Short story: The Market price: Coin like Blood Part I

Gerald the younger sat at the highest table in the grand ballroom of Corngrad, the room filled with swaying silks and velvets of the army of courtesans. The sounds of a ten man accompaniment playing the newest songs throughout all of the hundred kingdoms. The ten musicians being instructed by a singular white haired figure gesticulating for them. His brother truly spared no expense in greeting his return to the city. Though the letters outlining Gerald’s intent and reason for such a ball and tournament no doubt helped.

The nobleman felt a strange emptiness in the chair to his right, where his wife would’ve sat years ago. Now it seemed to forever sit empty no matter where he went ready for her return. The weight of her passing bore down on him despite the long years since then, like an anchor on his shoulders.

The glint of metal caught Gerald’s glance. Another chair down his son Gerald the third sat, giving his father a small gesture behind the table so that none but those near could see. His gold signet ring reflected the light against it’s polished surface. Issuing a slight sigh Gerald brushed his short beard with his hand and said. “What is it boy? If you need to relieve yourself, simply excuse yourself and go.”

The younger man blushed and stammered out. “No, father. I- I wish to go speak to the conductor for a few moments during their next intermission. According to Aunt Alexa they’ve been to distant Lantony, Argem and even Leona.”

“I’m not raising some courtesan or middling nobleman’s son. You’re to be a lord of men, a warrior. Act like it with your whims and desires, boy.” 

The young nobleman frowned momentarily, then leaned back and returned to smiling down at the gathered party. Gerald felt a thudding in his head start, blasted child ‘why doesn’t he act like a man, he’s seventeen already. Or was he sixteen?’ Reaching up a hand to rub at his aching temple he would look over the party. Drawing him from his observations was a muttering at his left, a soft velvet voice that teased at having iron beneath it.

“Let the boy talk to the conductor, dear Cadmael, it will do him no good to constantly be thinking of war. If you want him to be a leader of men you should let him follow the courtly traditions. Music, art, culture, poetry and maybe even romance? Hmmm Little Alexander?”

Gerald Cadmael Vandas turned fully to his sister-in-law and asked. “Tell me, does that make a good leader? Learning to make scribbles, to say soft flowery words… Does your son Chadrick say that when he trains with your men at arms? What do they call the young Prince of Corngrad? What moniker did they give him?”

Lady Alexa would give a small strained smile and flip her fan open waving beneath her face. “He is called ‘The Flower Prince’ for he has been well schooled in both war, love and courtly affairs. Somethings that your own Alexander has yet to be taught. Did you not see him blushing so easily earlier when talking to dear Greta? The poor lad will never win a lady like that.”

“Who is this Greta? A lady of my brother’s court, or one of your ladies in waiting perhaps?” Gerald spoke softly, keeping his voice level. “I’ve never seen the boy flirt or speak to a woman before, frankly I was starting to suspect-”

“Ha, perhaps it’s because you spend every moment you look at the poor child scolding him for his failings and flaws that only you see.” Lady Alexa would lean back and look at him then his son.

“I do not scold him, I instruct him.” 

“Ah yes, Gerald, you instruct your son like I would instruct a horse or hound. You expect him to be seen as marriageable material with those whip marks on his hands and neck? Bwah! for someone who calls himself his father you treat the poor child more like property.”

“Mark me and my words, woman. I instructed and raised him by myself. In the way of my father and his father. I did so alone. Pardon me if I choose to not spare the rod when I’m saddled with such a whimpering weak-”

The soft snap of the soft ivory ribbing of Lady Alexa’s fan silenced the table. Gerald felt a pit form in his stomach as the woman’s furious eyes returned back to him. The emotional mask she had held on for so long was broken, her eyebrow twitching and smile straining as she whispered to him. “If my sister still breathed- gods bless her. She would’ve put a hot iron to your jewels for how you’ve treated her only child. Now, you’re going to get up and ready him for his joust later this evening.”

Restraining a gulp Gerald adjusted his gloves and vest standing. In a harsh whisper he said. “This will be a discussion for another time ‘Bloody Rose’. Boy! Come, we must prepare you for your bout in the tourney.”

