Warning! Please read the Artist's Comments before reading this story! You have been warned!
The Maid at Rosethorn Hall
Chapter 2 - Blood-stained Memories, Bittersweet Dreams.
"Sir, your tea." A middle-aged man with an oval face and a long, pointed nose offered up a silver tray filled with various sweets arranged around an elegant antique teapot with matching cup and saucer, all painted with a fanciful design of roses and lilies. He was balding, but still maintained a decent amount of his dark brown hair. He dressed in a refined black suit, tailored to his unusually tall, slim figure. Vertical pinstriped pants emphasized this appearance, and polished black shoes completed his modest look. The bright red of his elegant shirt and a golden necklace were the only two things that offset the otherwise somber attire. He couldn't have looked more like a butler if he tried. His mannerisms were the only clear signal of his Breton lineage.
"I don't want any..." A figure sulked in the shadowy corner of the library, taking a sidelong glance at the older man before returning his eyes to his book. It was difficult to make out many of his features in the swath of darkness, but one could make out a slim but broad-shouldered figure, clad in a lavender shade of purple, offset by a bright yellow embroidery of crystalline shapes, fantastical flora, and fierce fauna from a land rarely seen. The only detail of his face that could be made out was the reflective surface of his triangular spectacles. There was just something about this figure that looked... sick...
"Sir, please. You must eat something. I know how you feel this time of year, but if your fasts get any longer, you'll starve yourself to death."
"Maybe it would be better if I did..."
"Now, you don't mean that, sir. Come, I picked up a fresh batch of sweet-rolls at Salmo's for you. I know how you love them." The older man set the tray onto the end table beside the younger male in his shadowy corner, sliding the small stack of books that had been there off to the side with deft accuracy, as though this was a common action that required little more thought than a reflex. "I bought your favorite blend of tea as well, sir. Apple spice." The Breton turned the cup over on the saucer, and poured a cup of tea with a sort of finesse that indicated he had done this over many years. He added a single cube of sugar and a dash of cream, stirring it with a sort of care and devotion that seemed such a stark contrast to the lack of effort it required. The younger male showed no interest in his servant's toils, preferring the black of the text against the yellowed pages of his book to the somber, pitying look on his manservant's face. "There you are, sir. One sugar and just the right amount of cream, exactly the way you like it." He gestured to the nobleman with the cup, but the young man showed no signs of accepting it. "Go on, before it gets cold."
"I don't want any, Haskill. You may leave me, now. And take that tray with you."
"My apologies, sir, but I'm afraid I'll not be doing that." The older male set the cup back on the tray, freeing his hands up to place upon his young master's shoulders. "Please, sir. I'll not see you kill yourself over this wretched self-loathing. I understand how you must feel about that tragedy, but starving yourself doesn't help a thing. You remember why we moved out here to the country, don't you? For your research? Are you really willing to put those two painful years to waste and end it all now?"
"I suppose not..." The younger mumbled, and closed his book.
"Then, please... eat, sir." Haskill picked up a sweet-roll and held it out toward his master, who took it disinterestedly The young man took a bite, chewing half-heartedly before raising his eyebrows at his butler as though to ask if he was satisfied with this compliance. "Very good, sir. Now, swallow." He spoke with a gentle sort of authority, and despite the hateful glance he received in return, he was quite satisfied to see the younger comply. "And some tea?" The younger rolled his eyes but obliged, taking a dainty sip from the cup and setting it back with a sort of 'so-there' attitude. "Thank you, sir. You put this old man's heart to rest." The man bowed to his master and began to exit the library. "It might do you a bit of good to get some sun once in a while, sir. Your pallor does not suit you. The other's have begun to think you're ill."
"Yes... perhaps you're on to something." The younger man walked into the sunlight, his pale skin a brilliant contrast to his red hair. Green eyes reflected bright flecks of afternoon sun as he opened the French doors and stepped out onto the balcony. His ears peeked through the red strands of hair, professing a Bosmeric ancestry, but he had the strong jaw and the broad shoulders of an Imperial. His features were so mixed that it was difficult to tell if he was more one than the other. Ignoring the ears, he could easily pass as either race. He was handsome, despite his sickliness, and one could only imagine an even more handsome man could be made of him by adding a healthy amount of weight. He leaned against the railing, looking decidedly aloof as he stared absently out into the expanse of lightly flowered grass between the manor wall and garden gates in the distance.
Haskill gave a nod and a solemn smile as he took his leave. He was just about to shut the door when he heard retching of the most dreadful sort. "Sir!" He barged back in, scowl on his face, radiating all the disapproval he could muster. He pulled the redhead away from the railing and wiped the bile from his lips and the drool from his fingers with a handkerchief from his breast pocket.
