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o, you're wrong there, Bodger. Take it from me, young women ain't the best for tumblin'. Yes, they look good on the outside, all fair and smooth, but when it comes to a good rollickin', you can't beat an old nag." Grift swigged his ale and smiled merrily at his companion.

"Well, Grift, I can't say that you're right. I mean, I'd rather have a tumble any day with the buxom Karri than old widow Harpit."

"Personally, Bodger, I wouldn't say no to either of them!" Both men laughed loudly, banging their jugs of ale on the table as was the custom of the castle guards. "Hey there, you boy, what's your name? Come here and let me have a look at you." Jack stepped forward and Grift made a show of looking him up and down. "Cat got your tongue, boy?"

"No, sir. My name is Jack."

"Now that is what I'd call an uncommon name!" Both men erupted once more into raucous laughter. "Jack boy, bring us more ale, and none of that watered-down pond filler."

Jack left the servant's hall and went in search of ale. It wasn't his job to serve guards with beer, but then neither was scrubbing the huge, tiled kitchen floor and he did that, too. He didn't relish having to see the cellar steward, as Willock had cuffed him around the ears many a time. He hurried down the stone passageways. It was drawing late and he would be due in the kitchens soon.

Some minutes later Jack returned with a quart of foaming ale. He had been pleasantly surprised to find that Willock was not in the beer cellar, and he had been seen to by his assistant. Pruner had informed him with a wink that Willock was off sowing his wild oats. Jack was not entirely sure what this meant, but imagined it was some part of the brewing process.

"It was definitely Lord Maybor," Bodger was saying as Jack entered the hall. "I saw him with my own eyes. Thick as thieves they were, he and Lord Baralis, talking fast and furious. Course when they saw me, you should have seen 'em scramble. Faster than women from the middens."

"Well , well, well," said Grift with a telling raise of his eyebrows. "Who would have guessed that? Everyone knows that Maybor and Baralis can't stand the sight of each other. Why I never seen them them exchange a civil word. Are you sure it was them?"

"I'm not blind, Grift. It was both of them, in the gardens behind the private hedges, as close as a pair of nuns on a pilgrimage."

"Well I'll be a flummoxed ferret!"

"If the codpiece fits, Grift," chirped Bodger gleefully.

Grift noticed Jack's presence "Talking of codpieces, here's a boy so young, he hasn't got anything to put in one!" This struck Bodger as so hilarious he fell off his chair with laughter.

Grift took this chance, while Bodger was recovering, to haul himself off his bench and pull Jack to one side. "What did you just hear of what me and Bodger were saying, boy?" The guard squeezed Jack's arm and fixed him with a watery gaze.

Jack was well versed in the intrigues of the castle and knew the safest thing to say. "Sir, I heard nothing save for some remark about a codpiece." Grift's fingers ground painfully into his flesh, his voice was low and threatening.

"For your sake, boy, I hope you're speaking the truth. If I was to find out you're lying to me, boy, I'd make you very sorry." Grift gave Jack's arm one final squeeze and twist and let it go. "Very sorry, indeed, boy. Now get you off."

Grift turned to his companion and carried on as if the nasty little scene had not occurred. "You see, Bodger, an older woman is like a overripe peach: bruised and wrinkled on the outside, but sweet and juicy within." Jack hastily gathered up the empty jug of ale and ran as fast as his legs could carry him to the kitchen.

Things were not going well for him today. Master baker Frallit was in the sort of black mood that made his normal demeanor seem almost pleasant by comparison. It should have been Tilly's job to scrub the large baking slabs clean, but Tilly had a way with Frallit and one smile of her plump, wet lips ensured she would do no dirty work. Of all the things he had to do, Jack hated scrubbing the huge stone slabs the worst. They had to be scoured with a noxious mixture of soda and lye; the lye burnt into his hands causing blisters and sometimes his skin peeled off. He then had to carry the unwieldy slabs, which were almost as heavy as he himself, into the kitchen yard to be washed off.

He dreaded carrying the huge stones, for they were brittle, and if dropped would shatter into a hundred pieces. The baking slabs were Frallit's pride and joy; he swore they baked him a superior loaf, claiming the dull and weighty stone prevented the bread from baking too fast. Jack had recently found out the penalty for shattering one of the master baker's precious cooking slabs.

Several weeks back Frallit, who had been drinking heavily all day, had discovered one of his slabs missing. He'd wasted no time in confronting Jack, whom he found hiding amongst the pots and pans in the cook's side of the kitchen. "You feeble-witted moron," Frallit had cried dragging him from his hiding place by his hair. "Do you know what you have done, boy? Do you?" It was obvious to Jack the master baker did not expect a reply. Frallit made to cuff him round the ears, but Jack dodged skillfully and the master baker was left slapping air. Looking back on the incident now, Jack realized the dodge had been major mistake. Frallit would have probably given him a sound thrashing and left it at that, but what the master baker hated more than anything was being made to look a fool - and infront of the sly but succulent Tilly, no less. The man's rage was terrifying and culminated with him pulling a fistful of Jack's hair out.

It seemed to Jack that his hair was always a target. It was as if Frallit was determined to make all his apprentices as bald as himself. Jack had once woken to find that his head had been shorn like a sheep. Tilly threw the chestnut locks onto the fire and informed him that Frallit had ordered the chop because he suspected lice. Jack's hair got the only revenge it could: it grew back with irritating quickness.