Gerald Alphonse Alexander Vandas the Third stood quickly to catch up to his father as Gerald the younger started to walk through the crowd, his shoes clicking against the marble in time with the music.

Gerald the younger shoved the servant aside. “Be out of my way, fool. Boy! What is taking you so long? It has been ten minutes, you should’ve had your armor on by now.”

Following in wake was the elderly Sergeant Erick and Gerald’s bodyguard Sir Yerrkin. Gerald could hear the Sergeant offer the Servant a respectful apology as he followed in the wake of his lord, Sir Yerrkin lifted a hand to stop someone from moving into Gerald’s wrathful path. 

A fist soon found the right door to pound on. Only a few heavy strokes however Gerald forces his fist to stop it’s movement as it soon opens. Shoving it open Gerald the younger saw a strange sight, three Thiest priests praying. Searching the room from the doorway Gerald would call out respectfully. “Forgive me- I am looking for my- I’m looking for Sir Vandas. A young knight, strawberry blond hair, meek of build, should come to my shoulder, about seventeen-”

“Behind the door- Father please, you’re squishing me.”

Removing his foot that had jammed the door open Gerald would allow the young man to come out from behind it. He hadn’t even donned his chest plate, only the greeves. Inhaling he would mutter, “Sloppy ill bred boy… You shame yourself, What if we were under attack or you were in the field.” 

Alexander would shrink back slightly, rubbing the back of his now bruised head. “S- s- sorry father I-”

“Do not call me father, you’re wearing the armor of a knight not the sleeping gown of a still teething babe. Stand up straight, you’re in the presence of a Lord, Knight now!” 

“Ah you must be Lord Gerald Cadmael Vandas, Yes? I am called Theogin by my brothers, but you may call me father, brother whatever you wish.” One of the Thiests priests stood and dipping his hands into his sleeves.

Gerald looked over the man, he wore the robes of the Thiest Church, a deep crimson with a black wolf’s belt slung over his shoulders and a metal helm dangling at his hip opposite from a longsword and dagger. “I am Lord Gerald Cadmael Vandas, I didn’t know that this room was to be used as a chapel. I would’ve sent Sir Vandas to equip himself in the stables.”

The priest gave Gerald a small smile, his bright white teeth showing that they’re missing along one side. Lifting a hand he would say. “There is no need to apologize, We simply felt an urging from the gods to speak with the young knight before his joust and lost track of time. He is quite adept at Theological debate and discussion. He knows many prayers from the heart quite in pressive for a boy of his age, yes? Most are interested in the pleasures of the flesh, either the belly or well below that.”

“Ah yes, He has had the finest instructors that our house could provide him. Begins every day with prayer and ends it the same. Nothing strengthens a knight’s resolve more than training and the gods. Right, Boy?” Puffing his chest out. 

“Y-yes, Your Lordship. After every meal, My drill instructor Erick taught me the legionaire’s battle prayers as well.”

“Did he now? Though I would think that your back doesn’t strengthen your resolve much? Perhaps I should speak with the Drill Instructor Erick, he seems to have forgotten a few prayers for the Mother and Father to teach you.” The priest positioned his arm on the young man’s shoulders and add. “If you would allow me and my brothers to assist the young knight in his final preparations he’ll be on the field in a matter of minutes, yes?”

Sir Yerrkin spoke, “Sir Vandas hasn’t earned the right to have a squire yet, it wouldn’t be proper-”

“Oh you assume me to be a squire then Sir knight- What was your name? Ah It doesn’t matter. No, I’m not going to squire for the boy, simply finish our prayers and rites while assisting him in donning his armor. Agreeable?”
Working his Jaw Gerald bit out, “Vary well, Sir Vandas. I expect you to conduct yourself like a knight of our house ought to. Remember what I said about fighting other men.”

“Fight with valor till the last drop.”

Nodding Gerald turned on his heel in one smooth motion Sir Yerrkin followed after. The Sargeant stayed a moment longer, Gerald faintly hearing him say. “Make ‘em eat the fecking dirt lad, then roll them under then beat the little princeling’s arse.”

