Bramblestone Keep <Bramblestone>

The gray stone walls of Bramblestone Keep rise on four sides, providing a protective barrier for the residents who dwell in this imposing edifice that has been tainted by the actions of a prior occupant: Goram Zahir.
During the first Wildling War, Goram Zahir and his allies betrayed Talus Kahar I and his army to the invaders from beyond the Aegis. Goram did this in the hopes of removing Kahar from power, but his effort backfired and earned him execution and his family the undying reputation of untrustworthy backstabbers.
An iron portcullis leads to the moors outside. An archway opens into the receiving hall of the fortress.

There is a somber mood to the guardsmen that are on duty at the walls and the courtyard. Some of them appear to be recovering from a bout with the pox. The makeshift sign outside warns that the pox is within the keep. Centered in the courtyard of the keep is a gruesome sight. A young man's corpse has been impaled upon a stake. He has obviously been there for several days, but it is still obvious that he was sick with the pox before he was impaled.

Ester walks up to the gates of the keep and peers inside. She scowls in distaste at the sight the greets her. "For frigin' sakes," she mutters with a shake of her head. Hand go to her hips and she calls up to the guards, "Deputy Surrector, here to check on the Contessa. Is she in there?"

"Aye, Deputy!" comes the hoarse call of an elderly guardsman with white hair and a pot belly. He lifts his arm and another guard releases the lever for the portcullis. Slowly, it begins to ratchet upward. "She be in the Keep," he offers, more quietly. "Ask a servant to tell ye where."

Ester nods once and waits patiently for the gates to rise. She strides in and walks across the courtyard, giving wide berth to the pole and the hanging corpse. When the door to the keep is open she steps inside and speaks to first person she sees. "Looking for the Countess," she states.

Receiving Hall <Bramblestone>

A high, gray stone corridor with a violet runner of carpet bisecting the chamber. The runner leads from the arched entrance, past doorways leading to the parlor, dining hall and mastery, and beyond the spiral of wrought iron steps leading to the residential level. It ends at the great double doors of the Bramblestone Ballroom.

A sad-faced young woman looks up from scrubbing the floor clean with a brush. There are a couple of fading pox spots upon her cheeks, but she otherwise looks well. The girl lifts her brush and points toward the Mastery without saying a word.

Ester offers the girl a tentative smile and heads for the mastery. She slows when she reaches the door and peers inside.


It is in this cool gray edifice, with a high-backed chair upon a dais, that those who seek an audience with the master of Bramblestone Keep are attended.
A wooden raven's roost, notched with talon furrows, stands next to a round table where the baroness of Bramblestone holds her councils. A doorway leads back into the receiving hall.

Tomassa lounges upon her throne in her armor and an unusual fur cloak. One leg is draped over the sturdy arm of the throne. One elbow rests upon the other. There is a nearly full wine bottle in her other hand. Scattered about the floor around the throne are several empty bottles - some standing, some on their sides. The woman lifts the bottle in her hand to her lips and drinks deeply from it.

"Contessa?" Ester calls out after a short analysis of the situation. Her frown is quickly masked by a neutral expression and respectful stance.

"Aye?" Tomassa responds, dully, taking another quick sip from her bottle. "What is it this time?" There is no recrimination in her voice, only fatigue and desolation. The woman's head falls back to rest against the back of the throne, allowing her to look at the ceiling.

Ester's brow furrows and she steps further into the room. "It's Ester Shardwood, Contessa. I'm here to see how you are all faring. Making the rounds so to speak."

Tomassa exhales. "Not soon enough," she drawls, studying the bottle of wine in her hands. "Not soon enough..." Her face becomes drawn as if she fights tears, but none prick at her eyes.

Ester looks somewhat uncomfortable. She clears her throat..."Contessa...the that...?" She lets the question trail off.

Tomassa takes another sip from the bottle, fingers tightening about the neck. When the bottle is lowered, she stills and then violently throws it from her. It flies to the side, falling, and smashes against the base of the wall, splashing wine. "It is the one who brought the pox to my door!" the woman snaps. "The one who murdered my son!"

Ester flinches at the sound, her face falling as the news of Tomas leaves the woman's lips. There is a long silence before she speaks, her voice quiet, the formal tone dropped to one of sincere concern, "I am so sorry To...Contessa. I really am..."

Tomassa shifts from her half-sprawled position to sit, slumped, on her throne. "I am numb, Ester. I.. am numb. Corriden. Shalis, Tomas. What have I done to earn this curse?" she sighs, looking at her hands. "I am alone."

Ester steps closer and says quietly, "We are all numb Contessa. This time has been trying." She adds with a tinge of bitterness, "And be sure that this latest occurrence is not of your doing."

