The Color of Bone

Graphic by Astrid Crow

Graphic by Astrid Crow

The Maddox House was a quaint home a road away from Farnelle Keep, surrounded by trees as old as the family's legacy. Even throughout winter, the trees weighed heavy with leaves the color of bone.

    Lord Maddox was a particular person with particular habits. Even amidst storms and ailments, at daybreak he would ride his horse across the road to the Maddox House that had only one key. He would disappear for just under an hour, always returning with garments stained from soil.

    Just before a black horizon lay a graveyard of ships, remnants of rigging and masts swaying in the Ruined Sea's gentle lurch. The Farnelle Keep’s shadow hung over the wreckage. Crowning a cliff’s edge, the Keep boasted a foundation made slick by algae, and three-tiered baileys fitted with archery slits, trebuchet platforms, and ambusher’s paths to intercept any climbers who made it past the reefs.  The Farnelle’s grey crests, bitten by arrow and fire, still held strong against winds thick with ash. And within those walls, the forces savored the calm of another successful defense.

 

    All this was of familiar consequence to Lord Maddox, whose footfalls spurred a second life into the recently besieged soldiers, reorganizing and clearing the baileys that had for weeks hosted scores of arrows, cannons, rations and sleeping mats to provide surcease, even when the stars they had slept under were bursting with runed arrows and blazing shrapnel.

    "Captain Bridges," Lord Maddox greeted, pulling up the artillery specialist who had been sitting half-asleep, watching the waves from a watchtower. “On your feet. We can all rest once our home is looking like a proper one again."

    "Your word," Breanne replied. "The place will be spotless by nightfall. It will be as if the Shattered never'd come."

    "Tell the masons to leave some scars along the outer walls, if the structure can spare it. Our enemies should know we've survived their worst."

    "Your word."

    "Where is Stewardess Lillan?"

    "Arranging housing of the captives in the Lower Den."

    "How many were there?"

    "There were not many survivors, my lord. Only three."

    Though Breanne caught the hint of disappointment, her lord granted her another encouraging grin and pat on the arm before striding off for the stairs of the Lower Den.

    As long as he had ruled the Farnelle Keep, Lord Maddox kept his daily orders to his servants precisely the same. Always, were they instructed to wake him half a hand before daybreak, and always, was he already stirred, groomed, dressed, and adjusting his schedule by candlelight at his desk. Many suspected the lord had a Qalmorian clock, enchanted to track the sunrise despite the turning light of each season, as he never rose after sunrise in neither winter nor summer. But the ceaseless inspection of his chambers by curious servants revealed this hypothesis to be untrue.

   The flutter of torchlight flickered Maddox's silhouette against the thinning staircase of the Lower Den, casting waves of his mid-length, peppered hair in wild tendrils. Still dressed for commanding combat, the fitted seams of his charcoal uniform and grey over cloak cast a daunting shadow, one that slipped into Steward Lillan's interrogation room just as the walls muffled another scream.

    A myriad of stains forever blemished the otherwise tidy floor of the simple cells where Lillan conducted her responsibility. When the stewardess turned to face him, relief eased her posture. She set down a dirtied scalpel and gave a salute that Maddox returned. The outer coat of her uniform had been taken off, revealing a beige undershirt with sleeves pushed up, blotched with sweat.

    Against one of the cell walls, a table of diverse instruments were organized by efficacy. Lillan had not needed to delve far into her kit.

   "Well, have you boys been cooperative?" Maddox asked the three captives chained to the soaked chairs nailed to the floor. "You seem to have been keeping my steward busy."

    "My lord, only one of them understands Addorian," she said.

    One of the captives moaned something that sounded like the cross between a plea and an insult.

    Lillan stomped her foot and snapped a threat in the Gilded tongue, causing the bruised and cut soldier to flinch back into whimpers.

    "But the Shattered's men are not so dogmatic as suspected," she continued. "They cracked easily."

    "Evidently," Maddox observed. “Your floors are cleaner than usual. What have you discovered?"

    Lillan removed a gin glass smudged with brown fingerprints from the top of a journal that had seen many nights like this one, its pages bespattered by both blood and ink alike. She handed it to him, turning to her most recent page of notes.

    A cursory glance set Maddox' usual grin into a smile of polished teeth. "Whatever rations are left, double them and disperse them to the soldiers. Any leftovers should be given to the Farnelle staff. See to it that we feast for two nights. You are dismissed early, Lillan, on account of excellence in your duties. I’ll see to the rest of this personally.”

    Even to her, the term 'excellence' to describe her work was unsettling. "But there may be more."

    "There is always more, but what we have is more than enough."

    "What of my station?"

    "I will have it cleaned for you. I may just do it myself."

    "You word."

    With that, the foreigners watched the woman who had inflicted so much agony stride from the room without so much as a backwards glance, leaving them with a man whose gazed fixed just a little too long at the instruments that Lillan hadn't gotten to.


    Few servants rose before the hour of their master’s. But of those who did, even rarer still, on the mornings which followed a successful defense from sieging forces, Lord Maddox was seen to lead a drawn cart in tow from his horse, always laden with a few sacks and a single captive soldier, bound and gagged.

    So with dawn just arriving on the black horizon scattered with the bones of a thwarted siege, Lord Maddox left Farnelle Keep riding a single, charcoal horse with a drawn cart encumbered by the weight of two burlap sacks and a Shattered soldier sitting cross-legged, shaking in the chill.

    Lord Maddox dismounted with a sigh and a stretch, and looked out at the sun pushing up the bleeding edge of the Ruined Sea, before retrieving the parcels in his cart and tending to the lush gardens and trees surrounding the Maddox House. The soldier, silent as the hour was still, watched the lord for nearly an hour. As Lord Maddox always did, he spent that dawn with his knees and hands in the soil, massaging in mulch made from the two enemy soldiers with a loving and knowing roughness, a technique of enriching the soil that had been passed down the Farnelle legacy.

    On return from his morning routine, he waved a warm farewell to the small crew bearing the surviving soldier back onto the sea from which he had recently attacked from. With dirtied hands, Lord Maddox had whispered into the soldier's ear, "to tell your superiors how the ivory trees here bloom."