a little chuckle and forced it into a laugh. With a grunt, the duke squeezed his bulk between them towards the door.
Trip stopped laughing, then started again at Victor’s frantic hand-gestures. They laughed until the duke had left the room and the doors had closed. The laughter stopped abruptly.
“This man is insane,” Victor growled, “and he’s dangerous. I bet you anything, boy, we’ll go out there and someone will be trying to poison him. It’s always poison.” The big man rolled his head and made the bones click. “I’m for getting out of now, through a window. Your High Father isn’t here.”
Trip frowned. “He was coming here though. He always meets the duke at this time of year. I’ve never heard of anything like this before, though. We have to try and ask.” They began to walk to the large double doors. “I wonder why we’ve been left here?”
“There’s nowt to steal in here, and we’re not as important as them saving their own skins, boy.” Victor sighed and put out a hand to stop Trip before he could open the door. “Do what everyone else is doing and maybe we’ll get out of here alive, you hear me?” Trip nodded and opened the door.
He was ready for anything back out in the eating-hall, but even then he was surprised by the scene. Everyone was sat laughing and joking with the person next to them, each one with a drinking vessel. A short queue of people were still picking up drinks from the table next to the doors and Victor moved to join the line, Trip right behind him. Victor chose a large tankard full of beer and Trip followed him, a cup of watered wine in his hand, as they went to two empty seats.
The duke was like an oasis of silence and drear in the middle of all the chatter and laughing. No-one approached him or talked to him and he made no effort to do anything but drink from his enormous tankard. He was sat on a chair like all the rest, in front of the unlit fireplace. A huge deer’s head loomed over him and made him look, if anything, smaller.
Trip took a sip of his wine and made a face. “The duke’s not talking to anyone. Why don’t we ask him now?”
Victor smiled and shook his head, eyes scanning the crowd. “You don’t ask these people anything. We’ll be lucky if we don’t… laugh. Now, boy!”
Trip didn’t hesitate, letting out a great guffaw and even going so far as to slap Victor on the shoulder.
“Not too overenthusiastic, boy. That’s it, he’s looking away now.”
They drank in silence for a moment, then Victor nodded towards the duke. “Trouble,” was all he said. Trip turned to look.
The herald had moved to stand next to the duke’s chair, an open bottle of beer in his hand. He offered it to the duke, who took it delicately in two fingers. He sniffed it, ran a finger around the rim and then licked his finger. His face flushed red and he spat, then let out a furious bellow.
“Poison! This man is poisoning me! Poison! Guards! Guards!” The entire room went silent, all eyes on the scene. Two guards rushed up and seized the herald.
“No, please, my lord, I would never-”
“Silence! You are found guilty of trying to poison me. I know someone is, and by the Arbour it’s you. Speak up, man, is it you?”
“No! No, my lord, I would never-”
“Are you calling me a liar?” The duke’s face, already red, darkened still. He grabbed a handful of the herald’s shirt and pulled him close. “Do you know what the punishment for lying to me is?”
“No, please, I-”
In one smooth movement the duke pulled his sword and plunged it into the breast of the unfortunate herald. In that moment Trip saw, in his stance and skill, that Duke Fennic had once been a force to be reckoned with. Then the moment was lost as the herald crumpled and the duke sat down.
There was a long pause, then the duke murmured “Why are the people around me not happy?”
As if a spell was broken, the laughing and talking started again, completely ignoring the two guards dragging the herald away. Victor turned and looked down at Trip smugly.
Trip shrugged and raised his cup to his lips, then nearly fell off his stool as a hand tugged at him. He turned to find a young girl, about his age, staring at him with wide eyes. She beckoned at them.
“Come with me if you want to know the truth,” she said, her voice barely audible. Trip looked at Victor, who raised an eyebrow. The girl tutted. “You want to end up like the herald? Come on!”
“Why not,” Victor muttered, and swung himself out of his seat. Staying low, Trip and Victor followed the girl out of the room, up a flight of stairs and along a corridor. The sounds of strained merriment faded as they walked.
“My name is Amanda Fennic. I’m the duke’s daughter. My father is…”
“Insane?” Victor supplied. The girl’s shoulders hunched and Trip realised how thin she was under her cotton dress.
“He’s not well,” she said. “You saw it in the hall. Everyone does what he says because he kills them if they don’t.” She pushed open one of the wooden doors that lined the corridor and went in. It was a bedroom, evidently hers from the way she walked straight over to the chair in front of the window and sat down. Trip looked for another seat but couldn’t see one, so he sat on the floor. Victor remained standing.
“Four people have been killed this morning alone. He killed the cook yesterday for putting salt in his food. I… I’m scared.” Amanda drew her knees up under her chin and hugged her legs.
Trip bit his lip. “When did this start?”
“That’s why I’ve brought you here. You’re a monk of the Church, right?” Trip nodded. Amanda frowned and pierced him with a blue-eyed stare. “Father started to be like this after his meeting with the High Father of your church, a month ago.”