As the door opened Gael straightened herself in her high backed chair.
Holding court was not something she would have once grown impatient with, but it had been almost a week since she had sent Varys away and there was no whisper of Robert's reply. Doing such mundane tasks at this seemed trivial when she could almost hear the rolling thunder of war.
She worried that they would be the ones that would have to have to push forward and attack first in an attempt to provoke a response. But sudden attacks like those did not inspire others to aid their cause – it would be best that war was announced officially so that there was time for other Houses to choose sides.
Gael cast a glance out of the window.
Stannis had backed them. The soldiers he had sent her would arrive any day now.
The Tully's, too, had sworn oaths.
Gael was gambling that the Stark's would perhaps join the fray if they did not freeze up in the North first. Talk told that Lord Stark was friends with Robert Baratheon, but that he was also an honorable man.
He could sway either way, Gael decided.
Through the court doors, the next man to be trialed entered the room – assured in by four guards.
"My Lady," one of the guards's said, dropping to one knee at the center of the room, "my Lord First General."
Garrett stood at her right, clothed not in his armor but in his usual long, grey coat with his sword strapped at his side.
Garrett's sword was unusual. Many men carried thick, heavy swords – made for hacking and slashing and taking off men's heads. But Garrett's sword was thin, elegant. It would not take off a man's limb, but it would slip between his rib cage and pierce his heart as easily as a breath if it got the chance.
Gael and her brother both inclined their heads at the guard in turn and he stood. "I present to you Carrick Bain, my Lady."
He moved and Gael was allowed her first sight of the man Byrde had bought her. Two weeks in her prison cells underneath Queen's Fort had not diminished Carrick Bain's rugged good-look's, but his peculiarly rich clothing was soiled and brown with dirt so that Gael could not tell what the original color had been. He was maybe a few years older than her brother, Garrett – forty? – and his hands were clamped together in metal cuffs.
"Why did you kill three men, Carrick Bain?" Garrett asked.
A wry smile flashed across the man's face as quick as a bird's shadow, and the guard spoke for him. "The Questioners could not extract any information from him, my Lady."
"But it wasn't for lack of trying," Bain commented, rolling up his sleeves so that she could see the burns branded onto his arms.
She ignored him. "Will you confess the circumstances of your crime to the Lady?" she asked.
"No, I will not."
Black humor colored her voice, almost despite herself. "Are you so eager to face the executioners axe, master Bain?"
"It is a quicker death than I will find elsewhere, my Lady, I assure you."
One of the guard's stepped forward. "Forgive me, my Lady, but we do have someone who will vouch for the man's crimes."
Gael accepted and a young woman was brought forward. She was tall, dressed in a villagers clothing with a scarf round her neck.
"What is your name?"
"Alanna, my Lady," she said, in a small voice.
"What can you tell us about this man, Alanna," asked Garrett. Gael kept her gaze fixed on Bain, and thought she could detect a flicker of unease in his eyes. It was gone before she could be sure, however.
The girl took a deep breath. "Master Bain came to Whitebridge but two years ago," she said. "He was very rich and had a nobleman's baring and appearance. He bought a small household on the edge of the village…" The woman chewed on her lip. "He gave us very little trouble, my Lady, though we were sure he was hiding from some business elsewhere. He bedded a few woman over the years, but otherwise –"
"You're vouching for the man's innocence?" interrupted Garrett, impatient.
The woman shook her head quickly. "No, m'lord," she said, and Gael noticed how she kept on shooting scared looks at Bain, keeping close to the guards. "He took me into his house, once, and it was filled with these beautiful…terrible instruments –"
"-They were my inventions, you fool girl," snapped Bain, but he was quickly silenced by a guard.
"I didn't know what they were," she said, her voice shaking. "He got drunk and I was scared and I wanted to leave but he got angry. He grabbed my face and told me to watch and then…then he made fire."
Gael felt as if something had been severed with in her. She felt her stomach drop, and her hands gripped the arms of her chair so tightly her knuckles were white.
The woman was now tearful. "Men had been disappearing for months – we thought it was the Clannsmen, but when I tried to run he said he had to burn me, too, like he'd burnt the others. That I couldn't see. I couldn't know."
Carrick Bain's face was white. The woman wept openly now. "I begged and pleaded and he let me go, but he said if I mentioned it to anyone Whitebridge would burn."
