The Manor

The carriage’s wheels were creating a hypnotic rhythm. Dame Thanda Lainsborough felt herself drifting out of awareness. That was dangerous, she reminded herself. Still, it was nostalgic. This was the same route she’d first taken after her marriage. That had been spring and this was fall, of course, but the trees were the same, the distant snow-capped mountains were the same, and even the approaching manor house was the same.

The Lainsborough family fields spread out in rings around the manor house. Serf and freeman alike raised their caps to the carriage upon seeing the heraldic device emblazoned on its side. Thanda studied the fields carefully. She’d been away for months on delicate diplomatic matters, and even the small details of her lands interested her under normal circumstances. But all looked in order.

The manor house itself was another matter. Much of it had been covered in a crude wooden scaffold. Repairmen were at work. Thanda spotted wagon wheel tracks leading to the side of the house. Her keen eyes noted a splintered wheel leaning up against an outbuilding. An accident? But never mind. She would learn the details when she got inside.

Her second son, Davian, was waiting for her with a smile. “The border guards raised the flag after you came through. I thought you’d like to receive a report, then have some dinner.”

“You know me too well,” Dame Thanda replied with a heartfelt smile. “Precise and in control. Just like your grandfather was.”

The report was complete and conclusive, the dinner delicious. Thanda retired to the parlour and reviewed the notes Davian had prepared. She’d heard the outline earlier. Now she read through the manor scribe’s cribbed handwriting on crop estimates, reports from the outriders around the manor’s borders, complaints from the freemen, births, deaths. Dinner had been especially rich, and she was getting drowsy.

“Oh, and one other thing,” Davian added. He rose, fingering a book on the shelf.

“Yes? What is it?” Thanda blinked at the text on the page. The data seemed in good order. It must have been something minor.

“I sabotaged the cairnstones.” He said it almost casually. And Thanda immediately knew something was wrong. Not only was it an act of rankest betrayal, something she’d been unable to foresee from spending the half-day in his presence, but she wasn’t physically as shocked. The feeling of sleepiness - the spiciness of the meal - drugs!

She tried to stand, and her hand groped for the daggers she kept on her person. “Those won’t help you,” Davian remarked. The sound of booted feet in the hall confirmed his words. The door burst open and armed figures poured in as Thanda wavered to her feet. None of these men or women were familiar. Mercenaries, then. How long had he been planning this?

“So like… your grandfather,” Thanda gasped. She had to buy time while she felt for whatever might be left. Could she get him talking, or would he be as cold as the old man had been?

“Grandfather is why I had to do this, mother.” Good, he’d fallen for it. “You were always too soft. We lost power, prestige, and wealth when father died and you took over.”

“Your grandfather… was a hard, bad man,” Thanda replied, feeling her voice slurring the words. “Your father, brave as he was, stayed under his thumb even after his death. Then we lost him… I had… to change things…”

“You ruined us!” shouted Davian.

“There is a cost… to kindness… I pay it gladly. That is why… you will survive this.” She felt the energy of the surviving cairnstone - the one buried deep beneath the manor, the one she’d built and consecrated without even her husband knowing. Good. That meant the people were still with her, even if her son wasn’t. A wave of energy washed over her, knocking the sellswords and Davian onto their butts. It smashed open the window, too. With the last of the power she washed the narcotic out of her system and flung herself for the break in the window and the darkness beyond.

Thanda admired the boy’s scheme over a midnight snack of roast rabbit. The tiny fire was the only light in a forest of black. And she stared into the flame, thinking. Davian had certainly inherited his grandfather’s knack for planning. The “wagon wreck” at the manor house was a fake, with the repair efforts hiding the cairnstones from her sight until she was inside.

The people of the manor might believe her if she pled her case to them, if Davian hadn’t already concocted a story to deceive them. Or they might be loyal to Davian after all, if he explained his cause to them. After all, he’d personally had no chance to drug her food. That meant at least one conspirator in the household staff.

There was too much she didn’t know about the situation, even if there were other surviving cairnstones. And without the cairnstones, she lacked power. She’d need conventional forces of her own. She’d need friends. It was time to leave the manor lands and find her old allies. This was going to take time.