Everything was in place. Still, something was off. Viktor glared at the fire raging in the hearth.
Gunnar had sent reports of meetings between the Thran. Grenden had left Jormund and Henrik’s camp just before sunset. Illhiem had spoken with him hours earlier.
Dag had kept to his camp for most of the day. He had only made a foray into the city on a couple of occasions. Both appearing to be for supplies.
Word was Thulm had completely taken over the Grey Beard alongside the druids. Shuet and Eirik had been seen there. Kala rarely left, she was probably still nursing Wulf back to health. Her two Shaylin aids had been seen tending to errands for her.
The idea of Thulm staying in the same inn as the Rangers seemed strange. Especially since they had abandoned their obligations. Have they reached some agreement and reconciled? No, that’s too simple an explanation.
Thulm was a man to hold a grudge, he wouldn’t so casually let a slight go. His defeat at Wulf’s hands would be too much of a sting to his pride. Even if they were negotiating, Thulm would demand a lot of the three Huntsmen as recompense.
As he thought about the Rangers, Viktor recalled Gunnar saying something about them ceasing their patrols through the streets. They were keeping to themselves instead and only working local contracts. They were mostly congregating around the inns and taverns they had rented.
There had only been a couple of skirmishes between the Blades, the guard and the Rangers throughout the day. Fewer than the day before. A knock at the door of his chambers tore him from his thoughts.
“Thran Agrim?” Gunnar called.
“What is it, Gunnar?”
“I have news of something suspicious,” the seneschal replied.
Viktor turned to see one of Savar’s men with the seneschal. He was rugged like the others with a full thick beard and dark brown eyes. He wore a red cloth on his left arm.
“Finnes has something to report. You asked me to recruit him.”
Viktor smirked. Clever as always.
Taking as his cue, Finnes stepped forward. “Gren has been acting strangely today,” he said. “He made us wear red and white cloths around our left arms. I was told it was to break us into groups for our patrols, but it seems that it is for other reasons.”
Viktor drew his eyebrows together. “What reason might that be?”
“Red shows who still follow Savar unquestioningly,” he replied. “White is for those who have doubts.”
“What does Savar say about this?”
“Savar thinks you ordered it or so he claims,” Finnes replied.
“Does he now?”
“Tell me, Finnes, what does Gren wear? What you think Gren is planning?”
“He wears none,” Finnes answered. “I cannot speak to his plans, either, my Thran, but he is loyal. I’m certain his reasons are just.”
The look in Gunnar’s eyes showed the seneschal had questions. He was doubtful. Loya he says. Loyalty can be bought it’s only a matter price.
“Keep watching him Finnes, send word the moment you see something amiss.”
He bowed and left. Viktor scowled, feeling the skin on his face drawing taut. Gunnar stood there patiently as always.
“Spit it out.”
“He has become a liability,” he said. “Savar’s devotion casts doubt on his men.”
“It was a gamble, having him drink the brew. Long term, it secures my position.”
“Provided tomorrow goes smoothly,” Gunnar replied. “As of yet, Finnes shows no side effects, but it could be days before we see anything. If this batch holds true, then further refinements will be unnecessary.”
“I grow tired of the process, Gunnar. There is a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips and we have squandered our time on this one thing.”
“Progress takes time when building a future, my Thran,” he replied. “Sometimes it is grueling.”
“What of the other test subject?”
Gunnar cast his eyes to the stone flooring.
Viktor narrowed his eyes. “Gunnar?”
“I have discovered a flaw, an unintentional flaw at that,” he replied.
“Did the subject die?”
Gunnar flinched. “No, my Thran, he lives,” he answered. “But it seems the brew has no effect on those who were already loyal to begin with.”
The silence in the chamber was unsettling. Gunnar could feel it prickling across his spine. It was like the long spindly fingers of the Keeper creeping across one’s skin from behind.
Viktor’s expression was stoic. He simply stood there arms crossed, his attention appearing elsewhere. Still, the seneschal was too afraid to move. It wasn’t the first time his master has exploded In a rage from this quiet calm.