Gael had had nightmares of Blackmore burning to ashes for as long as she'd had its seat of power. The arrival of this man made those dreams seem acutely prophetic.
"Take him down to the prison cells and torture him until he talks," Gael demanded. "If there's one sorcerer on Blackmore land there will be others."
"No, damn it!" yelled Bain, as the guards moved forwards to drag him out. "You said you'd kill me!"
"Death would be too kind," Gael spat. She felt very cold and very afraid, like a child.
"The insipid quim's lying, burn you."
"A poor choice of words to gain your freedom," replied Garrett, wryly. "Take him away."
"No!" Bain roared - and the ferocity of his bellow caused the guard's to falter nervously and take a step back from him. "I am not what she says I am," he said, striding towards Gael.
She saw Garrett draw his sword from the corner of her eye and Gael stood as he got closer, reaching up her sleeve to where she kept her dagger.
Bain halted a few feet away and procured from his pocket a small pouch. He opened it, and tipped its contents onto the floor before him. It was some kind of gritty black powder and Bain crouched down, picking a little up and letting it run through his fingers. "Charcoal and sulfur, my lady…" he said his voice slightly hoarse.
He strode to the side of the room and retrieved a torch from a bracket on the wall. Gael tensed further and she heard a fearful murmur ripple round the guards.
"…with the right presence of heat," continued Carrick Bain, almost feverishly, "will…ignite."
He dropped the torch and as Garrett rushed forwards the black powder caught fire with a bang. Several of the men cried out and Gael took a step backwards.
However, after the initial panic everybody paused. There was a charred mark on the stone floor where the powder had been and the air smelt of smoke but otherwise, nobody had been hurt.
"This is not witchcraft or magic or socerey, Gael Blackmore," said Carrick Bain, warily, "this is science. Like your bridges and your medicine and your astrology."
Gael was silent for a long time. Her face gave none of her thoughts away, though the paleness of her skin still lingered from the remnants of her fear. "Why do you seek death so readily?" she asked, eventually.
"I was Tywin Lannister's advisor at Casterly Rock as a young man. He respected my mind and kept me close, but his respect for me made me arrogant and foolish. Joanna Lannister wished to bed me and – stupidly – I allowed her to. She became pregnant and gave the child over to me to care for, telling her husband the babe had died at childbirth. I raised my son for eight years. Alas, the bitch confessed her sin on her death-bead and Tywin had him killed and I fled to your lands. I planned and schemed take revenge on the Lannister's, but that candle burned to the quick long ago. Now, my lady, all I wish for is death. I have murdered ten men to ensure I was not found here – there, I have told you shamelessly. By your laws, I must now be executed."
"Hand me your sword," Gael said, turning to Garrett.
He obliged, and she gripped it tightly. She had never held a sword before, and the balance of it felt odd.
Never the less, she turned back to face Carrick Bain and saw the haunted look in his eyes as he remembered the son he had lost. She regretted her decision.
"Kneel," she instructed him. The room was very quiet.
He did as she instructed, bowing his head in preparation for the blow.
She thought, for a second, how strange it was for a man's life to rest in her hands and then she lifted the sword and brought it down – touching each shoulder once.
"Rise," she murmured. "Ser Carrick Bain."
There was a collective intake of breath. A moment where disbelief hung tangibly in the air.
His brown eyes met her grey ones. "Why?" he asked, simply.
"Because you are far too valuable to my cause, Ser Carrick, for me to merely allow you to slip through my fingertips," she replied. "Your inventions and this…black powder…will be valuable to the war. You will do my bidding…and I will give you permission to die when I consider your service to me fulfilled."
He was quiet for a moment. "I will hold you to that promise, my Lady."
"I give you my word – now rise, Ser Carrick Bain."
But he remained on one knee for a moment – long enough for him to take her hand and kiss the spot of white skin just below her knuckles. "It is not every day that a ruler will make a wandering vagabond and a murderer a knight, my Lady Blackmore. History will remember such a woman," he murmured, as his lips left her skin. "For ill or for good."
Gael struggled to keep her voice from shaking as the man she had knighted finally rose to stand before her.
"Get this man fresh clothes and allocate him new chambers – a cell is hardly the living quarters of a knight of Blackmore."
One of the guards seemed to hesitate before nodding. "Of course, m'lady."
