|Vineyard at night|
The piping of the tree frogs was the only sound to be heard. It was dark -- very dark; the tiny sliver of moon was not enough to guide Newel's steps. The servants were asleep, and the castle was a quiet as a tomb. Newel walked with cat-like steps into the still, night air, seeking a refuge from his trouble dreams.
His path wound through the gardens, his feet tracing the familiar pattern of stones beneath his feet. Then on he crept, to the arbor and the vineyard beyond.
Hark! What was that sound? Newel froze, his ears straining to catch any noise. But all was silent over the piping frogs. Newel drew in a long breath and let it out slowly before resuming his journey.
But what was that? The sound again! Newel spun, his eyes searching the darkness. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, and, in his mind, he heard a voice whisper, "First your mother...now you." Newel's blood ran cold at the thought.
"Who's there!" Newel shouted, with a show of bravado. "Show yourself or by ---, I will..."
A cracking twig and the rustle of young leaves prefaced the appearance of a dark form. Newel strained his eyes into the darkness, barely perceiving the cloaked figure.
"Hei! Stop there! State your purpose," Newel demanded, gathering his feet under him for a sudden flight.
"A thousand pardons, your Grace," croaked a low voice that proved to be as tremulous as Newel's. "I wish to speak to you."
The sudden release of his fears soured Newel's mood. He drew his own cloak around him and glared at the newcomer. "You should be hung for this," Newel blustered. "And trespassing! Your punishment will increase ten-fold for your insolence."
The newcomer held out pleading hands. "Pardon, your Grace! Oh, pardon! But I have one wish before I die...and it has to do with your mother," the man said.
Newel started as though a loud noise had awakened him. "My mother," he exclaimed. "You? How dare you speak of her?"
The man dropped the hood of his cloak, revealing a middle-aged man with an unkempt beard, a red nose, and baggy eyes. Newel drew back from him in disgust.
"My name is Gosif. Believe you that your mother's death was an accident?" the man queried, with a meaningful look.
Newel froze again, eyeing the man. "No," he said, finally. His tone was suspicious and his eyes were wide as he tried to read the face of the man called Gosif.
"Neither do I," said the man, his voice in a hoarse whisper. "I suspect her father."
"Her father?" Newel exclaimed. "What proof have you?"
"Rumor has it that relations have never been good between them," Gosif began.
It was true. Newel had seen his mother meet privately with her father and leave that meeting with pursed lips and an angry face. But he had never suspected any real danger from it.
"And he was seen to leave the palace only the day before her death," Gosif added. "By me."
Newel's lips curled back into a smirk. "How would one such as you recognize my grandfather," he scoffed.
The change that came over the man's face was terrible. There was a burning anger -- a terrible hatred such as Newel had never seen before. It was the face of a desperate man and it fascinated Newel.
"Never will I forget that face," the man whispered, his eyes fixed on a distant spot as though he saw his enemy before him. "I see it day and night. Even in my dreams. Because of him, my family is gone. Wife. Two sons. Starved. Now I have nothing left to lose. Nothing but revenge. That man will suffer for what he has done."
For a moment both men were silent. Gosif relived his past and dreamed of vengence, his eyes clearly showing that his mind was no longer in the present. Newel was silently calculating. Gosif only needed leadership, and Newel suspected the man could be moved to do nearly anything. It was a novel idea, to have a man devoted to him, and Newel's hunger for power suddenly filled his mouth with a pleasant taste. It would be interesting to see how far Gosif would go. And there was absolutely no danger in it -- Gosif was easy enough to get rid of.
Had his grandfather killed his mother? Newel did not know. Gosif's word alone was not sufficient proof but Newel did not care. He wanted his mother avenged, and his grandfather seemed a likely culprit. Perhaps his nightmares, such as the one that drove him to the vineyards this very night, would relinquish their hold on him if Mara's death were avenged.
"Why do you come to me?" Newel asked at last.
Gosif bowed his head for a moment, as if asking pardon from his dead family. Then he raised his eyes to Newel's face. "I am enslaved to a man in the city. I have already risked my life by sneaking here. But I have nothing to lose. I must have revenge and, after your mother's death, I thought perhaps..."
"You thought I would help you," Newel finished, a scheming look in his eye. For a moment, he watched the man, enjoying the looks of hope and despair that flickered across his face. Those looks were entirely dependent on Newel, and Newel enjoyed the feeling of power as the man waiting breathlessly for Newel to continue. Then, slowly, Newel pulled a bag of coins from his waist.
"I will buy you," Newel announced. "With this money, I redeem you for myself." Newel paused again, studying the man's face. "You shall have your revenge," Newel informed him, watching as the hungry look in the man's eye's grew even hungrier. "If..."
The "if" sent worry to the man's soul and he looked sharply into Newel's face. "I will return and serve you with all that I am," Gosif promised, quickly.
"Are you willing to do anything?" Newel asked with a shrewd look.
Somehow divining Newel's meaning, a shrewd look was mirrored in Gosif's face. "Your enemies will tremble because of me," he promised. "I will do your bidding with the skill of a rat, and I will answer only to you, Master."
Satisfied, Newel dropped the bag of coins into Gosif's hands. "Your first assignment is to kill the murderer," he told the man, as the coins clinked together in the bag.
"I will snap his neck," promised Gosif, the Rat.
"No," Newel said firmly, his eyes narrowing. Gosif stared wonderingly at his new master.
Newel looked back in the direction of the castle and clenched his teeth. "You will throw him from a balcony," Newel finished, softly but fiercely.
A grin spread across Gosif's face and he nodded his agreement.
And thus Newel engaged his first Rat...the first of many.