The former Surrector moves her foot, inadvertently setting an empty wine bottle to spinning. She pushes herself upward and sways until she has her balance.

"Have you seen Fionnlagh?" she asks, her words sounding steadier than she looks. "He should be told of Tomas."

Ester steps back in caution as the woman rises. She shakes her head, "I have not for many months. I...well I have was indisposed..." She adds, "I'd expect that he is holed up at home, waiting for the pox to pass."

Tomassa slowly nods as one hand absently pulls the unusual fur of her cloak forward. "Yes. I suppose so," the woman murmurs. She pauses and speaks up a little more clearly. "Tell Duhnen, then. Tell him there is no need for him to speak to the Justiciar on Tomas' behalf." She steadies herself by moving to grasp the back of a chair at the table. "I should go see the Emperor."

Ester eyes widen at the last statement and again she steps back. Tensing slightly she says in a clear voice but shaky voice, "I am afraid that won't be possible, Tomassa. Talus is dead."

The woman's knees buckle at that revelation, but she fiercely holds herself upright with her hold upon the chair. "Dear Light," Tomassa says at last, her voice breaking. A tear leaks from her eye before she can will it away. "Who else? Who else is gone?" is the question she asks Ester, looking back at her with a haggard face.

Ester relaxes somewhat though her demeanor remains cautious. "He is all of import that I know of. Many are ill but they are expected to recover. I am sorry. We are all sorry." Ester adds "Just remember he lived as few men dared to dream.... For a cookie."

Tomassa's brows knit and she looks blankly at Ester. "A.. cookie?"

Ester nods sagely as if the meaning should be quite apparent to the women. "The Chancellor is ill but he is expected to recover. That is all I know of it."

Tomassa snorts, lightly hitting the back of the chair with one hand. "The Chancellor should've died, not Talus. Talus still had life left to live." The grief upon her face deepens, but she doesn't weep. Either she is just that numb or she has no tears left to shed. Suddenly, she asks, "What of Hartnek Lomasa? Did he catch the pox?"

Ester gives her a weak look. "I believe he is well enough. Though I do not know for sure." She hesitates and says rather blandly, "I only just returned myself."

Tomassa turns her head to silently study Ester. "Just returned? From where?" She pulls out the chair she touches and sinks into it, running a hand over her face.

Ester straightens and clasps her hands behind her back. Her mouth tightens and says coldly, "I was *detained.*" For a second she looks as if she is about to elaborate further but for some reason just stops. She holds herself rigid as she trembles ever so slightly.

"Oh." The Zahir is studying the tabletop, not truly understanding the meaning of Ester's words. Tomassa simply sits there, fascinated by the grain of the wood, mind numbed.

Ester studies the woman in silence as if contemplating something. She clears her throat and says in a more formal tone, laced with a hint of caution, "Contessa. Forgive my brazen question. But your kin. Lord do you hold with him?

Absently, Tomassa responds, one hand partially covering her mouth as it props her head up. "Zolor?" she questions. "He is an evil, arrogant ass," is the woman's matter-of-fact reply.

Tomassa snorts, but doesn't lift her gaze from her study of the tabletop. "What has he ever done for -me-? No. I bear no loyalty to him. Not even in name only."

Ester looks away and says quietly, "That is good to know Contessa." She bites her bottom lip, "Good to know..."

Tomassa exhales again before releasing a tired, quiet chuckle. "In fact, I had petitioned to speak to the Emperor. Before.. he died. I was waiting to hear from him to know if I should go to the palace."

Ester looks back and lifts a brow, "About Zolor?"

The Zahir gives her head a slow shake. "About taking Shalis' name. About becoming Kahar."

"Oh," Ester responds with some surprise, "I see. Wouldn't it have been just automatic if you wanted. You were married after all."

"I did not decide until after his death and Shalis seemed to think the Emperor would need to approve it. That is why he discouraged me from doing so," Tomassa says in a quiet voice. She lifts her gaze to the wall, eyeing it with a wistful expression. "I miss him," she whispers.

Ester starts to look uncomfortable again and shifts from one foot to the other. "I'm sorry Contessa," she tries. "I know how much you cared for him... Well at least I heard as much."

Tomassa murmurs, "And then he was gone... and the first person I wanted to see? Was already dead. I miss Corriden, too, but in different ways. I loved them both, but in different ways."

Ester swallows hard and does her best not to show her response, but her expression most definitely darkens. One hand balls into a fist and stretches out again.

