I strained against Don’s grip. In my fury I struggled to unsheathe my blade. Stonebeard meekly said, “So I guess you know each other.”
Hound looked smug. His affected accent made me want to hurt him more as he spread his hands wide. “Auch, you’re not still upset with me are ye? Dat twas just a bit of bad business. Business, you see? No need to go takin’ it personal.”
“Personal? You murdered all of my friends. How could I not take that personal? I’ll have your head!” I was seeing red mist. I wanted nothing more than to see this betrayer dead, even if it cost me my life.
Stonebeard spoke up, trying to break the tension. “Hey, I understand you’re mad. But he’s going to help us. He’s promised to back our play against the Summer King and his cronies.”
Jarrod spoke up from his hiding spot, “What then? He’s just going to come back and kill us all again. He’s still going to try to collect on my bounty as soon as he’s done.”
Hound shook his head in mock sadness. “Nay, A’h cannot, per the terms of the arrangement. I get the Kings and Queens as my prize for helping you, and in return I canna’ attempt harm on any member of this free’old. If ye be a part of this free’old, then A’h guess that’d be applyin’ to you as well.”
Jarrod softened at once. My heart sank as I realized what was being offered and I knew I’d lost this fight. The Hound was offering the illusion of protection and security, and all it would cost is a tiny betrayal. The seduction must have been intoxicating. I could see the fear in the eyes of everyone in the room. They would give anything to be able to believe, even if for only a moment, that they would be safe from their fear. With a heavy heart, I sank.
As Stonebeard and The Hound announced the plan to all assembled, they rejoiced, and I grew sad. I would sacrifice my life if need be to help these people, but it would seem they required something more. They would require I sacrifice my very soul. If that be the cost, then I am bound by oath to offer it up to the altar.
We gathered at a dinner near The Tower as a staging area, and despite the claim of peace, clubs, knives and chains were readily visible. We set out towards the tower, and I formed part of the vanguard for the diplomatic party. We were met by the gate guard. He retreated briefly into The Tower and emerged soon after, calling Stonebeard and the rest of us forth to an audience.
The Summer King sat in his throne, and eyed the group assembled before him. His eye was drawn almost immediately to The Hound. His eyes narrowed. “You ally with HIM? Do you realize what you are doing?”
I could not meet his eyes. I focused my will to keep the tears from my eye. I wanted to scream that his own corruption made this betrayal possible. I wanted to cry out to stop this atrocity. Instead I held my tongue. They required my soul in trade for their safety, and I was bound to offer it up.
Silently the ruling members of the freehold and their retainers filed out and followed The Hound, leaving their crowns behind. Stonebeard stepped forward to take up the summer crown, and one by one the other ruling heads came forward to claim their own seasonal crowns. As they layed the crowns on their heads, the corrupt taint of them seeped into the minds of the kings and queens. This whole court had been founded on a betrayal, so it would seem that the fates had decided that the freehold would pay it’s price from the start.
Jarrod and Don, along with our newcomers, beckoned me over from the party that had erupted. They had realized that something was amiss. I explained to them that the court had been founded on a corrupt betrayal, and that the entire assemblage was tainted by it. They soon realized the depth of their actions, having had fallen prey to the seduction fully themselves. I tasked Jarrod with talking to the freehold while I gathered supplies. I was set on making this right, even if it meant I would have to carve a path through the hedge to retrieve those that had been betrayed.
I returned a few minutes later with backpacks, a few supplies, water and energy bars, to Jarrod explaining how he had been unable to persuade the masses. I doled out the packs, and said, “Well, get to tracking. You claim to know Hound best. You’ve got to find where he went.”
We asked around and managed to get pointed in the direction of a local church near a graveyard. The church itself was locked up, and as Jarrod and Don explored the graveyard, I found a small sanctuary and confessional, attended by a priest, behind the church. He noticed my entry and made for the confessional. I’m not a particularly religious person, and my title of Bishop is more of an honorary thing, but I entered into the confessional anyway.
After kneeling, a small window opened and the priest asked, “How may I help you, my son?”
I answered, “I’m not Catholic.”
He chuckled and said, “That’s fine. I know you aren’t. I would have recognized you. But here we are. So how may I help you, my son?”
I spoke to him at length. The betrayal, so recent, still weighed heavily on me. I needed to come clean to someone, so that I could enter into the hedge free of doubt and guilt. Soon I heard the shout of Jarrod. “Hey, we found something, Vic. We need you.” With renewed hope, I stepped back onto that lonely stage.