"Heh... you told me to eat. You never said it had to stay in there." The half-elf gave a weak laugh. "You just don't understand, do you, Haskill? I can't die. The gods won't let me. It's my punishment... for that day two years ago. Don't you see? They kept me alive to torture me! If they were merciful, they would have let me die in the Oblivion Crisis!" The redhead tried to yank himself away from his servant's grasp, writhing in a fit of agony and despair, throwing what almost seemed to be a temper tantrum; something so out of character for the usually refined noble.
"Calm down, sir!" Haskill growled as he did his best to hold his master still; the youth had a tremendous amount of strength for a man well on his way to starvation. He was already so emaciated that his ribs were beginning to show, even through his shirt.
"No! I will not! Don't you get it?! Nothing matters anymore! Just let me die!"
"Sir, doing that would be a disgrace to you and your parents before you. Perhaps you are the one who does not understand. I have served your family for all my years, watched you grow, watched you live. If anything were to happen to you, I could never forgive myself. My life is but to serve the Abend family. Without you, sir, this estate... my life... is wasted. I know you are in pain, my lord, but you cannot do this to yourself. You are not the only one who suffers because of it! What would your parents think of you if they saw you now?!"
"Don't you dare speak of Mother and Father in my presence!" The noblemer roared, biting into the older man's hand in an attempt to force it to release his wrist. "They would think me a coward! I deserve death! By the Nine Divines, I should be cast into Oblivion and torn limb from limb by the werebears on Hircine's Hunting Grounds!"
"Hmph, I should rather think they'd find you utterly childish, and in need of a good spanking. Death solves nothing, milord. You must live. If you can muster the courage to see another day, then one of them may be your last day of torture. Happiness, my lord, is never out of reach! Your parents would have wanted you to live! To be happy! How can you do that if you are dead?! You are right to think the Nine Divines forbid your death... They will guide you to Aetherius when it is your time. But for now, you must live! I'll be damned if I let you do otherwise... These suicidal episodes must stop! My lord, one of these days I may need to have the Count 'turn you'... "
"You think I'm scared of Hassildor? Bah! I'm surprised that old vampire's teeth haven't fallen out yet!"
"Indeed, sir, indeed." Haskill finally managed to wrestle his young master back into his chair, where he was promptly strapped down by the wrists. "But he has much to teach you in the way of enduring eternal pain. As does the countess... And at least the man eats, for Aetherius' sake."
"Drinking innocent people's blood isn't exactly my definition of 'eating', Haskill."
"Sustenance is sustenance, my lord. And you are in dire need of some. Damned if I care if it's sweet-rolls or blood you desire, so long as you eat something."
"My, apologies, Master Richter. But Haskill is right. You must eat." A young woman with cat ears and a startlingly human face cooed as she fastened her young lord's ankles as well. She was tattooed with blue ink, designs enhancing the feline look were done across her face. She might have been able to pass as a Bosmer without it, though the ears were particularly high-set. But with her tattoos, she looked like a Khajiit, and Khajiit she was, despite her lack of fur.
"Aqua... I should have known you'd be helping old 'Buzzkill' here..."
"So amusing, sir..." Haskill feigned laughter, having heard the name used far too often to be offended by it anymore. "I was afraid it was going to come to this, sir, but I knew we had to prepare for the worst. I've had Aqua standing by in case I failed to convince you to eat. I must say, I never expected you to try a trick like that, but I had expected you to be unreasonable... She's been just as worried about you as I have. It's been three weeks, now, sir, and you were dangerously skinny to begin with. Every year it gets worse. I must say, I applaud your willpower; most people on the brink of death would have broken their resolve by now and gone on a rampant binge. However, no matter how admirable your convictions are, there is a point where ignoring instincts becomes insanity. We've agreed that it's in your best interest to survive, and if we have to disobey you and intervene on your behalf, so be it. Today, you will be eating, milord. Whether you want to or not." Aqua handed Haskill a deep ceramic bowl with a matching lid, glazed white and patterned with blue landscapes of deer frolicking in the woods and a pair of fish leaping upstream. "Now, I'll give you a choice... You may have your sweet-rolls and tea, or, if you refuse, we'll be force-feeding you clam chowder. I've had the chef make it 'choke-proof', but I can't imagine it would be the most pleasant thing to have forced down your throat. Potatoes and all that... What will it be, sir?"
"What do you think?" The redhead spat.
"Clam chowder it is, sir." Haskill uncovered the porcelain bowl and pulled up a nearby chair, seating himself before his irritated master. "Now, we can be civil about this, sir. Or we can do this the hard way..." He stirred the contents of the bowl around, letting the steam rise off it in gentle plumes, allowing the creamy soup to cool and (hopefully) enticing his master to comply by allowing the rich aroma to waft to his nose. "I'll give you one more chance. If you promise to eat, we will untie you. I'll monitor you this time, of course, but I daresay that's a right bit better than what we'll do to you if you continue this defiance..." Haskill lifted the spoon to his own lips and tested the temperature. "Mmm, the chef has outdone himself this time." He lifted the spoon to his master's lips. The redhead, stubborn as he was, refused the offer, turning away from the tempting morsel.
