The spiraling stone stairs lead from the receiving hall to this cavernous, chill chamber of torch-lit stone shadows. The walls are festooned with the twisted visages of sneering, leering and snarling gargoyles with horns and fangs and wildling claws, gazing down on those who inhabit the residence as if prepared to pounce.
Jamot Seamel, first master of the Brooding Keep, carved the exquisite sculptures from gray marble taken from a quarry in the River District and, in the third year of marriage to Anae Nillu, had his vassals install the sculptures as a ward against the Shadow's Touch. In the fourth year of their marriage, shortly after Anae celebrated her nineteenth birthday, one of the sculpted gargoyles cracked and fell from its stone perch as she strolled beneath it.
The blunt force of the marble form did considerable damage to her head, but the blow was not instantly fatal. She lingered for six weeks while the healers ministered to her, and while Jamot struggled to keep hope and faith against the misery of realizing that what had been meant to protect his beloved, created by his own hand, had felled her.
A gap exists in the circle of gargoyles - the fallen sculpture never got replaced in this chamber that became known as the Sorrow Vault.
Arkady yells, "Fat Arkady! The Shadow take you, keep your bloody hands off that gargoyle!"
Standing near the top of the stairs, the stout form of Arkady waggles a beefy finger at a particularly obese younger version of himself, who is trying to grab at a gargoyle perched on a pedestal. Other boys, ranging in age from toddler to teen, move among the gargoyles. Some boys are tall. Some are short. Some are skinny. A couple are fat. Some are hairy. Some are hairless. All seem to be just a step away from getting into deep trouble with the older man. "Now, I mean it! Hands off the sculptures! This is why we have nothing nice, lads!"
Chamber doors fling open and out staggers Jafron. Barefoot and with mussy hair, the noble frantically buttons his silken shirt before spotting his new guests. His face is crimson in an instant and he freezes mid-button. An instinct from deep within suggests to the soldier that if he should remain perfectly still, and make not so much as a whimper, he shall go unnoticed.
Arkadia brushes her unbound hair back over her shoulders as she hurriedly steps out of the suite *right* behind Jafron, almost running right into him. She tugs at her clothing and tries to cast a quick, reassuring smile toward the nobleman, but her own face is rosy with heat. There's a glimmer of mischievous merriment twinkling in the girl's green eyes, however. "Papa! What are -you- doing here? And with the -boys-!"
There seems to be no trace of merriment in Arkady's face as he reddens and turns toward the sound of the whooshing doors, the blurted inquiry of the woman. Distracted from critiquing the gargoyle-handling by his sons, Arkady growls, shaking his finger at Arkadia. "We come to take you back, Arkadia." He narrows his eyes, lowering the finger and glaring at Jafron. "M'lord, I mean no great offense, but she is yours in service to the house - not in service to your base needs. I hear things, down low where we are, and it bodes ill. I come here, and I see it for myself. Have you no fine ladies to bed, that you must soil my only daughter? An abomination, you are, m'lord, I must say it, I cannot keep my tongue. So, me and the little Arkadys come callin'. If you be a man of honor, you'll release her, free and clear."
Jafron Seamel's demeanor alters in a heartbeat. His temperament growing cool as a knife's edge. With slow deliberation he adjusts his clothing, fitting Arkady with a gaze fit to bore holes. "Arkadia," the nobleman begins with scarcely restrained anger in his words, "is free to leave if she so chooses."
By now, Kadi's caught up the toddler that's made his way to her and she's cradling him against one hip. Nibbling at the corner of her lower lip, she looks between Jafron and her father in growing discomfort. "It's not like that, Papa," she says as she hefts her littlest brother up a bit on her hip. "Lord Seamel's already freed me - for all intents and purposes. I don't work in his house anymore. I love him."
Arkady blinks. "Love? Light, Arkadia, what do *you* know about love? And what can a bleeding *Seamel* teach you about it?" He bows his head obligingly at Jafron. "With much respect, of course, m'lord." Then he turns his attention back to Arkadia. "But, he is a Seamel. If you *must* dally with a noble, why can it not be with one of the better houses? The Nillus, you know, have a nice young man named Ubal - you would find him quite attractive, despite the missing arm. He supervises us at the mines. Charming, and passing fair when doling out hazardous assignments."
Jafron Seamel's fists clench, and for one fleeting instant seems likely to launch himself at this man, this intruder in his home. But he does not. No, he instead channels such energies elsewhere, a trick learned through years as a Horseman. "I shall not have you defile the Seamel name within my home. Leave these walls, or speak with guarded tongue."
Even Kadi seems more than a little shocked at what her father says and she hugs her youngest brother closer. "Papa! How can you talk so to Jafron! And... Ohhhhhhhhh!" Stalking past the angered nobleman, she darts a glare toward each man in turn. "Everybody needs to calm down and talk with a civil tongue. Patience, Jafron? If we had a daughter, think how you'd feel," she says to him once she's calmed a bit. "And you, Papa... stand down and let the man speak before you pass judgement. Who knows -what- you heard all the way out at the Nillu mines.. by the way tongues wag, the story's changed a thousand times."
