An extract from Part Three of ‘The Duellist’ series, Leda.
If you haven’t had chance to take a look at the first two parts, Hal (part one) is currently on sale on Amazon, so now’s the chance!
Halfway up the stairs, Meracad stopped, raised her candle and listened. No sound other than the wind as it channelled downwards, fluting through chinks around the window panes. Hannac was asleep: every last tenant, servant, child and animal, snoring out the night in beds or on benches, some curled up before the dying embers of the hearth or curled around each other for warmth. Yes, everyone was asleep. Well, almost everyone.
Caught by another chill current of air, the candle flame guttered and died, leaving her stranded in absolute darkness. She sighed, set down her light, and then felt her way on upwards, hands outstretched, fingers tracing the rough stonework of the walls.
She knew when she was at the top though, for a dull, amberish light flickered out beneath a door frame. Meracad knocked twice, and then pressed her ear to the wood. Nothing. Not a sound. She pressed down the handle and stepped inside.
A few candles, burnt almost to their wicks, lit up the cramped space which had once served as Franc Hannac’s private chamber. Now his daughter sat at the same desk, which was littered with ledgers, parchment, half empty inkwells and quills. Splintered by the diamond shaped mullions of the windows, moonlight filtered in, casting a silvery trail upon the floorboards. And it was freezing: so cold that Meracad instinctively drew her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.
Hal looked up, her eyes ringed with shadow. She grew paler every day, Meracad observed, worn down with care for her tenants, her face gaunt and sharp. Her hair hung, loose and unkempt to her shoulders, now peppered with an occasional skein of grey. And her only concession to the cold was the greatcoat which now seemed loose and somehow too big for her: more of a shroud than a garment.
“Hal, come to bed.” Her heart heavy, Meracad edged around the desk and slid her arms around Hal’s shoulders.
Hal shook her head. “I can’t.”
“It’s too late to think about this now.” Sliding a stray lock of hair behind Hal’s ear, Meracad kissed her head. “Look at it in the morning. With fresh eyes. You may find a way.”
“There is no way!” Her voice was hoarse, angry and tired. “If we send tithes to Colvé and Dal Reniac, as we must do, then everything will be gone. All that’s left. We were so careless, Meracad. So wasteful.”
“But Leda doesn’t need our tithes! Marc made sure Dal Reniac was well supplied with grain before he returned to Colvé.”
“As I failed to do.”
“Hal!” This was an argument they had had many times over the last few days and weeks. Meracad was beginning to tire of it. “You have done everything you could have done.”
“Franc wouldn’t have let his people starve.”
“And neither will you.” Turning to the window, Meracad peered down into the empty, moonlit courtyard. Hal was wrong. Of course, they had not anticipated such a weak harvest. But by all accounts, this was the worst in living memory. First had come a winter so harsh it had transformed the fields to icy wastes, had frozen men and women to the very ground upon which they stood. And when spring arrived at last, it brought no relief: no sun to thaw out the land or warmer winds. Instead, it ushered in a season of cold rain, which pooled in the furrows and upon the meadows. The few seedlings which pushed through the surface drowned, their leaves rotting where they lay. And seeing that, the tenant farmers had ridden back to Hannac, their faces worn with worry, their eyes betraying their fears. Because soon, they said, all that would be left was last year’s grain stock. And then the draft animals. And then? They spread wide their hands, shrugged and sat hunched in corners, rain dripping from their hats and cloaks.
“Hal, we still have stocks left. There are beets in the cellars, salted meat…”
“Not enough!” Hal groaned, rubbing at her forehead with ink stained hands. “And if this isn’t the first such harvest? Arec told me his great grandfather endured such a famine for three years! Half his family died, Meracad. They ate everything – all the animals. They were foraging for grass and roots towards the end!”
“It won’t happen.”
“Oh, you know that, do you?” She slapped a palm down on the leather cover of a ledger. Meracad jumped. “I know exactly what we have, Meracad. It’s all in here…in these books and papers. We may last to the next spring if we are very careful. But we will go hungry, and some of us…” she sank her face in her hands. “Some of us will not survive.”
Wind rattled the casement: the candles spluttered, the flames bowing low, almost dying. Meracad put her hands to Hal’s and peeled her fingers from her face. Her skin felt like ice. “And you won’t do them any good without sleep, Hal. Come to bed.”
“No! Sleep if you wish.” Hal jerked her way free of Meracad’s touch and folded her arms. “I have to think!”
“You won’t help anyone by punishing yourself like this.”
Meracad turned, slamming the door in frustration as she left the chamber. Hannac had become a very lonely place since Leda left for Dal Reniac and Hal had begun to wear herself to death with worry. She felt her way back down the stairs. It was not that she didn’t fear for the future too. She saw desperation in the tenants’ eyes. And there had been no word from Dal Reniac for two weeks. What if, in spite of Marc’s precautions, the city was about to starve too? Leda was so young and inexperienced. But Hal’s silence, her coldness – that was no solution. It were as if she had retreated into herself, like a crab into its shell. This wasn’t the Hal she knew or loved, who filled Hannac with her frenetic energy, her mad, impulsive ideas, her zest for life.
Burning brands lit the corridor below. Grateful for the light, Meracad passed along it to the bedroom and sank down amongst layers of blankets and furs, warmth creeping back into her frozen fingers. She lay for sometime, aware always of the empty space beside her, and of the wind moaning outside. And she thought of Hal, alone upstairs, straining as she peered at the words and numbers in her ledgers, trying to balance them.
When Meracad opened her eyes again, a pale, weak light was struggling through the drapes. She must have fallen asleep, but recalled no dreams, and her head swam with tiredness. The bed was still empty.
Her limbs felt stiff and cold as she rose, wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and padded barefoot back up the stairs, aware of Hannac now stirring into life, of mutterings and murmurs floating up from the great hall and courtyard. This time, she didn’t knock. Pressing down the handle, Meracad slid quietly into the chamber, and sighed. As she had expected, Hal now slept, slumped across the desk, her hair half covering her face. The candles had burnt themselves out, one having dripped wax onto the sleeve of her greatcoat.
“Perfect. If we don’t starve, we’ll burn.” Meracad almost succumbed to tears, but held them back. That wouldn’t help. Biting her lip, she edged around the desk and laid a hand on Hal’s shoulder, shaking her awake. “What were you thinking of, falling asleep up here with all these candles still alight?”
“Meracad?” Hal peeled herself off the desk and stared wildly around the room, as if it were the first time she’d seen it. At last she slipped her arms around Meracad’s waist, pulling her close.
“Hal.” It seemed ever harder to say the words. “We will survive.”