Now, a normal person might have attributed this refusal to the fact that another's mouth had recently been in contact with said spoon. This, however, was not the issue. Haskill had been the lord's personal butler and chamberlain since he was a lad, even his nursemaid when the occasion called for it. They practically lived and slept in the same room, and the young lord was so used to contact and close proximity with Haskill that nothing bothered him in the slightest, much less the man's health or oral hygiene (both of which were impeccable, by the way). Haskill, of course, understood the younger's refusal as the pure expression of self-loathing and depression that it was.
"Come now, sir. It's really good..." Haskill pressed the spoon up to his master's lips, getting the powerful aroma even closer to his nostrils, which (though the redhead refused to admit it to himself) was working. However, most of Haskill's patience had been used up prior to this, having to deal with the younger's earlier tantrum and deceptive purging. "This is your last chance, sir. I mean it." The younger male's lips remained glued shut, and Haskill resorted to Plan B. "Fine. Aqua, do it."
In seconds, Aqua had wrenched the young half-elf's jaw open. Haskill thrust the spoon inside and Aqua forcefully shut the redhead's mouth around it. The noble struggled, trying to pull away and spit out the mouthful, but his struggles merely made it easier for Haskill to remove the spoon and prepare a second mouthful. "Swallow, sir." The half-Bosmer stared daggers into his butler's deadpan gaze, refusing to make usurping his will a simple task. Haskill nodded to Aqua, who shifted one hand to cover the young male's mouth and the other to hold his nose. He held his breath for as long as he could, but eventually, he couldn't suppress the instinct to breathe any longer. He clenched his eyes shut and swallowed the mouthful, feeling the warm substance ease down his throat, gushing into the depths of his deprived stomach. Aqua released him and he gasped for breath, muttering vague curses at the two as he struggled to break free of his restraints.
Haskill rolled his eyes, and gestured to Aqua again. She grabbed her master by the jaw again, and the whole process repeated. Haskill spooned in mouthful after mouthful of the creamy soup. With each spoonful, Aqua clamped the stubborn lord's mouth shut, covering his nose and mouth, forcing him to swallow if he wanted his next breath. And, breathing being one of the more instinctual practices, the young manmer could do nothing but comply. Between every gasp, another spoonful was forced in, until eventually, the redhead could fight it no longer and just gave in. Really, the soup was delicious, he couldn't deny that. But that wasn't the point... Still, fighting every spoonful had grown tiresome, and by now his stomach had over-ruled his brain. By the time he had been force-fed about half the bowl, the young man had submitted entirely, and was now chewing and swallowing without Aqua's enforcement. Every so often, he'd mutter "Tea" or "Roll" and Aqua would lift the cup or sweet-roll to his lips, giving him the few bites or sips requested before he returned to Haskill's soup. At last, Haskill set aside the now-empty bowl on the tray, now void of tea-things, and sighed with relief. "That's much better, isn't it, sir?" The redhead gave an unceremonious nod. "Take the tray, Aqua. I'll stay here to make sure he doesn't try to 'relieve himself' of his meal..." The girl nodded and did as she was told.
The next few minutes were relatively silent, the redhead staring absently out the window as Haskill kept his vigilant eyes on his young lord. After a while, Haskill abortively offered other distractions from his lord's staring contest with the tree outside the window. "Would you care for me to read to you, sir? You seemed quite invested in that book from earlier." His lord did not respond. "I would like to untie you, but I'm afraid I cannot trust you. Hardly think the garden needs you fertilizing it with half-digested soup, you know..." The younger remained conspicuously silent. "Will you not talk to me, my lord? I do apologize for what we had to do, but you must understand, it is our duty to ensure your happiness. And we can only do that while you are alive, sir."
"I'm not angry with you, Haskill..." The redhead murmured, still refusing to make eye-contact.
"Then will you not let me know what you wish to do, sir? I hardly think staring out the window at nothing is the best use of your time. Surely there is some activity you can do here that I might allow."
"I'd just like to think for a while..."
"As you wish, sir." The air was thick with silence, afterward. Dead silence. Haskill stood dutifully at his lord's side, rigid and proper, as statuesque as the young lord, as though out of sympathy. A good half-hour or so passed before the silence was finally broken by a gloomy, depressed sigh.
"Why do they hate me, Haskill?" Richter whispered forlornly.
"The Gods... why do they hate me?"
"They don't hate you, sir. The Nine hate no one."
"Then why won't they leave me alone? Why must I endure this maddening torture?"
"Perhaps... it is their way of testing you. I'm sure the Champion felt abandoned many a time, too. You know he started off in the Imperial Prison?"
"Did he, now? Heh..." The young lord scoffed. "Haskill..."
"I want to be alone..."