“You drank it yourself, didn’t you?” he suddenly asked.
His dark eyes were focused. Gunnar couldn’t help but think of a hawk that had set its sights on its prey. He locked his knees, holding his ground.
“I did. I felt grabbing some random person from the street was too dangerous to your plans.”
Viktor simply nodded, turning to his chair by the hearth and sat down. The silence returned, save for the wood crackling in the fire. Gunnar felt his stomach churn, but dug his heels against the stone floor.
“You may go,” Viktor said calmly. “If I need you I will send for you.”
“Until then, my Thran.” Gunnar turned toward the door, hit hand barely made it to the handle before Viktor spoke again.
“Gunnar, why do you serve?” he asked. “It is truly out of loyalty?”
Gunnar swallowed hard but kept his eyes focused on the door. “My mother used to say: Where there is no vision, there is no future and the people starve. You are a cruel man, riddled with ambition and a desire for conquest. Yet, within your vision there still lies a future. It may be bleak, but it is still there.”
Silence returned once again. Gunnar thought he might gag from the fear raging in his chest. It was tempting to look toward Viktor to get an inkling of what might be going through the man’s mind. Instead, Gunnar swallowed hard, took a breath and left the room.
It was only after the door shut that the crash of a chair being thrown across the room sound from the other side. Gunnar doubled over, the contents of his stomach emptying onto the keep’s stone floor. The commotion from Viktor’s chambers continued but he didn’t wait to see the aftermath.
He turned his mind toward the armbands and Gren. “You may be testing your men or perhaps raising an army. If we are to have a future, I must know which.
Gunnar rubbed his hands together to stave the chill in his fingers. Savar’s camp was quiet in the late hour. He looked up at the sky, the moon shone brightly overhead. It was almost full.
There were barely any clouds and the stars were clearly visible. He smiled. Nights like this were rare. Cloud cover was normally much thicker and more abundant.
“Gunnar?” The guard to his right asked.
Gunnar turned his attention to the tent in front of him. Now we will see. “Take him quickly.”
The guards he had brought with him rushed the tent. There was a sudden shout, but it was quickly silenced in the wake of a loud grunt. The struggle hadn’t lasted long as the men drug Gren from his tent, tied and gagged. Blood ran down the side of the face where they had hit him with one of their clubs.
I hope you haven’t addled his mind with that blow. Still, he looks relatively intact.
Gunnar froze after feeling something sharp press softly against his side. “If you value your life, take your men and leave,” the voice said.
The guards drew their weapons in response, but Gunnar held his hands up waving them off. “This is Viktor’s business, young warrior, and none of your concern.”
“We server Savar, not Viktor,” the young warrior replied.
“Savar has sworn fealty,” Gunnar replied. “You understand what that means…” The warrior’s seax didn’t budge. “Put the knife down, boy.”
Gunnar could feel his heart pounding, his chest tightening. Age was showing. Silently he hoped his tone was enough to intimidate.
The guards were wary but tense and ready to strike. They were looking to him to give the word. After a long silence, the young warrior pulled the seax away. Gunnar turned around, noting he was wearing a white cloth on his left arm.
The young warrior was angry, his expression full of resentment. “What does Viktor want with Gren?” he asked.
“That is our business, but we were never here.”
He locked his jaw, eyebrows drawn together in an intense stare. His gaze shifted briefly looking over at Gren and the guards. “If he doesn’t return…”
Gunnar stole himself away, forcing a hard look as he locked eyes with the young warrior. “Whatever happens, you would do well to remember on whose lands to stand, boy. If an offense has been dealt we are within our rights to carry it out.”
The young man averted his eyes and Gunnar boldly stepped past him. A sudden gurgling sounded to his ears and the seneschal spun around to see one of the guards sliding a seax across the warrior’s throat.
Gunnar bit his lip, fighting to keep his expression stoic. Where is no Vision… “Since you made the effort, you get to carry the corpse,” he commented.