Tomassa looks toward her feet with grief, a pang of guilt visible. "I miss Corriden more than Shalis, truth be told. I miss his friendship. I... did not have long enough with Shalis to know him well. And it is my fault that Corriden is dead."

Ester starts to tremble though with what exact emotion it's hard to tell. She studies the woman before opening her mouth to speak. It hangs there for a moment before it shuts with a audible click and she just simply turns on her heel to face the door.

The grieving mother, still more than a little tipsy, turns her head to look at Ester. Tomassa blinks to find her looking at the woman's back. "You blame me, too, don't you?" she asks, morosely. "And you are right to do so."

"Piss off Tomassa," Ester says quietly, though there is little but plain weary in her voice "You know not of what you speak, when it comes to Corriden and his death. I will make allowances for the grief you are experiencing." Her head falls forward, an audible sniff and one hand quickly brushes at her eye. "I..." she falters and shakes her head, "Never mind..."

Tomassa eases to her feet, knocking the chair gently over by accident. She moves toward Ester with a lurching step. "Tell me, then. Tell me the truth of his death!" She extends both hands toward Ester and quietly says, "Please. Please? Tell me what I do not know. Please?"

Instinctively, at the sound of movement behind Ester steps forward and spins around, her posture defensive like that of an animal wary of another. She spits out, "He just killed himself Tomassa. Just like that. Nothing more then that. Stuck his head in the forge and left himself in our home so I could find him. Me who carried his child. Piss on you if you think it had anything to do with you. He was drunk and stupid." By the time she is finished tears have welled up in her eyes threatening to spring forth.

"He was drunk and stupid," Tomassa echoes with a sad laugh, her arms falling. She watches Ester and her own eyes well with tears. "Then why do we both miss him so much?" she asks the other woman with a sad little smile. "I don't miss him at all," Ester replies with little conviction. Her lip quivers, "I'm firiggin glad he died..."

Tomassa truly does smile now. "Yes, you do. You miss him as much as I do. He -was- drunk. He -was- stupid. But he was also wonderful. And funny. And sweet. And childlike. And stubborn..."

Ester hangs her head and shakes it rather vigorously from side to side. She whispers, "Please. I *really* don't want to talk about it. I can't. I really can't. I don't want to remember it. *ANY* of it."

Tomassa reaches up to dash away the tears that spill down her cheeks. "Sometimes, Ester," she whispers, "Memories are all we have. Good or bad. They're all we have to get us through the night."

Ester shakes her head again and says quite forcefully as if to convince herself as much as the Contessa, "Tom, I really don't need those memories. Any of them." Her palm rises to press into her forehead, "You just don't understand. I *can't*."

Tomassa murmurs, "Then, I'm sorry. I do not know how you can do it. Memories haunt me all the time like shadows in a dimly lit room. They truly -are- all that I have left now. Memories and this empty keep."

Ester starts to shake as she struggles to keep her emotions in check. "I hate everyone," she whispers finally and everything starts to crumble. With little ceremony she drops to the floor and buries her head in her hands as a sob finally makes it way to the surface.

The Mastery is in need of a good dusting, but the most obvious flaw in the room are the empty wine bottles that litter the floor around the throne. One has been dashed against the wall near the floor, glass shattered and wine staining the stone. It is a recent thing as the floor is still wet. Tomassa stands near to the table, tearful, and Ester is upon the floor.

Chaori Balsam mutters to Roland, "The next time I make a rash promise, kick me. Hard." She curtseys to the room at large. "Good evening, Countess, Lady Ester. I would not intrude, but the Chancellor summons Lady Ester and I rashly said I would deliver the message myself."

Tomassa crouches by Ester and places a hand upon her shoulder, partially shielding her from the newcomers' view with her unusual cloak. "The Chancellor can -rot-," the woman spits. She smells of wine.. and as if she's worn that armor for a few days without removal.

Ester makes no sign that she has heard the new arrivals or the woman speak. Just as Chaori finishes a round of sobs rack her body and she blubbers "I was so scared Tomassa. I was just so scared. I couldn't see anything through the sack. For days and days, only a slit to eat whatever it was they gave me. I...just no matter what I just couldn't figure how to get out. It was months..."

Chaori Balsam grows paler, but it takes more than that to stop her at the moment. She takes one step forward. "Lady Ester, do you remember me? We spoke just yesterday. The Chancellor is far worse and sends for you."

Tomassa slides her arm about the sobbing woman in comfort and protection, a low sound of warning that sounds something like a growl coming from her throat. Coppery eyes flash as they look Chaori and her entourage over. "I said the Chancellor can -rot-," the former Surrector replies. "Ester is unable to travel at this time." The Zahir's voice is husky, but holds a note of authority. "You've delivered your message. I've delivered mine."

