Magrath eased himself out of his chair by the warm fire and slowly made his way to the door of the small cottage. He’d heard horses approaching, three he thought.
He dragged on a warm coat, knowing the day outside was bright but chill, quickly opened the door and stepped through. He didn’t want to let any more heat escape the room than he could avoid. He was old now. It seemed the cold got into his bones far more easily than it had when he was younger, and took far longer to leave.
Sure enough, three horsemen pulled up before him. Somehow, McGrath wasn’t surprised to see Lord Kelvin leading them. Lord Kelvin, who had just recently inherited the lands for many leagues around on the death of his father. With him were his younger brother, Saroth, and a guard.
McGrath took several steps forward, then leaned against a post holding up the porch. He watched Lord Kelvin and his companions climb off their horses, the guard taking the reins and tying the three horses to the hitching rail.
“Lord Kelvin,” said McGrath, nodding his head. “Good day to you. I hope you’ll forgive me for not bowing. At my age it would take so long to complete the movement I’m sure your patience would be sorely tried.”
Lord Kelvin gave an insincere smile and gestured with his hand to show it wasn’t a problem.
“Of course! And I must say I’m pleased to find you at home. I must speak to you on a most vexing matter.”
“I struggle to understand what might vex a lord such as yourself and still involve me, but I will certainly help as I am able.”
That was far from the truth. McGrath wasn’t surprised to see the young lord, though he’d hoped not to. Or that it would at least have taken longer for him to come calling.
“The matter which concerns me,” said the lord, moving within a few steps of McGrath. “Is this property. Specifically, you living here.”
Lord Kelvin was finely dressed. He was handsome, in a way, and physically strong. He had all the appearances of a noble leader. But McGrath did not like the feeling he got from the lord at all. It reinforced how he’d felt about the young man on the few brief occasions he’d seen him as a younger child.
“Then I am doubly confused,” said Magrath. “For your own grandfather granted me the right to live out my days here. Since he was significantly older than I, he had it written into a binding contract that his wishes would be honoured by all his descendants. I am, as you can see, still alive. Though I suspect I won’t live through more than one or two more winters. So, as your grandfather commanded, this is still my home.”
“I’ve heard of the blood-debt you made my grandfather swear in order to save you,” replied Lord Kelvin. “And that is part of what concerns me, forcing him to make such a commitment under duress.”
“You should study your family’s history more closely,” snapped Magrath. Then he softened his tone. “I did not ask for the blood-debt before saving your grandfather. Nor did I ask after saving him. I saved him with no expectation of any reward at all. I saved him because it was the right thing to do. It was your grandfather who insisted on rewarding me. It was he who made it a blood-debt. I even argued against it, but he was determined and in the end I agreed.”
“That seems an unlikely story. I don’t believe a word of it. You’re lucky I don’t kick you out right now and demand payment for all the years you have lived here under a false pretence. But I’m not that cruel. I will simply expect a reasonable payment of rent for this property. As I’m sure you know, it’s in a prime spot.
“The view over the mountains and down to the lake make it a most desirable location. I could charge two golds a month for it. Yet all this time you’ve lived here for nothing. I think it’s time you paid your way.”
“My lord, even if I wished to, I could not. The terms of the blood-debt were very clear. If I was to pay you it would break those terms. That… would be bad.”
“Bad! Hah! Superstition. I am breaking the terms. I will be charging you rent. Starting with two golds right now.”
“That won’t be possible, my lord.”
“Don’t play games with me, old man. I know you have the money. You pay for everything you need, and yet you have no form of income. You have money stashed away. A lot more than two golds, I’d bet.”
“What I have is my business, my lord. It is what I have spent my life working for. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“It’s what you spent your life holding onto when you should have been paying it to my family in rent! But no, you kept holding this blood-debt nonsense over my grandfather and my father. That stops now. I’ll be expecting two golds. A month. And in case you’re thinking you might just disappear off and set up somewhere else with your money, if you try that I will declare you a thief and call for all the punishment that allows.”
“Ah,” said Magrath. “Now we get to what this is really about. Greed. However much I may or may not have, I have no doubt you have inherited far, far more.”
“What I have is irrelevant. What you have is not. It shouldn’t be yours. It was kept from… stolen from… my family. I will not have you mock my family any longer by living here for free.”
“My lord,” said Magrath. “I don’t believe you understand what a blood-debt actually is.”