After rounding a corner into the covered way of the courtyard Gerald felt Sir Yerrkin’s hand on his shoulder, jerking his arm away he rounded on the knight hissing out. “What is it, you stiff necked baboon? What questions rattle around your saddle bag shaped head.”

“I- Sire, Sir Vandas needs a squire, yes? Or he won’t be able to joust, he hasn’t earned it yet but he still needs one. Who-”

“Are you volunteering? Do you truly wish to belittle yourself with such a lowly position as to be Sir Vandas’ squire for the day?” After a moment of the Knight’s silent contemplation he’d continue. “Or would you rather sit in the noble’s box with me where you could perhaps play at your political play you so enjoy? Talking in the ear of this noble and that.”

Stiffening his shoulders he’d say. “If you were to command-”

“Do not speak those words unless you want their full repercussions to fall about your neck Yerrkin. Link a vise gripping about your honor should the boy lose. My House’s honor.”

Sir Yerrkin would give a firm nod. “Sire, he is your heir. I am sworn to you and your house, he deserves to be given the chance to gain the honor and privilege of a squire. This bout of jousts I hope that you will grant him it.”

Gerald turned from his guard pacing slightly. “Why would you risk this for me Yerrkin? Twelve years you’ve served me, and my father five years before that. Do you- You want him to replace me. Sir Yerrkin, is this perhaps the truth.”

“Sire No!” Stepping closer the Knight would kneel. “Let the Gods forsake me should I ever prove untrue Sire. I simply believe that if you where to allow your heir a squire and perhaps a group of men to lead then you could resent him less your ire for his murder of his mother might be eased. I offer my honor on the line this day for you my lord.”

“You- You’ve been true all these years, I- I trust you Sir Yerrkin. Stand and be free of my doubts. Should you wish to Squire for Sir Vandas I shall not attest it.” 

“The prancing Laddy won’t be needing a Square like Sir Yerrkin to be doing his doing. I’ll be about it. Been training the lad since he could pick up a stick, might as well see him fight with a bigger one for the first time.” Sergeant Erick interjected walking down the hall to join them, his cane tapping along the ground. Giving Sir Yerrkin a small smirk looking down at the kneeling knight.

“What is so funny, you up jumped peasant?”

“Oh nothing, tell ya in a minute. Sire, let me Squire for the boy.” The older man took a step forward. “As your father had me first squire for you before you earned a noble brat to do yer doing.”

“I’m- I’ll allow it.” Gerald would soon turn and start to walk down the cobbled corridor of the keep’s courtyard he heard an amused voice of Sergeant Erick say. “Oh by the way Sir yur-kin, Yer kneelin in horse shit.”

The Market Price: The Cure

Sir Thomas Valek paced back and forth, from one side of the long hallway to the other. His agitation grew more and more justified, the spire creatures standing at the doorway to his lord’s quarters had not allowed him entry to watch over his sire as the “Merchant” worked. They had actually said nothing, not a sound. Perhaps it was even worse than that and the things hadn’t even moved or twitched. There was a horrible smell coming from the room which those in the manor found quite alarming. The smell of ammonia and copper filled the halls of the manor, hanging in the air and coating the tongue. 

Perhaps Sir Valek should’ve thrown in with the eldest son of his sire and left to seek aid from the temples for whatever heresy against all decent and holy things was going on beyond that doorway. Gerald the younger must’ve understood his father’s desire to live for a while longer however not to the reason of turning to the spire’s tonics and brews. Those however stopped working quite sometime ago, Lord Gerald had requested something more extensive be done. His “Merchant” whom he spoke so highly of acquiesced to the man’s request and agreed to slow or reverse the process of the nobleman’s aging. The “Merchant” however negotiated such a steep price for it that many of the house’s courtiers questioned the Lord’s sanity. Lord Gerald however simply dismissed them all. 

