(Continued) Offenure, Lenyol
The city was a wonder to Kesia. Along the route to their inn she absorbed the scope of city life, with all its noise and haste and sensory onslaught.
Castleknock was an impressive place. Three levels in height with gilded windows—each fitted with stained glass—its interior and furnishings had the opulence of nobility. It was a relief to Kesia that by the time of their arrival most guests were asleep, and that the innkeeper recognised Mitchas with warmth. His beautiful horses were taken to the castle stables, and they were shown to their rooms.
Before dawn the following morning, Kesia and Mellena woke to set their hair and determine which of their clothes best reflected their surrounds. None did, of course, for agrarian villages did not spin fine cloth. Embroidered tunics and clean hose would have to do. Kesia felt deeply embarrassed by her soleless shoes, and tied the understraps tight in hope her toes would not be noticed.
__With permission from Mellena’s parents, they stepped outside and were awed.
‘No wonder it’s called Castleknock,’ Kesia breathed.
Before them stretched Offenure Plás, perhaps six acres of cobbled sandstone, and at its head, Offenure Castle. The castle rose above the city square like a great wave, gilded turrets ablaze in the breaking of day, its immense golden flag bearing the Alia like a battle cry.
The castle faced south, and the wind continued from the north. The flag fought against its chains toward them, and fear streaked through Kesia with the sense it was trying to attack. In the same moment, a huge black apparition passed over the castle—it flew at and past her with great menace, clouding Mellena—and she ducked with a shriek, clutching her hair.
Mellena grabbed her friend in alarm—though Kesia alone had seen the phantom—as another scream echoed across the square. ‘Lynx!’ someone cried, and a dozen other shouts of surprise followed. Within a few breaths all those who heard the cry, including the girls, had crouched in prostration.
Eyes firmly locked to the sandstone, Kesia did not see the creature approach. She swallowed another yelp when it broke into her vision, head bowed, emitting a strange sound—why–it was purring! Short and shallow breaths revealed her panic. The animal burst forward and nuzzled her shoulder.
Still petrified, she rocked forward onto her knees and looked the lynx in the face. Its amber eyes were round with amity. Kesia moved a hand to stay her beating heart, a gesture the creature misread—in an instant its large moccasin paws rested on her knees, and its wet nose was pressed into her left cheek. It was more than half her own size and despite its benevolence her quivering escalated, penetrating her veins. Her vision began to spin.
Believing her friend would faint, Mellena moved to catch her. The lynx’s claws suddenly extended, piercing Kesia’s legs, and it hissed fiercely at Mellena, tufted ears flat against its head, fangs bared. Mellena turned white as it stepped very slowly toward her.
Kesia’s fear folded to protect her friend. ‘Shh!’ She patted her lap, trying to draw it back. ‘Hey—shh, shh, leave alone, you’re alright…’ She scurried to Mellena’s side, holding a hand out to appease the lynx. ‘Shh…come here.’ She tried to touch the lynx’s back but it retreated, hissing again at Mellena before turning and fleeing back to the castle.
The girls stood, clasping hands, and found an audience in all the square’s occupants. They immediately withdrew into Castleknock.
After tending Kesia’s punctured thighs and replacing her hose, the girls took a table in the inn’s vine-draped courtyard. The standing clock was still shy of eight o’ clock.
‘Why did you scream?’ Mellena asked Kesia when the breakfast maid had gone.
Kesia’s feigned confusion did not deceive.
‘Before the lynx, you saw something, and ducked.’
‘O! I thought a pigeon flew at me.’
‘You know I don’t believe you.’
‘Your parents!’ she stood, and whispered, ‘O my goodness Daldria, you look like a noblewoman. Is the dress suede?’
The conversation quickly moved to Brennan and his generosity, but for the duration of the morning whenever alone Mellena pressed Kesia to reveal what had frightened her. Kesia remained silent.
Yet her thoughts did not waver from the lynx and the swooping shadow. Dozens of explanations visited her mind, each dismissed. By the time they approached the castle gates to meet Brennan, late in the afternoon, she was ready to forget what she thought she had seen. Inside the castle wall, however, was a fresco which halted her step. Half-concealed by shadow, she gasped in silence as its subject yielded to her adjusting eyes: for the creature depicted was absolutely that which had flown between her and Mellena. Heart racing, she bolted to rejoin the others, ignoring Mellena’s looks, trying to banish from her mind the image of the Black Dragon.