Carrick was escorted out of the hall under dramatically different circumstances to when he entered it.
Knowing that all eyes were on her, Gael attempted to sit back in her chair in a way that did not reveal how tired she suddenly was.
Her whole body felt weak and she tried to remember how long it had been since she'd last slept. A day? Two?
There had been so many things to worry about: demands that had had to be met. After the imposed trading ban, Blackmore had been left to supply food for itself. They'd underestimated how little food their land held and how many men had been withdrawn from farming and hunting to become soldiers. Woman had had to take over jobs where men could not, the exotic foods from the West were no longer seen in Blackmore halls.
The gears of war were turning, but it was slowly now - forced forward with more effort.
The presence of Carrick Bain and the revelation he had brought with him soothed Gael somewhat. It was good to know that they, at least, would have a surprise up their sleeves like Kings Landing undoubtedly would.
"You made an unusual choice there, my Lady." Cassain said, rubbing his beard agitatedly as he walked up to stand next to her.
"You're not going to condemn me for it?" she asked, teasing.
"Gods no, I've learnt you can be more mule-headed than you were ten years ago when you make your mind up about something…although," he hesitated, his smile fading. "Tread lightly now, m'lady. Word will spread that you made a man convicted of murder a knight. Some will not respect you for that decision. Others will think they can make the same choices as that man did and walk free – unpunished."
"I've long been aware that my actions have consequences, Cassain," she said, more sharply than she would have intended.
He merely bowed. "Of course, but it is my job to make you aware of those consequences."
Suddenly the door was thrust open. It took a split second for Gael to realize that the person entering the room was not a guard with another prisoner, but a man in a black cloak.
It took longer for Gael to realize he meant her harm.
Garrett moved almost instantly.
"PROTECT THE LADY!" he yelled, drawing his sword at the same time the cloaked man threw back his hood, revealing a face half covered in tattoos.
"DEATH TO THE FALSE DRAGON!" he roared.
A silver knife appeared in his hand and Gael stood from her chair quickly – and pain exploded in her right shoulder.
She looked down, mute with agony, to see the hilt of the knife protruding from her skin.
The room was spinning around her as she yanked the blade out, blood staining her white dress red. Vaguely, Gael was aware of Garrett taking the assassin's head off in a clean stroke, but then another black cloaked figure appeared in the room to take his place.
Bard was in front of her.
"You two," he said to Cassain and a guard before they could move to join the fray. "Come with me."
He picked Gael up as easily as if she weighed as much as a child and she cried out when the movement jolted her arm.
"Where…are you taking me?" she whispered, definitely beginning to feel sick.
"Somewhere safe," Bard replied, grimly.
They left the hall by a back door which opened onto a small, spiral stair case. Bard moved quickly down it, despite holding her in his arms.
"How did they get in," he demanded, angrily. "They shouldn't have been able to touch her!"
"They were trained assassins," said Cassain, gruffly – his voice coming from somewhere behind them. "Judging by the words they were sent by the Targaryan's."
"The Targaryan's are dead," Gael protested weakly.
"Apparently not my Lady," Cassain answered curtly, but she could distinctly hear the uneasiness in his voice.
She reached down the neck line of her dress to touch her wound, only to withdraw her hand and see it wet with her own blood. She moaned aloud.
"Is she going to live?" asked the guard, his voice echoing ominously in the stairwell.
"It was just a wound to the shoulder."
"Aye, but if it was a poison-soaked knife…" fretted Cassain.
"Fuck, don't think like that, man," Bard swore, angrily.
They reached the bottom of the stairwell which led onto a long corridor. As a child Gael had explored every part of Queen's Fort and she suddenly understood exactly where they were going. In the event of a siege, there was a safe-room in the bowels of the fort. She had often hid in it as a girl when she played with Byrde.
Then she had laughed and been happy. Visiting it now under such different circumstances was sobering.
"We're not under siege," she protested, weakly.
"There's only so much we can do against assassins of this skill, m'lady. You will be safe here."
There were soldiers placed on every corner of every corridor. When they finally made it to the chambers, they found the door to be of the same type as the one to Queen's Fort. Meters thick, with intricate locks.
As the door opened Gael's wound gave a particularly painful throb and she blacked out.
A/N Sorry this chapter took so long to write. I have exams coming up and I've been revising for those so…
Hope you enjoyed this chapter!