The guard nodded, taking the time to unclasp his cloak and wrap it around the body. He paid special care to sop the blood around the knife wound to keep too much of it from dripping in the snow. He then displaced the snow where some of it had fallen and covered it over so no one would notice.
The faint sound of shifting snow to his left drew his attention among the tents. Gunnar turned, scanning them in the pale light of the moon, but there was nothing.
“Let’s get this over with.”
It didn’t take long to reach the keep’s dungeon. The main chamber was circular with a metal grate set into the floor at its center. Shackles liked the circumference of the room along with six torches spread apart at ten-foot intervals.
There were two large iron doors, one directly across from the main entrance and another set to the left. Each led to a corridor the circumvented the perimeter of the chamber where the prison cells awaited offenders.
The torches were the only source of heat, but it was just enough to keep the cold from doing much. They would never burn out either. A remnant of the previous Thran’s inventiveness.
In Viktor’s early days as Thran, they had seen frequent use. Now they were primarily vacant. The Blades and The Watch saw to most punishments, most of which were executions after a third offense.
Theft was one offense that never ended well for the accused and murderers fared even worse. Viktor kept a handful of Hungering Ones in the dungeon. Each a member of his predecessor's family.
Murders were tossed into the caged cell they were kept in from the upper floor. He thought it was comical to watch them be killed by monsters. Especially those who think of themselves as one.
One of the guards walked over to the wall where a gear connected to a crank and a set of chains were set into the wall. He turned the crank, the chains rattling loudly and the grate in the floor at the center of the chamber opened. Guttural moans came from inside.
Gunnar looked toward the guard carrying the corpse of the young warrior. “Toss it in.”
Like a burlap sack, he unloaded the corpse, dropping into the opening. The guttural moans grew louder and the sound of flesh being torn followed. The other guard quickly turned the crank closing the grate.
Gunnar stared at the grate. When was the last time they were fed?
The guards looked squeamish as the listened to the Hungering Ones feast in their cell. Gunnar turned away from them and started toward the doorway on the opposite side of the chamber. “We don’t have time for you to stand around.”
Gunnar opened the door and stepped in the hall. Each of the cells were enclosed rooms, with a solid oak door. There were no windows, so prisoners would have no idea if it was day or night and be unaware of how much time had passed.
He followed the hall to one of the cells at the end. Taking the keys from the pouch on his belt, he opened it and stepped inside. The guards followed and set Gren in the chair sitting in the middle of the cell, strapping him in.
The seneschal paused, noting the white cloth tied on Gren’s left arm. He frowned, feeling a bit annoyed at initially missing that detail. So you do have your doubts.
The guards backed out of the cell closing the large door behind them. Gunnar stepped closer to Gren and checked the straps. The man was stout and serving under Savar meant he was capable of putting up a good fight.
Gunnar began patting him on the cheek. “Time to wake up.”
It took a few minutes of coaxing to rouse him. A nasty bruise was already starting to show on the side of his face. Gren slowly opened his eyes, wincing as he tried to get his bearings.
Gunnar removed the strip of cloth the guards had used to gag the man.
“You!” he said, looking around the enclosed cell. “Did Viktor put you up to this!?”
“It’s better to see me than him, Gren. I am asking on his behalf.”
He curled lip, struggling against his bonds, eyes burning with anger. “Savar will be furious when he hears of this!”
It was brief but still noticeable. Gren’s expression changed just enough to show he knew or rather suspected something. He understood his bluff had been called.
“What do you know Gren? Why the colored cloths on the arms of your men?”
He narrowed his eyes, his jaw locked in stubborn defiance. Gunnar sighed, reached into his belt pouch and pulled a small corked vial from it. He stared at the vial, then shifted his gaze.
“I don’t want to use this, Gren, but I will if I have to.”
Gren eyed the vial warily. “So that’s what you did is it?” he said. “I remember the day Savar went to see Viktor upon our arrival. He wasn’t the same after.”
“Tell me what I want to know Gren. Why are your men wearing colored armbands?”