Now the whole house would be stuck with the tithe that the Merchant’s treatments would cost. All of the trees, plants and animals from the Frog woods. Fifty square miles of woodlands spread across the hills of the family’s estate. Half of it was being felled and processed now, scant days after the agreement was signed. 

Pausing, Sir Valek shuddered at the memories of the things that now stalked those hills. Great lumbering monsters with mouths more akin to saw blades then mouths, simply tubes of teeth undulating within gaping caverns. They weren’t harvesting the plants in the Frog woods. The things were eating them. The trees down to the roots, the ponds down to their scummy bottoms. The creatures had seemed to be gaunt with hunger when they arrived but when he had left they had fattened themselves on everything but still glutted themselves more and more. 

Suppressing a shiver he would return to his pacing, back and forth, back and forth. Finding his agitations reaching its limits he would say loud enough for the quibbling scribe Daniel to hear him. “When did that blasted merchant say this would be over? It has been days it feels like.”

Daniels would pale at the knight’s sudden questioning. “We- well, T- the Lord said it would take a few days and this Merchant fellow nodded his head in agreement with him. So I suppo-”
“Listen Daniels, how many days ago did he say that? It has been four since I excorted that ‘Yellow Harvester’ fellow to the Frog Hills and explained where the extent of the lands ended, what was the boundry line of their fucking agreement with the Lord.” Sir Valek work his jaw biting out his discontent while fighting to keep any amount of respect in his voice.

Fumbling the scribe would flip through the sheets of paper. “Thee- uh, ah here it is. The contract states that the lord will be of full health in… One hundred and eighteen hours, uh however it does say that the ‘treatments’ must continue for a second round next year at which time another sub-text say they’ll collect the remaining payment. So uh Sir Valek only a few more hours and we may forget about this whole arrangement for yet another year.”

Sir Valek perked at the mention of them coming next year, with a deep breath he would mutter to himself. “I’ve given up my honor and stretched the limits of my faith and tolerance to ensure my oath of loyalty to my lord remains fulfilled. Hold the line, old tom, Hold the line.” 

Daniel would tilt his head and ask. “Pardon? Did you say somethi-”

The scribe became silent as the lock on the master bedroom clicked unlocked. The spire guards stepped aside without words or command, their yellow coral arms and armor rattling slightly. Before Daniel and Sir Valek could move towards the doorway, it opened releasing both a figure and a steamy vapor from it. The vapor stank of sweat, ammonia and blood. The Figure was dressed in ivory and burgundy robes with yellow coral mask and jewelry adorning their form. Unlike the guards the figure was far too human for the knight’s personal liking. It inclined it’s head to the pair and waved them to step towards it. Sir Valek needed no beckoning like a spire dog, he strode towards it not stepping. Daniel meekly followed afterwards clutching at his precious parchments. The thing spoke saying. “We believe when your lord wakes he will find our arrangement satisfactory. As such our end of the contract is fulfilled, we will expect your end to be upheld.”

Sir Valek’s jaw started to tick and his agitation returned. The thing spoke as if it was many which the knight found annoying. “Very well, you will see it is fulfilled.”

The thing dipped it’s head down and to the side, the knight might assume a mocking of a bow if the thing had been human. Daniel would ask. “Are you and your uh men- troops, to be leaving tonight or on the lord’s waking?”

The figure would turn to the short scribe and do another head tilt dipping it more forward. “Sadly no, we’re to remain till your master is no longer resting, a few hours should do.”

Crossing his arms Valek would say. “Then your guards won’t need to remain in his quarters or have your guards at his door?”

The figure would look to Valek and stare at him, Valek had wanted to phrase it as a command however he didn’t want his lord to feel he had offended his guests. The moment would be drawn longer and longer till the figure responded. “If it would please our dear Patron’s courtiers we will allow them to guard him so long as we are allowed to continue to observe the progress of their recovery.”

Daniel responded first. “That is agreeable, so long as we may first view our lord to ensure that he is well after your- uh ‘Process’ is that Agreeable?”

The figure would turn their head to the short scribe again then state. “Agreed. Please enter but do not touch anything as we’re still in the process of the treatment.” 