“It’s a load of superstitious crap, that’s what it is! I will not have people see me acting as weakly as my father and grandfather did.”
“You might call it weakness. Wiser people would call it good sense. Especially those who understand what a blood-debt actually implies.”
“I’ve had enough of this bullshit,” snapped the young lord. “I made it clear what the price is for you to continue to live here. Or, in fact, to live. But you kept on with that same claptrap. That’s fine. I will grant you the right to continue living here without payment until your death. I will also grant you that death.”
The young man pulled the sword from his belt and smiled at Magrath. The smile slipped and anger replaced it as the old man failed to react.
“Did you not hear me?” demanded the lord. “I’m going to kill you. Now!”
“Really? Or are you going to just stand there threatening to do it? A real man doesn’t stand and make declarations before making a kill. He decides it’s necessary, then he kills. Your grandfather knew that, gods rest his soul. Your father too, though he was somewhat softer. But he still knew how to kill when it was necessary. But you? You have none of their strength.”
Kelvin’s eyes blazed. He lifted the sword higher and swung it in an arc designed to take Magrath’s head off. Magrath just stood, watching it come toward him.
As the sword was about to reach his throat, it faded and passed through his neck as if it was just a ghostly memory of a sword. By the time it would have cleared his neck it had vanished completely.
Lord Kelvin stumbled, his balance thrown off by the sudden disappearance of the swinging sword. Magrath remained where he was, not showing the slight uneasiness he felt. While the blade hadn’t cut him, he had felt its ghostly form passing through his throat. It hadn’t been a pleasant experience… but he’d known he wouldn’t die.
“What magic is this?” asked Lord Kelvin. Then he stared past Magrath, his eyes widening as he took in the cottage they stood before.
Magrath glanced over his shoulder and nodded to himself. It was a different building now. The structure was the same, but the shutters on the windows were a different design, some of the paint had changed colour, and the woodshed was a dozen feet further from the cottage than it had been before.
He had no doubt other things would be different inside. He could feel his mind adjusting to the new reality, to things being as they had always been… and yet had never been. History was rewriting itself around him.
“What is going on?” demanded Lord Kelvin. “What happened to my sword?”
“The sword?” replied Magrath, his voice even. “The sword your father commissioned? It doesn’t exist. You broke the blood-debt. In doing so, you killed your grandfather at the point I previously saved him. That is the nature of a blood-debt. If it’s broken then the events it’s bound to cease to have happened.
“Because of your actions, your grandfather didn’t survive his wounds. Your father was never born. So things are very different. Oh, don’t worry, I do still live here. And I do pay a modest rent for it. Not to any of your family, of course, for their line ended with your grandfather. And look at your brother standing there behind you.”
Kelvin looked round and swore as his younger brother started to fade and disappear. Saroth’s eyes were bulging, his mouth was open, but whatever he was saying didn’t carry to them. Moments later, he was gone. The guard, too, had vanished, but Kelvin didn’t seem to even register that.
“What wizardry is this?” asked Kelvin, wheeling back to Magrath. “You! You killed him!”
“No! You ensured he would never be born. I told you that. Your father, the lord before you, was never born. Which means none of his children were.”
Kelvin started, staring down at his hands. After a few seconds he started to laugh.
“My father? You think I don’t know that man was never my father? It was kept very quiet, but I know my real father was a wandering musician. He came to play one night, and while my father was in a drunken stupor in the main hall, the musician and my mother spent the night together. That’s my heritage. That’s why I’m not fading!”
“But that would also mean you’re no longer the lord of these lands,” said Magrath.
“There are more routes to becoming a lord than birth. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. And I’ll still be taking your life.” He pulled a knife from his belt. “This knife I bought from a travelling trader. It has no dependence on my father having lived, or my grandfather, for its existence. So this won’t fade when I stab you.”
He took a step towards Magrath, then another. Then he froze as the knife dropped out of his hand. No… dropped through his hand.
“You really are an idiot,” said Magrath. “Listen to your own story. Your father, your real father, came to play for the previous lord and then seduced your mother. Your mother, who had travelled nearly two hundred miles from her home to marry that lord. She would have been nowhere near that musician if not for that.
“With the lord never having been born, your mother never got within a hundred miles of your real father. Which means you were never conceived… and that you don’t exist.”