He turned his head and spat on the ground. “Even if I tell you, my life will be forfeit; or worse, I’ll be Viktor’s puppet just like Savar. I’m no fool, Gunnar.”
Gunnar turned toward the door, there was a chair set beside it. It wasn’t in the best shape, but it would do. He took the chair placing it in front of Gren and sat down.
“Viktor is a monster. I’ve known men similar to him. I’ve lived long enough in this cursed land to see many horrible things. I’ve seen men betray one another for mere scraps, women abandon their children to the cold because they couldn’t feed them.
We live harsh lives, yet to my knowledge, none have ever proposed what Viktor does. A land united under one banner. Instead, the other Thran are content to rule their domains and maintain the status quo.”
Gren sneered. “That is the way of things, only the strong survive in Sokoras. The land gives nothing to the weak.”
Such a small man. “What would you consider me? Would my status as Viktor’s seneschal say that I am strong? I’m no fighter. I have no skill with a blade or skeggox.”
Gren scowled and narrowed his eyes. “Even cowards have sharp tongues.”
Coward? How many times have I been called that? “Clever men have their own way of fighting, Gren. Now, why the colored cloths?”
He juggled the vial between his fingers in plain view. Gren’s eyes never left it. Even brave as he was, the idea of being enslaved was a terrifying prospect.
“You know this isn’t perfected. The first test subjects died horribly from Fern Withdrawal. They were fanatically loyal, even as they died of hypothermia. The process to make this drug is quite different from the normal refining process.
The heat requirements are immense. Most of the tubing in the stills burst before we can reach peak temperature. Later batches made the subjects devolve into mindless zombies, capable of menial tasks only.” Gunnar held the vial up between his fingers. “The question is, which batch did this vial come from, Gren?”
There was something about the unknown that put fear in the hearts of men. When magic was assumed to be involved, that fear became something more. Gren had that look of a man who had fallen into such fear. His eyes shone with it.
Gunnar glanced back at the vial as he thumbed it between his fingers. It was never clear how much of the potion’s effects were magical or alchemical. Still, there was a part of the process that Viktor never spoke about. Something that lent to the idea that it might be a bit of both.
“Killing me will only cause you more problems,” Gren said.
“Oh? What kind of problems?”
He averted his eyes, turning them toward the stone floor.
“The men are wary, many only wear red out of fear,” he replied. “Others are looking to me to decide what happens. I know Savar has betrayed us for Viktor’s interests.”
His eyes are focused on the vial now, a resigned look on his face. He was expecting to die regardless of whatever he might be told.
“So if you disappear, they will revolt?”
He nodded. “My death, will turn the army against you, fear or not. Viktor will take the blame and we match your forces in number.”
Gunnar frowned. His confidence was disturbing. “You forgot the dragons and the giants.”
“Do you think Henrik or any of the other Thran will allow them to respond when the fighting breaks out?” he commented. “The minute they see them make a move on the city they and the Rangers will descend on them like a winter storm.”
He’s right, it would be chaos. I imagine the Blades would start fighting whoever bared their fangs to them. The giants don’t know all the banners of each Thran. Our own men could easily get caught in the middle.
“And if you don’t disappear, Gren?”
“That depends on Viktor,” he answered.
“Then I am left with no choice, Gren. As I have said, his vision offers a future, bleak or not.”
Gunnar stood and set the chair by the wall. “Guards!” The heavy oak door swung open allowing the torchlight to fully flood the cell. “Hold him still and keep his mouth open.”
“No! Gunnar, wait!” he shouted. “Talk to Illhiem, he sent his goblin. That’s how I knew!”
“Goblin? You believed the word of an animal…A stupid beast?”
“He isn’t like the others! He’s smart and dangerous!”
Gunnar passively thumbed the cork of the vial. An intelligent goblin?
“There was more than just the one, the others hid under white cloaks so they wouldn’t be seen.”
Gunnar paused. “White cloaks?”
He nodded as best as he was able with the guards holding him.
Gunnar put the vial back in his belt pouch and glanced up at the guards. “You two stay here and watch him. You and you, follow me.”