A lament for a bastion
"That," the beast said in a bored tone, "is not my name." Its clawed fingers tapped and rapped on the stone gargoyle's head. "Master's gone, ya know."
"When'll he be back?" she asked lightly as she rose and dusted herself off.
"Soon. Never." The monster yawned, not bothering to spare her a glance. "No one ever tells me anything, let alone him."
Isabelle bared her teeth and cupped her hands around her mouth. As always, she refused to be refused.
The strange creature winced and almost fell from its high perch as her shout pierced the air. Looking over its shoulder, it radiated fear.
"Oi! Quiet!" it hissed.
"You don't understand, the Master will- oh, bloody hell, you're awake…" The monster's voice faltered as it turned.
There was a figure on the top of the narrow staircase leading from the iron gates, halting its steady descent to observe the scene. "Yes, Twinkle, I am." Spectacles shone as they slid down his nose, enabling him to look sharply over their frame. "And why is that?"
Isabelle raised her bloodied fingers and gave a slight wave. "Hello."
Geraud's eyes slowly shifted to her as he crossed the last step and halted under the stone arch of the gate. He was a tall man and in my mind I could imagine him as an imposing threat, even though one would think he seemed about as strong and firm as a green branch of a weeping willow.
"You wouldn't dare."
Isabelle snorted. "Obviously, yes."
"I see your arrogance is still untarnished by manners. I will not allow it."
"Yes, you will. Marquerite send ravens after us, and if you think they are not spying on you as well…" She grinned. "Well, I always said you were a blind fool."
"Indeed? It thought the expression was noble." Geraud seemed almost amused. "If I was one tenth wise as the family finds useful to believe, I would turn around and leave you to the bridge keepers. And Twinkle."
"But since you are obviously not…" Isabelle crooned with a sweet smile. I swallowed hard, for in this exchange I could feel currents running deeper than the light, taunting words. Even the monster called Twinkle was peering curiously down from its arch.
"Twinkle, would you be so kind to open the gates for our guests?" Geraud finally said.
It seemed the forest itself gave a sigh of relief.
"Why?" The beast complained through a yawn, confirming all the tension was gone and making it obvious this was not a new argument.
"Because I hold your lantern," Geraud answered with infinite patience of a parent addressing a spoiled child. "Now do it."
"Yes, Master." It didn't give a bow that would match the mock of its voice, but it caressed the stone it sat on with a sharp claw and hopped off it nonetheless.
"And keep your eyes open. Come to fetch me on any sign of the flyers."
"Fine," Twinkle crossed his arms in front of his chest and raised a clawed finger. "But I get three more hours in the garden for it."
Twinkle huffed and let his arms to fall down his side.
"Fine. But I won't be running to get ya!" he shouted while leaping back on the arch and down the wall, disappearing from our sight.
Geraud observed him go with an ironic lift of the eyebrow. He then turned towards his sister and reached an inviting hand.
"Come, Ysa, and bring your …. friend … along. Stars know he'll be devoured if left alone." It was the first time he spared me a glance and in spite of his rather true words I thought I could see a spark of approval as he evaluated me. He pushed the gates and stepped aside to let us pass, closing them behind us. I could see no padlock, but the chill that ran down my spine and settled into my bones while passing under the stone arch made me think there was no need for one. Geraud took off towards the narrow staircase and we scaled their steep face. We barely made up the first mezzanine when he half turned and threw over his shoulder. "Oh, and I believe you are still unable to read?"
Isabelle grinned at his back. "If the word in question is 'no', then by all means my answer is yes."
His laugh echoed around us and it seemed the tower itself was being amused. Blinking the first drops of rain from my eyes, I decided to take that as a guarantee the Esperth will, at least for now, endure our presence. It was the warmest welcome we received during this long journey, and I felt a smile of my own forming on my face. Maybe this magnificent palace could indeed mark the true start of our adventure.
This impression, however, chose not to last. More often than not we have had to tiptoe our way around a collapsed part of the stairwell, dangerously close to falling into our deaths with not a single bannister to break the fall. The paved courtyard seemed rather distant at this point. The stone under my hands seemed to be blackened both by rain and, at some point, fire. I counted eleven fallen arches before we passed under one still standing, but with a thin cobweb of fine cracks running down its flanks and spreading onto its base.
Yet somehow I knew, I knew this state the tower presented itself in was as real as one of Isabelle's illusions. Was it the small exchange between Isabelle and her eldest brother I witnessed?
"You've let it go to waste, Geraud," Isabelle challenged in a teasing voice. "Such a shame."
"Esperth has its reasons," was his composed answer.
Or was it the way rain seemed to be thrown into motion the moment it touched the stone, flowing away although at times it should not be able to? The more I looked at the swirling drops the more faith I had in my conclusion. From afar it might have resembled a ruin; as we were climbing it, I deemed it indestructible.
It was not long after that that we made it to our goal. When the curtain of the cliff parted before us, we found ourselves facing a masterwork of stone carving in the form of a great portal. The slender columns holding it were made to resemble an intricate filigree of almost transparent leaves and gentle branches, stretching up to meet the graceful dips and rises of the arcades. In the deep shadows of the triple dome imitating the dark night sky, one could see a great wooden door painted red. On each side of the door on a marble sphere sat a winged lioness, and in each lioness's mouth was a wrought iron lantern. The light the lanterns cast was a warm, golden glow, reflected and multiplied in the curves of hundreds and hundreds of bronze bells embedded in the doorway. Our footsteps echoed as we approached it, Geraud briskly, Isabelle idly and I with my head thrown back in order to fully enjoy the sight of the elaborate mosaic of glass tiles coloured every imaginable shade of blue and clusters of silver birds hanging off the curved ceiling instead of stars.
Although Isabelle seemed to be immune to Esperth's charms, I was awestruck.
Geraud gently ran his fingers down the curve of a brass knocker and pushed the door. They swung on oiled hinges and soundlessly opened to reveal a great expanse of darkness. Once my eyes adjusted, I took an involuntary step back.
"Welcome," Geraud's voice was soft as he turned to face the great cathedral. "Welcome to the Tower of Esperth."