"Fat Arkady! Skinny Arkady! One-Ear Arkady! Big Thumbs Arkady! Square Head Arkady!" the stout miner bellows. "Get your scrawny arses downstairs and make ready to leave!" He scowls at Jafron, then turns toward Arkadia, his voice lowering: "What I heard means nothin', when I *see* this with my own eyes. He's a nobleman, Arkadia. They're all the same. Oh, yes, he whispers of love and devotion, but he has heritage and family and duty and honor to think about. When you become inconvenient, he will toss you aside. I have lived much longer than you. And I know you will not listen to me, because you are as pig-headed as your mother, may her spirit keep in the Light. But, mark my words: No good can come from this union. None. I will not condone it."
"I believe I shall have word with this Ubal Nillus," Jafron hisses indignantly. "He should know the manner in which his vassals carry themselves." The nobleman clasps his hands together, their knuckles still white from strain
Arkadia's heart is already beginning to break just from the choice she is being asked to make. Her jaw sets in anger, but her eyes are already starting to glimmer with wetness. "That's all you have to say, Jafron Seamel?" she says to him in a tight voice. "Nothin' else? No defense of me or explanation of how you feel? Just... I can go if I want and yer gonna have word with Papa's employers?" The more upset she gets, the more she sounds like a peasant. "That's it?" she asks, voice gone a wee bit wobbly as tears truly threaten.
"If you would see yourself scandalized, m'lord, then please refrain from usin' my daughter as a weapon of choice, yes?" Arkady hisses. "Not that he is wont to care, but I'll be glad to tell Ubal Nillu just how I feel about a so-called nobleman dipping his quill where it belongs naught! Were he a gossipy man, he might find it amusing to share at the tavern with his high-born companions. So, m'lord, with much respect, you may take your threats, wrap them within song willow leaves, roll them up nice and tight and shove them directly in your --" A loud crash then, as a gargoyle is tipped off its pedestal by Fat Arkady, who just happened to be waddling past on his way to the stairs. A wing shatters on the sculpture. "Fah! The Shadow take you, boy!" he bellows at the obese youth, who scurries down the stairs. Then the miner stares at the damaged gargoyle and turns back toward Jafron. "I'll see yer duly paid for that ugly bastard." With that, he gives a final glance toward Arkadia and gathers the other boys to follow him.
"I've no need to defend myself from the mutterings of such as he," Jafron replies simply, though not bothering to take his eyes from Kadi's father. Lips forming in a straight crease, he scowls as the stone beast crashes below. Jafron's voice rises, carrying with Arkady purposefully. "My original intent had been to ask your hand, though I see now that such spoutings would be wasteful. Be gladdened by the fact that my love for you far outweighs other, far more primal emotions."
"Papa? Papa!" Kadi hurries after her stout father as he almost forgets Baby Arkady. "Papa," she says in a softer, pleading tone as she catches up to him. "Did you hear Jafron? Did you hear him? Please don't make me go. Please? Please don't make me leave?" "And that's meant to impress me, is it, m'lord?" Arkady inquires, tilting his shiny head and narrowing his eyes as he scowls. "What ya really want to do is pound my ugly, low-class, base-born face in, but because you want to keep puttin' your what-have-you in her where-it's-at, you'll not get into a dust-up? The Shadow take *you* for a coward. My daughter, the vassal offspring of a vassal - your social lesser - is too good for you." He spits on the floor, in the chalky dust of the broken gargoyle. "But if she wants you, m'lord, she can have you. It's not for me to say." He glares at Arkadia. "You can have him. You cannot have my blessing." He lifts his chin, takes the baby and heads for the stairs.
Jafron Seamel reaches for the banister, and nods his agreement oddly enough. "You are wise despite your lamentable upbringing. Arkadia, a mere commoner, is too good for me. I may only hope that my unquestioning love is adequate enough." He takes a lock of his dark hair in hand, draws it back tightly from his temples and bounds it there neatly as he speaks. "Let is be known to all ends of this kingdom that I, Jafron Seamel, desire nothing s much as the hand of your fair daughter in marriage."
Arkadia takes a few steps after her departing family, exchanging a sad, uncomfortable look with one of her older brothers - Tall Arkady, by the looks of him. When Jafron speaks, her steps slow and she appears to be a little more reluctant to follow the departing trail of male vassals. "Papa?" she quietly queries again.
"Oh, aye, go stand on your tower and yell it yourself, m'lord," replies the chortling Arkady. "Mayhaps the ravens will serenade your wedding feast." Then, he stops his snickering and says coldly, "But, I feel you are mistaken. I am Arkady, loyal servant to Ubal Nillu, father of five thick-headed but generally reliable lads, all named after me. But I have no daughter." Now, he starts walking down the stairs with the youngest boy dangling over his right shoulder, and the baby is watching Arkadia as they descend.
Arkadia glances back over her shoulder to look at Jafron as the first of her tears begin to fall. As her father's words sink in further, she simply sits down upon the floor at her feet to hug her knees and weep.
"Rat!" Jafron blurts out, stalking down the stairs and clumsily tugging at the hilt of his sheathed sabre. "Cowardly dog, you deny the very blood, the flesh that is your daughter and my love?" He reaches the bottom of the stair, and brandishes the bare blade having now worked it free. "Leave this place at once, and dare never to return. Be glad that you are the father of that sweet girl, for any other man would not leave this place."
"I *was* going, m'lord," the miner replies, stepping onto the floor of the receiving hall and smiling grimly at Jafron Seamel. "But if it makes you feel a man to bluster, then bluster away. Farewell." He barks at the lads: "Arkadys, you heard his lordshipliness! On our way, now."