“Very well…” Sir Valek would grate out. 

An all too unnaturally graceful turn and the figure returned to the insides of the room. 

The pair of humans followed the spire into the expansive room that once held the vivid tapestries and finely detailed paintings, the vaulted windows and richly worked rose and ebony furniture, the velvet curtains and silken sheets and pillows. All that was now gone except the bed it’s expected emptiness suspiciously filled with vines and roots. Sir Valek let his eyes trail across the expansive growths, their pathways criss crossing leading to-

“That must be the largest goose egg I’ve ever seen…” Daniel said as he looked at the large oblong shape resting in the center of the room. 

More figures attend to it, placing their hands against it’s surface. As the pair drew closer they could see that it wasn’t as smooth as they had thought, it had many bumps and dimples in it. Along with the long slit at its crown which Thomas surmised was it’s entrance. The thing however did look like a goose egg, one sitting in a nest of fleshy roots and vines that spread out along nearly every surface of the master bedroom. 

Breathlessly Valek spoke aloud to the figure they had followed in. “H- W- how much longer before he is ready to emerge.”

The thing tilted it’s head at him then would look to the others, each of them looking back to the figure and then back to the egg. The moments stretched and Valek was opening his mouth to restate his question when the figure spoke. “Roughly three minutes and forty seconds. Please stand back.” 

Daniel grasping at Valek’s arm and whispers to him. “This is wrong of me to ask Sir Valek but what if his lordship- What is changed by this ‘treatment’ of these things…”

Sir Valek didn’t answer but stared at the small scribe with a worried look. Then the pair stepped back as they had been urged to. As they watched the group of figures tended to the large pod. After a few moments there was a soft sound that rose and repeated from within the pod. Like stirring oat porridge the sound repeated four or five times. From the seam at the crown of the pod a hand reached out. It’s fingers grasping and reaching out of the pod, smeared in an orange honey that began to drip and drizzle out of the edge of the pod’s seam. 

Taking a step forward to look more closely, Valek could see it better. “That can’t be the Lord’s hand, it isn’t wrinkled or fragile. It’s strong and healthy. Muscles are strong and the joints unbent or swollen.” 

Daniel would step forward as well, both men watching in fascination as a strong powerfully muscled arm tore it’s way from the seam reaching our blindly to it pulled back to grasp at the pod opening. Another arm soon fights it’s way free of the syrup, both grasp at the edge of the pod and push. The seam cracks wide, the shell of the pod splintering with spiderweb cracks all about it. For a few moments it seems to hold it’s shape till the form within begins to kick and struggle against the syrupy confines of the pods’ now shattered interior. 

The robed figures all around the pods stepped back and allowed the man to continue to struggle. After a few moments Sir Valek demanded in a combative tone but controlling his anger. “Why won’t you assist him with leaving your- instrument.” 

All of the figures glances to the knight in casual fluid unison and tilting their heads in their strange bows would motion at once towards the pod. The knight would hesitate for a moment before stepping forward and dipping his fingers into the goopy mass he’d begin to yank chunks of the shell’s pod free from around his lord. 

With in a few moments of sticky work he found his master beneath it all. The elderly man was no longer so frail and elderly. The “Merchant” had done his work to the letter of the contract, Lord Gerald had his youth returned. No longer did he look shriveled by his seventy winters of biting cold or seventy summers of crushing conflict. He was young, bright strawberry locks of hair now adorning his head thick and full. No longer a thin patchy gathering of white cobwebs. His body was now toned, fit and muscular as if back in his glory days of old. 

With a gasp Valek stole air back into his lungs. Looking at one of the figures, the other figures, now slicing goblets of the root like flesh off the walls. “Ha- H- How have you been able to do this thing?” 

The figure would tilt bow it’s head and place its hands in it’s lap. “Nothing is beyond the Spire’s ability to achieve with enough time.”

Valek opened his mouth to speak, hands seized him about his collar, with spittle and orange honey dribbling from his mouth Lord Gerald asked. “Where is the traitorous son of mine?!”