"I cannot --"
"Just out of earshot, Haskill... please..." The young lord wore a prepared, stern looking expression; but his eyes, those deep green pools of the soul, were reflecting a desperate sort of sadness that practically begged his compliance.
"Very well, sir." The older male backed up to another corner of the library, just far enough that he could still keep an eye on his master and make sure he wasn't doing anything suspicious or concern-worthy.
The half-mer lowered his gaze, staring first at his shoes, then his lap... Tears began streaming from his face, leaving salty tracks on his cheeks for the next tears to follow in. "Aster...", he whispered. "I'm sorry..." He repeated the name and apology over and over, losing more of his composure with each repetition until he was crying aloud, and Haskill had no trouble discerning the words, even before they became audible. This had happened for two years, now. This would be the third. This was one of the bitterest anniversaries anyone at Rosethorn Hall knew of. Aster died today. And every year after, a bit more of their lord seemed to die with the boy's memory. A year of grief was bad enough. But three? Haskill wouldn't stand for one year more of this. So he had hired a boy. A distraction of sorts. Someone from the new world, with new stories and new technologies, new things to teach the master. That had always cheered him up. He liked to learn.
"It's alright, sir. It's alright." Haskill unbound his lord and let the young male collapse into his arms. "I know. You must be exhausted. Let's get you to bed." He half-carried, half-dragged his disheveled master up the stairs to his sleeping quarters. He laid him out on the plush mattress, undressed him, and re-garbed him in his night clothes, though it was hardly afternoon. He pulled the covers up over the young man's chest, and fluffed the down pillows. "I know you don't want to forgive yourself. But he would want you to, you know." The redhead made no indication he was listening to Haskill. "I have good news, though. I've hired a boy from the new world... You remember, don't you? Aselia, in the far west? If the weather stays fair, he should be here within a month. That's something to look forward to, isn't it? I bet he'll have all sorts of stories to tell. And you could show him around Cyrodiil. I'm sure he'd love to see the wonders of our country. You can employ him in whatever position you deem appropriate. Who knows, maybe his knowledge and technologies might be exactly what you need to complete your research?"
"Oh, and the Argonian tutor I hired has arrived. Showed up just yesterday. She's got lessons planned for you tomorrow afternoon. Her Black Marsh name is too difficult to pronounce... so...", the butler laughed suggestively, "we've decided to nickname her 'Lifts-Her-Tail'."
"...Seriously?" The redhead snorted, a small smile flitting across his face for a moment.
"Yes. We thought you'd get a laugh out of it."
"Humorous, indeed..." the redhead muttered wearily, letting something like a weak laugh pass his lips. "Speaking of... another scene?"
"Of course, sir." The butler pulled a well-thumbed copy of 'The Lusty Argonian Maid' from the bedside table and began to recite it.
"ACT IX, SCENE V
(Colto's Manor, Hallway, Enter Lift's-Her-Tail from Right-stage. She begins dusting a suit of armor. Enter Colto, Left-stage. He watches her with hunger in his eyes.)
Lifts-Her-Tail: Oh! Sir, you gave me quite a start! I was sure it was the mistress come to scold me again!
Crantius Colto: No need to fear, my sweet. The mistress has gone out this evening.
Lifts-Her-Tail: Well, that's a relief, sir. I can finish my cleaning in peace, now. There's still so much tidying up to be done. I still have not finished putting your weapons back in the armory. It took so long to polish them all.
Crantius Colto: Indeed. You are such a thorough maid, my dumpling. But I fear you have forgotten to polish one.
Lifts-Her-Tail: Oh dear! Have I?! Whichever did I miss, my lord?!
Crantius Colto: Why, my most prized sword, of course.
Lifts-Her-Tail: Oh, but I couldn't, sir! What would the mistress think if she caught me with your sword?! She has nearly caught me twice already!
Crantius Colto: Perhaps you are right, my little flower. You've polished my sword often enough, I think. Perhaps it is time for me to put it in your sheath?
Lifts-Her-Tail: Heavens, no, sir! The mistress would have my head! You are meant to keep your sword in her sheath!
Crantius Colto: But she is gone, now. Besides, my lovely Argonian, I think your sheath would be a much better fit for my sword...
Lifts-Her-Tail: Impossible, sir! My sheath is much too small for such a big sword! It would never fit!
Crantius Colto: You don't know that for certain, my dear. I could simply try it out. It could just slide in nice and easy.
Lifts-Her-Tail: You don't know my sheath like I do, sir. It's much too small. There hasn't been a sword in it in ages, much less one as hefty as yours. You'd have a hard time forcing it in. You'd probably hurt yourself trying!
Crantius Colto: I'm sure with a little time and effort, we could make it fit. Sheaths can be tempered, you know.
Lifts-Her-Tail: That sounds like an awful lot of work; it could take all night!
Crantius Colto: Plenty of time, my sweet. Plenty of time.
END OF ACT IX, SCENE V."
