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Watchtower by Martin Greaney
The guards moved away, as if they had just dumped a pox-infested cow carcass into the moat.
In his bundle of brown and grey robes, his eyes still closed, the shaman lay in silence, waiting for the inevitable. He had a keen sense of direction, and knew at exactly who's feet he now lay.
"Get up, Astor," said the king impatiently. "I haven't got all day."
Like a reluctant child, yet timed impeccably, the shaman stirred, gathering his cloaks around him as he rose to his haunches. Finally he gazed up at the tall, muscular, yet ageing figure standing on a dais in front of an unremarkable throne. The shaman said nothing, but cast his gaze upon the monarch, who returned it steadily, silently.
He pulled himself slowly to his feet, the robes falling neatly about his shoulders. The folds collected about his elbows, allowing his small, smooth hands to show. The garments fell a few inches short of the ground, and the shaman's dark, velvety footwear could be seen, bound by leather straps to his feet. Out of a traditional mark of respect, he pulled back the hood which had hidden most of his features, save his piercing dark eyes, from the man on the steps.
The king's lips turned down at the edges, betraying his distaste for this human being, his furrowed brow revealing his unease in his presence. The shaman's hair was long, thick and black. His features were soft and rounded. The nose was small, and the chin, coarse with blue-grey stubble, came to a rounded point below thin pink lips. It was the liminal place occupied by Astor, between the worlds of the living and the dead, the magic and mundane, the male and female, that made not just the king but most of the population uneasy. The shaman's usefulness and effectiveness were his saving graces. Astor was only referred to as 'him' because it lent him a legitimacy he would lack as a female.
The shaman held the stare of the king, each trying to psychologically beat the other down. There was little else in the room to distract him. Despite the impressive space and the high ceiling, the audience room of King Aldric suffered as much from the relative poverty of the kingdom as anything else in the castle or indeed the town did. The pennants draped from the high rafters were relics from older times, faded maroons and indigo blues, heraldic lions and unicorns, once golden creatures. The three thrones on the dais were elegant, the product of the finest craftsmen affordable, yet in essence no more than simple carved wood. They were also relics from more comfortable times.
Now the shaman and the king were standing face to face, an unspoken tension crackling between them.
"Are you aware of the problems we are currently facing?" Aldric demanded. "The people have lost their faith in you."
The shaman's gaze was steady.
"I am dealing with the issues," he replied. "At least, I was until I was interrupted."
"Really?" said the king. "Rumours are spreading quickly through the town. Ghosts haunt every public building, and the houses of the nobles. Strange fires have been seen in the sky.