Roland glances between the three women before clearing his throat, "Forgive us.. We've come at a bad time." He glances over to Chaori, "There’s cases of the pox to treat in the keep?" He looks back to Tomassa, "Perhaps we can see to your servants, and come back to take our leave M'Lady."

Ester appears to have clued in somewhat by the time Tomassa finishes speaking. There's a loud sniff and she lifts her head to look at Chaori. The color starts draining from her face. Her voice is hiccup "What do you mean worse? Like dying worse?"

Chaori Balsam says to Ester, "Not tonight, but he's as ill as I ever was and weaker than I ever was. He very much wishes to sample this tonic that worked such wonders on the Imperial Tax Assessor. Do you have it with you, noble lady, or is it back at the palace?"

The Mastery is in need of a good dusting, but the most obvious flaw in the room are the empty wine bottles that litter the floor around the throne. One has been dashed against the wall near the floor, glass shattered and wine staining the stone. It is a recent thing as the floor is still wet. Tomassa crouches protectively by an upset Ester who sits upon the floor. The Lioness is looking warningly at Chaori and her entourage.

"I have survived boars, wolves, thieves, poachers, bears, nightsliders, and even that Light-forsaken drake twice. I have no intention of being killed off by a Shadow-touched pox. Now stand aside or announce really matters not much to me which you do. But Tomassa should know I'm here." The voice of the Forester of Light's Reach comes from the other side of the doorway, mingling calm with a slight irritability somewhat withheld.

Chaori Balsam neatly takes one step to the side from the door. With the one step forward she took earlier, that should put her out of the way of anyone coming in.

Ester is somewhat startled by the voice at the door but does little to pay it mind. She swallows hard and closes her eyes for a second or so while she tries to compose herself. When she opens them she looks directly at Chaori and asks slowly, "Is the Chancellor in danger of dying? Tell me this now."

Roland falls quiet, and looks back toward the noise behind the door.

Chaori Balsam repeats, "He is closer than I would like, but he has at least another day. If he behaves himself, that is."

Tomassa's head comes up sharply at the familiar voice outside of the door. The tears that had left tracks upon her face earlier now threaten to return. "In here!" she suddenly shouts. Lowering her voice, she says, "Ester. Ester.. do you wish to go with them? Or to stay?"

Ester completely ignores Tomassa question. All of her interest is focused on the healer. Her gaze intense, "What do you mean another day?" Ester says with some annoyance. "Do you mean he will live one more day or that it will take one more day for him to be well?"

Chaori Balsam says, "He may live no more than one more day. I will do what I can, obviously. Where is this tonic you spoke of, noble lady? I'll fetch it to him myself."

Roland lets out a long breath, and crosses his arms across his chest.

Fionnlagh hears the yell, and there's a pause of half a moment as positions are shifted outside, before the Forester pushes open the door with a solid impact of palm on wood, stepping through it and leaving the guard outside to reach in and catch it to close. He notes the presence of others with a quick sweep of his eyes, then confirms identity with a second sweep, focusing on Tomassa first. "I came as soon as I heard, my lady," offers the Forester to the Contessa, stepping further in, and lifting a hand briefly to Ester, acknowledging her presence but not adding words given her present discussion. Instead, he moves to approach the throne, circuiting around the other presences.

Fionnlagh's words do little to aid Tomassa's control. She keeps one hand upon Ester's shoulder, continuing to crouch by her, but the sight of her old friend causes her tears to return. Soon, the armored woman is blinded by them and she eases unsteadily to her feet.

Ester looks down and lets out a long shuddering sigh. It is then that she hears the male voice and looks up to see the forester. She blinks once in some surprise then after a few seconds actually looks quite relieved. The air about her immediately changes to one of absolute resignation. She looks up to

Chaori and says quietly, "Give me a few minutes. I will have to come and get it." Slowly she rises to here feet and says in a wavery voice, "Tomassa, I need a parchment and ink." Her voice catches, "And then I need you two to do me the most important favor I have ever asked of anyone."

Tomassa moves to the table where a satchel lies opened - two unopened bottles of wine visible there. She reaches within and withdraws a parchment, quill, and inkwell even as she draws in shaky, tearful breaths.

Chaori Balsam quietly says, "I understand there are sick people here. Countess, may I borrow some clean water and three cups?"

Fionnlagh offers to Ester a small smile as she blinks at him, a reassuring calm look perhaps, nodding just once to her. He moves towards Ester's side as

Tomassa crosses to the satchel, simply standing to one side of her a very few feet away, at an angle that he can watch all those present without a lot of effort. He watches Ester quietly, waiting to see what she will request.