The redhead barely mustered a chuckle at some of the most bawdy and suggestive parts, but it was a laugh nonetheless. By the end of the scene, a small-but-permanent smile was set on the young man's face. Haskill tucked the book back in its place and drew the curtains. "Good night, sir."
"Good night, Haskill." The older man quietly opened an inconspicuous door beside the armoire and crept into his own sleeping quarters, shutting the door just as silently as he had opened it. He tidied a few things and set about doing the paperwork and bills when he heard the subtle creaking of the bedsprings and a quiet moaning and whimpering. He half-smiled, returning to his work. He had heard the sounds often enough to know what was happening. It had become something of a self-soothing activity for the young master, ever since puberty. Those alternating mewls and gasps were almost predictable, now. Haskill didn't blame the boy; he had hormones like any other young man, noble blood did not change his needs. Haskill had hoped for his young master to find a mate by now, but knowing his... well, unique tastes, that had become an unlikely prospect. But Haskill couldn't help feeling that if the young redhead could share his life with someone, he would get over this depression. He needed an intimate other, now more than ever. Really, any sort of companionship would do. Haskill just prayed that the young man would open up to someone soon, and let go of this pain he'd been nursing for too long. Something like a squeak followed by a sigh concluded the rhythmic groaning of abused bedsprings, and all was silent after. Haskill checked on his young master an hour later, and found him sprawled across the bed, in a nearly comatose state of sleep. The smell of sweat and... other secretions... was still quite strong. Still, it made Haskill happy... It brought the boy peace, and what Haskill could only imagine was the only sort of "happiness" available to the young man during this mourning period. He didn't mind having to clean the sheets as long as the master was satisfied.
He brushed the red hair out of his master's face and laid his head back on the pillows. He poured a glass of water for the young man and left it on the bedside table. "Sleep well, Lord Richter. May the Nine bless you with pleasant dreams tonight." He spent the next couple of hours tidying the room, re-shelving the books the young master had strewn across the floor, probably looking for the one he had taken to the library. He shook his head, knowing he'd have to retrieve said book. The master liked things kept in order, though he was decidedly counterproductive in that effort. Replacing all the books on their shelves revealed that a few were actually missing, and Haskill sighed, quietly exiting his lord's chambers and stalking down the stairs to track down the missing codices. He strode into the library and began digging through the pile beside his lord's chair, sorting out which ones belonged in the library and which belonged on the lord's personal shelves. He already knew which ones he was looking for: The Exodus by Waughin Jarth, Palla by Vojne Mierstyyd (both volumes), N'Gasta! Kvata! Kvakis! by the infamous N'Gasta, The Tome of Unlife and all three volumes of Corpse Preparation. The master kept a number of books on necromancy, which, though not illegal in Cyrodiil, was frowned upon by almost everyone. It was a misunderstood practice, and rightly so. Many of the most notable necromancers were the 'evil' sort, raising armies of the dead to do their bidding, for some unholy purpose or another. Lord Abend's intentions were nothing nearly as sinister, though equally lamentable. His story was actually rather like that of the narrator of Palla. He had been trying for two years now without success to resurrect Aster. He had made some strides, to be sure, and a few experiments were actually highly successful but came with... undesirable side effects. Haskill wished the younger would just give it up already; no necromancer in history had ever done what his master attempted to do, nor came remotely close, and the effort seemed to be taxing the young lord's sanity with every failed or partly successful attempt. But he wanted the young man to succeed, too. He wanted to see the boy happy again, like in his childhood. This 'research' of his was really the only thing that kept the redhead going, lately... kept hope alive in his heart.
Haskill gathered the heavy, unwieldy stack of books, wondering how his emaciated master managed to carry them all the way to the library in his weakened state. Probably threw them down the stairs and flung them a few at a time down the hall until he got them to the library. Or maybe he bundled them in one of his sheets and dragged them there. Either way, they were difficult to haul back up the stairs (Haskill lost his balance halfway up the stairs and dropped the top two books which he had to go back for once he miraculously got the other books to the top of the stairs without further incident.) He managed to lug them the rest of the way to the master's room without dropping any, and squeezed through the door without causing much of a ruckus. He carefully placed them back in their appropriate places, though the young master was sure to make a mess of the shelves searching for them again. He had just finished placing the last one when he heard a distressed moan from behind him.
"P-please... no... No!" The redhead was trembling , fingers digging into the sheets as if he felt himself falling. "A-Aster! Leave him alone! No!" The young noble balled up as though he had been stabbed in the gut, twisting and writhing in agony, crying out "Aster!" again and again.
"Sir. Sir! Wake up, sir!" Haskill shook the younger male by the shoulder. The half-elf awoke with a start, practically jumping off the bed and landing with a loud thud on the floor.
"Owww..." the noble moaned, rubbing his bruised tailbone gingerly. He shivered and rubbed his arms vigorously. "I feel... c-c-cold... and everything h-hurts..."