Kelvin’s eyes went wide. He roared and threw himself at Magrath, but he simply passed through the old man, falling to the floor. He stared up, terror replacing anger. And then, a few moments later, he too was gone.
* * *
Magrath sighed and leaned on the porch post again. Only now did he notice that where it had been plain before it was now carved around with dragons. He smiled. He liked that touch, even if he didn’t like the way things had turned out.
“I’m sorry,” he said to a pale form standing beside him, so translucent none of the others had noticed it. “I know he wasn’t truly your grandson, not in the blood, but still…”
“Blood has nothing to do with it,” said the ghostly figure. “I know for a fact my third son Jasrek wasn’t actually mine by blood, but I never treated him any differently. Why would I? He was part of my house. He was my son. Only his mother and I ever knew his history, and it never mattered to me.”
“I… I had no idea, my lord. I’m sorry. I always thought your wife was besotted with you.”
“She was. It wasn’t like that. We both wanted another child but… well, some wounds I took long after you saved me had taken their toll. It’s not something anyone likes to admit, especially not a lord, but I wasn’t too proud to accept a little help. We chose someone who was wandering through our lands. He never even knew who it was he spent that night with… and we ended up with the child we wanted.
“So no, it’s not a question of blood or not. It’s a question of who and what that idiot of a grandson was. I can’t believe he would do such a thing. Now he’s broken the blood-debt he’s doomed me and all the good I managed to do down the years. And he’s ensured none of my children will ever be born.”
“It is not quite too late, my lord. There is a possibility. He was born nearly three years before your death. That is, the date of your death as it was before he broke the blood-debt. All you need do is ensure he never arrives here at this time. Given his nature, I suspect that will involve making sure he is not around to do it.”
“I will not kill a child! And how could I? I’m already dead from my wounds. The blood-debt is broken.”
“No… not yet, my Lord, you are as much a projection from that time in the past as a lingering ghost. Part of you is seeing what keeping to the blood-debt may require. Please don’t be angry with the me from your time. I had no idea of these events for many years.
“But if you do not prevent your grandson arriving here and breaking the blood-debt there is nothing I can do. With it broken I will not have been able to save you from the battle.”
“I will not kill a child! Not even one who will turn into that.”
“I would not ask you to, my lord. You don’t need to kill him, just prevent him. You heard what he said, it was a wandering musician who seduced his mother. And you still had several years of your life left at that point. You’d handed over the realm to your son, but you were still around. All you need to do is make certain that the musician does not get to keep his tryst with your son’s wife.”
The ghostly figure studied McGrath for a few moments, then nodded heavily.
“That is still not something I do lightly, but I fear if there was any chance of that boy running this realm he would lead it into ruin. The wars I prevented. The peace I brokered. They would not survive such a ruler. I’m not a vain man, but without my strength of will there would have been deaths… so many deaths.”
He fell silent for some time, then finally nodded almost imperceptibly.
“All right. I’ll do it. I’ll make certain the musician is… inconvenienced on the night he arrives. I will also keep my son’s wife company until she retires and then stand guard on her door. Just in case.”
Magrath bowed his head.
“A wise choice, my lord. I believe you will remember enough of this to do what is needed, but the me from your time will know nothing of it. Don’t try to speak to me of it, because that may endanger the blood-debt. And while, if I’m honest, you were never a perfect lord, you were one of the best I have known.”
The ghostly figure laughed, and was still laughing as it vanished.
McGrath closed his eyes as he felt everything change around him again. When he opened them, his cottage was as he had always known it and there were no horses tethered nearby.
McGrath stepped away, turned to look at his cottage. He preferred the way it looked now to how it had briefly been. Then his eyes went to the plain post supporting the porch. He mostly preferred it now. The Dragons had been a nice touch. He’d get someone to carve them for him.
He could certainly afford to, he had plenty of money left in his hidden chest. More than he would need for the two winters he had left. But when he passed what remained would certainly not be going to some greedy lord. Or even to an honest lord.
No, it would remain hidden where it was for decades or centuries. Much as he would like to have given it away at his death, he was not permitted to. The gold in the chest was bound by a blood-debt, though not the one with Lord Kelvin’s grandfather. Well… Lord Saroth’s grandfather. With everything returning to as it had been, Magrath could feel even his own knowledge of Lord Kelvin’s existence fading from reality.
No, the gold came from a different blood-debt. And unlike the foolish young lord who’d been erased from existence, Magrath knew better than to ever break a blood-debt!