"The kitchen. The kitchen has them. Or the barracks outside. The barracks is where we quarantined the sick," the woman mutters, pausing to wipe at her face with one bare hand. Her grief hangs upon her like a heavy cloak, continually threatening to overwhelm her. "Here, Ester. Here."

Chaori Balsam curtseys again. "Thank you, Your Excellency." She turns and leaves the hall at a brisk walk if not stopped.

Ester takes the parchment and quill and sets it on the nearby table. As the quill starts scratching across the surface she speaks. "This note is my official permission. I need you to go to Jade Gardens, give this to Mistress Starlight and get Connor from her. The name causes her to shake and she has to pause to regain her composure. I *need* you to take him and promise you will keep him safe." She finishes signing her name and looks up, "Please don't ask me questions. Just promise me you will do this."

Chaori Balsam sighs. "This really will teach me to stop giving my word. Jade Gardens Keep, Mistress Starlight, Connor. Done." She looks over at Roland. "You may well have to finish doing this. I stand some small risk of dying in there if the lady of the keep is at home."

Roland nods once, but doesn't comment further.

Fionnlagh blinks slightly at what Ester asks of Chaori, his soothing expression going very serious. Lips purse a moment, before he offers softly. "You can send him to Forestwatch, if you need to, Ester. The pox isn't likely to go so deep into the woods."

Chaori Balsam comments, "That might be wise. I have patients from here to Fastheld Keep to tend."

Ester turns her head to look at Chaori and practically snaps, "I wasn't talking to you. This is not your business." She breathes deeply and looks back at the Fionnlagh. Her voice is but a whisper, "It's not the pox Kenneth..." She forces a small smile to Tomassa, "He's Corriden's. No matter what has happened between us in our know...of anyone I know that you would defend him with your life."

Chaori Balsam shrugs and leaves, presumably to mind her business, i.e. people dying of the dark pox.

Roland follows the healer out.

Ester's words just cause Tomassa to burst into fresh tears. "I.. I will try, Ester, but for how long? I... I could not even save my *own* child. How long must we watch him?" Tomassa slumps into a chair at the table, shakily exhaling.

Fionnlagh crosses the room to where Ester squats, offering a hand to help her up as Tomassa slumps. "For as long as is needed, Tomassa. You cannot blame yourself for Tomas. And I will be here with you." The latter statement is firm, offering such reassurance as his presence may give her. He looks to Ester again. "We have been friends for a good long time, Ester. If you say not to ask, I won't. You've always been able to tell me later when it was needed. The elder and the younger are outside, if you will have need of them?"

"Thank you Kenneth." A few tears run down Ester's face as she looks from one to the other, "I don't know, how long it will be." She tries to smile, "I'm sorry I can't explain. I just need to be assured that he will be safe. One way or another. For reasons that may become apparent. Jade Gardens may not be safe." She looks to Kenneth and says with some assurance, "If things look alright in time. Duhnen and Gabriella can take him back. They love him like one of their own.

Tomassa gives a small nod before she lowers her head to the tabletop. Her armored arm clunks against the wood when she rests it there. Quietly, the woman's tears begin to lessen, but she doesn't life her head.

Fionnlagh nods to Ester, watching her quietly. "Are you setting out now? And do we need to get him tonight, or can it wait? I am not sure either of us are up to a long ride and an encounter with Gabriella Seamel." Lips quirk just slightly, before he offers Ester a hug if she will. " haven't greeted me yet, for a woman who may be riding away again."

Tomassa gives a small nod before she lowers her head to the tabletop. Her armored arm clunks against the wood when she rests it there. Quietly, the woman's tears begin to lessen, but she doesn't lift her head.

Ester sighs and offers him a weak smile. She reaches out and holds him tight. "I have to go now...but tomorrow should be fine my friend. Just make sure you get him then." She looks down at Tomassa and reaches out her hand, "Tomassa. It's all going to be alright. Sometime things just aren't what they seem to be on the surface, but there is good where we see shadow."

Fionnlagh returns the tight hug, and kisses Ester's cheek. "We will do our best, dear friend. Stay safe, hmm? There are too few of us left." When she moves to Tomassa, Fionnlagh moves to the other side of the Contessa, laying his hand on her other shoulder. "It will be alright, Tomassa."

Tomassa starts from that touch to her shoulder and a new, silent sob shakes her before she can contain it. "Be well, Ester," she says without lifting her head, voice a muffled murmur.

Ester steps back and nods her head, forcing a small smile. "Light willing I will see you soon." she says quietly, "Until then..." With that she turns and strides from the room.

Return to Season 4 (2006)

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