"You were having a night terror, sir. Nasty one at that. Didn't think they could get worse than last year, but I guess I was wrong..." Haskill held out a hand to the young noblemer and hoisted him off the floor.
Richter clung to his butler, still tremulous. "Vaermina's a bitch...*" he shuddered.
"Indeed, sir." Haskill replied, stroking his master's hair comfortingly. "Would you like... to talk about it, sir?" Haskill half-expected to be turned down; the master rarely discussed his feelings, much less on this particular subject. Richter was the type to withdraw when he felt vulnerable. To his surprise, the younger male agreed.
"Y-yeah..." Haskill guided the redhead over to a plush armchair by the fireplace. It was cozy there, though there was no fire lit.
"Something to drink, milord?" the older man offered up the glass of water he had poured earlier.
"Stronger..." Richter mumbled.
The older male nodded and retreated to his own quarters. He pulled a chest out from beneath his bed and unlocked it, pulling out a deep red glass bottle with a crisp white label. "Slowly, sir. Remember how alcohol affects you when you've been fasting..." The redhead nodded and he handed the young male the bottle.
He took a sip of the mead and made a face. "Yech... Tastes worse after a fast, too..." He took another sip and shivered. "I'm still cold, Haskill..."
"A manifestation of your anxiety, I would suppose. Your joints still ache, too, correct?"
"Yeah." Richter hugged his legs up to his chest, still pale and covered in sweat.
"Vaermina's followers describe the same phenomena. 'The Grasp of Vaermina' they call it, I think."
"That doesn't make me any less cold or sore, Haskill." The younger complained.
"My apologies, sir." Haskill collected the comforter from his master's bed and draped it over the young man's shoulders. "Better, sir?" The redhead nodded with an approving grunt, taking a heavy swallow of his mead. "Slowly, sir. Water is for thirst, liquor is for comfort..." The older scolded.
"Liquor is for what I decide." The redhead snorted. "Whose house is this?"
"Yours, sir..." Haskill rolled his eyes.
"Damn straight. Don't you forget it." The redhead stared into the empty hearth and took another drink. The awkward silence that had been invading their conversations reappeared, stagnating the air. Nothing, save the sound of the younger downing his liquor, interrupted it. Eventually, the young noblemer finished his mead, and he handed the bottle to his butler to be disposed of.
"I am listening, if there is something you'd like to say." Haskill prompted. He knew it would sound too nosy if he asked directly, or too pushy if he reminded the young noble that he had agreed to talk about it.
"Good to know..." The silence dragged on a while after, and Haskill kept himself busy by tidying various corners of the room. He knew that would put the younger more at ease if he felt like he didn't have to talk, but had someone nearby listening if he did want to. He made the bed again, ignoring the conspicuous wet spot near the center of the sheets, dusted some of the untouched artifacts on the higher shelves that had been neglected for a few weeks, and lit a few candles in the room as the sun began to set outside.
"It was worse, this time..." The redhead began, causing his manservant to pause in the middle of sorting some papers on the desk nearby. "It always starts off the same... deceptively peaceful, more like a dream." Haskill set down the papers and stood attentively beside his young master, listening to every detail with genuine interest. "This time, though, I wasn't part of the Skingrad defense... It was just me and him this time. Alone, together. Just talking... just talking..." the young man trailed off, a bit of nostalgia in his voice. He did not look at Haskill while he spoke, but took great comfort in his presence and companionship as he recounted his traumatic nightmare. "It seemed innocent at first. We were sitting in the grass... overlooking the vineyards. We were sharing a bunch of grapes we nabbed on the way past the Surilie Brothers'... He complained they were sour." The redhead gave a sad laugh. "They were just perfect for me. We were just laying in the lush grass, not a care in the world. Everything was so calm. Then, the most peculiar thing happened... A stag beetle... crawled on my hand. So I lifted it, coaxed it to fly off. Then another came... and another, and another... Hundreds of them, crawling over us both, around us. He reached for me, grabbed me, and pointed behind us. They were all swarming, gathering in that... ghastly shape... burning like a funeral pyre. Thousands of them, now... And they parted, revealing one of those gates... that hideous burning rift into Oblivion. The sky was consumed by ash and blood red smoke. I could taste the death in the air, Haskill, like cinders upon my tongue. But it was cold, so very cold. I tried to tell him to get behind me, but I choked on the air. It reeked of sulfur and brimstone. I reached for him instead, still gasping for air that didn't seem to exist. His hand was hot and wet. I turned to look; there was blood on his hands, ungodly amounts of it, and he stared at it, horrified. 'Get it off me!' He screamed as more dripped down upon him, and I couldn't understand why this was happening. So I looked up. We were in one of those blasted Daedric keeps; corpses hung by their feet overhead, oozing fresh blood though they reeked from ages of rotting in the humid air. And he was screaming..." The redhead trembled and clutched the blankets about himself.
"I reached out to him, tried to comfort him, but my hands were bloody, too... He just kept backing away, farther and farther, until he was against the wall, screaming, crying. 'Where are we?! What's happening?! I wanna go home!' He clawed at the wall, leaving streaks of blood where he dragged his fingers on the corroded, rusted surface of those wretched pitch black walls. There were no doors; the portal from whence we came had vanished, and the eerie red-smog sky loomed over the towering walls of our prison like a suffocating tarp. There was no way to climb out, and the only thing below us was a sea of lava and the grating upon which we stood. It was about then that the wretched heat gripped me, irritating and utterly parching my already dry throat. I staggered over to him, grabbed him, despite his terror at my bloodied fingers, and cast a layer of frost around us. I shielded some ice crystals that formed between us from the ruby red rain that fell from the corpses high above us, taking as much refreshment as I could from them before they melted. Despite the magic origins, the water yielded was stale and bitter. But it was enough... It quenched my thirst enough to tell him that we'd be alright, that I'd get us out alive..."
The noblemer picked up the glass of water Haskill had left for him, quenching a real-life thirst as he continued. "I looked up, struggling to see some way to escape. I sought even the smallest sign that there was hope for us, a crack in the wall, a corpse hanging low enough to reach... I looked to the wall Aster had been pawing... there was so much blood... There were bodies pinned to the walls, too. The very sight turned my stomach; their skin was dark and moist, singed at the extremities to a coal black crust. Yellowed teeth were bared from lack of lips on the deteriorated face, and maggots squirmed and tumbled like a writhing custard of putrescence from their deep, eyeless sockets. Their parent flies swarmed hungrily about, landing upon us to take a sup of the congealing pools of crimson succor dripping on our warm bodies from the rotting flesh above. Organs were spilling out from gaping holes in their bellies, skin and muscle eaten away or melted off, Gods know what happened, but the flesh that should have held the vital pieces in those bodies was all but gone. Aster had vomited already, and the pleasant wine-like odor that should have followed with the grapes was a rancid ammonia smell... I held him anyway. He needed it... I needed it. I swear, it was like I was there, Haskill... It felt like I was there again. I don't know how long I was holding him before he was writhing away from me, wailing. 'Make it stop!' he would cry, 'It hurts! It hurts!' And before I could even think to myself 'What hurts?' the most excruciating pain lanced through every muscle in my body, crippling me. My body was not my own, only the pain. I collapsed, completely unable to control my own limbs, and I helplessly watched what little I could see from the sanguine smeared grating. His wails grew more and more desperate, and I struggled to right myself, but I was nearly paralyzed, barely able to lift my head the few shaky inches needed to clearly see the macabre scene before me. Fetid corpses rotting on the walls reanimated, grabbing any bit of him they could, clawing and biting, their flesh peeling off and sticking to his bloodied arms and face. 'Richter! Help! They're hurting me! Ahhhh! Make them stop, make them stop!' But I... I c-couldn't..." The redhead broke down in tears. "I tried e-everything I could to help h-him, b-but I couldn't... s-s-stand up... " the noble stared at the palms of his hands, as though seeing them for the first time. "Magic failed me... I couldn't s-so much as l-lift a f-finger... and then... it came... that demon Dremora, hideous and foul... and it... it..."
"Killed him..." Haskill finished for the now catatonic lord.
The redhead nodded. "All I could do was yell..."
"Yes. I heard."
"Did you?" The younger asked with an abnormal disinterest in the words, as though he was discussing something else entirely - he spoke in a way one usually makes idle chit-chat, or discusses events in the third person.
"Indeed. You called out in your sleep. 'Leave him alone', I believe, was one of the louder outbursts. Can't imagine what dreadful action would have warranted the desperate tone you used... It must have been a terrible vision indeed."
The noblemer appeared unusually distant and composed as he described the gruesome image that he beheld in his nightmare. Maybe because he knew it wasn't real, that it never happened, or because bearing witness in the dream had been traumatic enough that recounting it dulled in comparison to the actual experience. More than likely, it was just because he was in shock, reliving a tragic day in a dramatic, twisted, and infinitely more gruesome pseudo-reality. But the deathly serious monotone with which he spoke sent chills through the room itself... "It ripped out his still-beating heart and crushed it like a fermented apple. Thick, dark blood ran lazily, slow and viscous from the pulp that remained. Aster was silent, pale and cold in the arms of those death-headed bodies, literally in the embrace of death itself, Haskill, with the petrified expression of a frightened child frozen to his stiffening features. The corpses released him, and he fell limp to the floor, but... not dead... dying... With all the strength I could summon, I crawled over to his colorless figure, trying with every ounce of my magicka to heal him, somehow, someway... And gods, he was so cold... as if he was eschewing ice from the Void itself. His breath was ragged, raspy, but it engulfed me... it was the only sign he was still living. It was quiet, but it was in my head, the wheezing, hissing death rattle of his... And with his final breath, he looked at me with the most... the most... desperate, broken look. His lips were so chapped and pale... contrasting the blood now spilling from his mouth.... and he asked me... he asked 'Why didn't you save me?' and I just... I... just..." He said no more, raw emotion shattering through that erstwhile impassive facade, hot tears running the length of his cold, white face. If there was a way to verbally express the pain he was going through, he couldn't find it; he was only able to cry until his throat was parched and his eyes were red.
Haskill cradled the boy in a sort of paternal embrace, stroking the youth's lengthy red hair and whispering words of empty comfort. "It's alright, sir. Everything is alright... It was only a nightmare." He rocked the half-mer back and forth gently, until his young master had finally cried himself hoarse. The butler helped the lord to his feet and guided him back to the bed, tucking him in comfortably (despite the wet spot the younger male had made earlier). "Rest, sir. It will help..."
"Don't want to..." the younger whispered stubbornly.
Haskill knew why. More nightmares aren't exactly something to look forward to when it has had a history of recurring the last 3 years. "I think I can help with that." He pulled out a pair of candles from a cabinet drawer, one red and one white, with two matching silver candleholders. He lit the red one first, allowing a few drips of wax to fall into the base of the holder before he set the candle inside, helping the candle remain upright. "Cinnamon scented... to keep the nightmares away..." He repeated the process with the white and set it on the bedside table with its red counterpart. "And vanilla, to welcome the good dreams." He smiled.
"That's an old-wives'-tale. Scented candles don't really work..."
"Oh, really? Have you ever had a nightmare when I've lit these for you?"
"... No... " The redhead mumbled, remembering the last time he had had this conversation, when he was thirteen and having recurring nightmares.
"And have you ever not had a pleasant dream?" The butler smiled smugly.
"Then something must be working." The older male chuckled. "At the very least, the scents will be calming, and they should help you sleep." He pat the boy's hair affectionately and moved to leave when he felt a clammy hand wrap around his.
"Haskill," the young lord whispered, "I don't... want to be alone."
"As you wish, sir. I'll stay with you as long as you'd like." He pulled up a nearby chair and sat beside the bed. The canopy fluttered with a slight breeze as a calm summer wind mixed the candles' aromas in the room. And Haskill sat, watching the candles burn, waiting for his master to find peace. Many minutes passed, and the young male remained wide awake. Haskill sighed. There was one thing that had never failed to put the young male to sleep... but he was ... a bit rusty.
Haskill cleared his throat, thinking over the first few words carefully, before the rest finally clicked. He began quietly, in a soft baritone. "So many years have passed/ The dew is still on the roses/ I left my childhood/ In a garden green..." The young lord looked shocked at first, then homesick. He began to tear up, but did not ask Haskill to stop, so the Breton continued, despite his young master's watery eyes. "Come in the garden and look at the trees/ I used to play there when I was a child/ Squirrels and birds, little fairies/ Settled down there long ago..." He noticed as the younger male began to mouth the words with trembling lips and sang a bit louder, almost inviting the boy to join the chorus. "So many years have passed/ The dew is still on the roses/ I left my childhood/ In a garden green..." By now, the boy had started singing along in a quiet tenor, sweet and sad, like a violin. Haskill himself felt a bit of nostalgia, hearing the young master sing like that. "Come in the garden and sit on the grass/ I used to sit there when I was a child/ Ivy and moss, little daisies/ Covered the lane long ago/ So many years have passed/ The dew is still on the roses/ I kept my memories/ In that garden green..." By the last couplet, Richter was singing with all the saddened passion he could muster. "I kept my memories/ In that garden green." He drew out the last note, as if he didn't want the song to end.
"You sing wonderfully, sir."
"You're not half bad yourself, Haskill." The faintest wisp of a smile graced the young man's features for a brief moment. His mother used to sing this to him, when she was still alive. It was different when Haskill sang it, but the older man's baritone was familiar in it's own way, and soothed him nevertheless.
"You're too kind, sir."
A pleasant silence followed, and the young noblemer was noticeably more relaxed. Haskill idly picked up a book from the shelf under the nightstand and began skimming it, as his master grew drowsier and drowsier. The sound of pages turning seemed to help it along as well, another familiar ambient sound from the lord's youth.
"Hey, Haskill?" The young man whispered.
"Thanks for putting up with me..."
The old butler simply smiled in response. "Not at all, sir. I've served far more high-maintenance lords, believe me."
"Perhaps. But I've had no finer butler."
"You flatter me, milord."
"Take it as you will. It's the truth for me." The redhead yawned, closing his weary, tear-reddened eyes at last. "Good night, Haskill."
"Good night, milord." Haskill kept his word, and remained dutifully by his master's side all through the night, keeping his silent vigil until well after dawn when he finally fell asleep at his chair.
Only 29 days until arrival...
To Be Continued...
<- Back to Chapter 1.