In fact, growing in general was starting to become quite a problem. Not a week went by without some evidence of his alarming increase in height. His breeches caused him no end of embarrassment; four months ago they'd rested discreetly about his ankles, now they were threatening to expose his shins. And such horrifyingly white and skinny shins they were! He was convinced that everyone in the kitchens had noticed the pitiful expanse of flesh.

Being a practical boy, he'd decided to make himself another more flattering pair, unfortunately needlework was a skill that required patience not desperation, and new breeches became an unattainable dream. So now he was reduced to the inauspicious step of wearing his current ones low. They hung limply around his hips, secured by a length of coarse twine. Jack had sent many a desperate prayer to Borc, begging that the twine in question didn't give way in the presence of anyone important - especially women.

His height was becoming more and more of a problem: for one thing his growth upwards bore no relation to his growth outwards, and Jack had the strong suspicion he now possessed the physique of a broom handle. Of course,xc the worst thing was that he had started to outgrow his superiors. He was a head above Tilly and an ear above Frallit. The master baker had started to treat Jack's height as a personal affront, and could often be heard muttering words to the effect that a tall boy would never a decent baker make.

Jack's main duty as baker's boy was to ensure the fire under the huge baking oven did not go out. The oven was the size of a small room, and it was where all the bread for the hundreds of courtiers and servants who lived in the castle was baked early every morning.

Frallit prided himself on baking fresh each day, and to this end he had to wake at five each morning to supervise the baking. The massive stone oven had to be kept going through the night, every night, for if it was left to go out, the oven would take one full day to fire up to the temperature required for baking. So it was Jack's job to watch the oven at night.

Every hour Jack would open the stone grate at the bottom of the huge structure and feed the fire within. He didn't mind the chore at all. He became accustomed to grabbing his sleep in one hour intervals, and during winter, when the kitchen was bitterly cold, he would fall asleep close to the oven, his thin body pressed against the warm stone.

Sometimes, in the delicious time between waking and sleeping, Jack could imagine his mother was still alive. In the last months of her illness, his mother's body had felt as hot as the baking oven. Deep within her breast there was a source of heat that destroyed her more surely than any flame. Jack remembered the feel of her body pressed against his - her bones were as light and brittle as stale bread. Such terrible frailty, he couldn't bear to think of it. And, for the most part, with a day full of hauling sacks of flour from the granary and buckets from the well, of scraping the oven free of cinders and keeping the yeast from turning bad, he managed to keep the ache of losing her at the back of his mind.

Jack found he had a talent for calculating the quantities of flour, yeast and water required to make the different bread doughs required each day , he could even reckon faster than the master baker himself. He was wise enough to conceal his talents though, Frallit was a man who guarded his expertise jealously.

Recently Frallit had allowed him the privilege of shaping the dough, "You must knead the dough like it were a virgin's breast," he would say. "Lightly at first, barely a caress, then firmer once it relents." The master baker could be almost lyrical after one cup of ale, it was the second cup that turned him sour.

Shaping the dough was a step up for Jack, it signalled that he would soon be accepted as an apprentice baker. Once he was a fully fledged apprentice, his future at the castle would be secured. Until then he was at the mercy of those who were above him, and in the competitive hierarchy of castle servants that meant everyone.

Somehow, in the time from leaving the servant's hall to the time upon his arrival in the kitchens, night had fallen. Time, Jack found, had a way of slipping from him, like thread from a newly made spindle. One minute he would be setting the dough to rise, the next Frallit would be cuffing him for leaving it so long that it had toughened and was attracting the flies. It was just that there was so much to think about, and his imagination had a way of creeping up on him. He only had to look at a wooden table and it he was off! Imagining that the tree it came from once gave shade to a long-dead hero.

"You're late," said Frallit. He was standing by the oven, arms folded, watching Jack's approach.

"Sorry, Master Frallit."

"Sorry," mimicked Frallit. "Sorry. You damn well should be sorry. I'm getting tired of your lateness. The heat in the oven has dropped perilously low, boy. Perilously low." The master baker took a step forward. "And who'll get into trouble if the fire goes out and there's no baking for a day? I will. That's who." Frallit grabbed his mixing paddle from from the shelf and slammed it viciously against Jack's arm. "I'll teach you not to put my good reputation at risk." Finding a place that took the paddle nicely, he continued the beating until forced to stop due to an inconveinient shortness of breath.

Quite a crowd had gathered at the sound of shouting. "Leave the boy alone, Frallit," one wretched scullery maid risked saying. Willock, the cellar steward silenced her with a quick slap to her face.

"Be quiet, you insolent girl, this is none of your business. The master baker has a perfect right to do whatever he pleases to any boy under him." Willock turned to face the rest of the servants, "And let it be a lesson to you all." The cellar steward then nodded pleasantly to Frallit before shooing the crowd away.

Jack was shaking, his arm was throbbing - the paddle had left deep imprints upon his flesh. Tears of pain and rage flared like kindling. He screwed up his eyes tightly, determined not to let them fall.

"And where were you this time?" The master baker didn't wait for an answer, "Daydreaming I bet. Head in the clouds, fancying you're something better than the likes of us." Frallit swept close, grabbing Jack's neck. The smell of ale was heavy on his breath. "Let me tell you, boy. Your mother was a whore, and you're nothing but the son of a whore."

Anger and shame blazed within Jack. "You're a liar." Fingers made strong by kneading, clutched at Jack's windpipe. "Oh am I now? Just you ask anyone in this castle, they'll tell you what she was. And what's more, they'll tell you she was a foreign whore at that."

Jack's head felt heavy with blood, spent air burnt in his lungs. There was one thought in his mind - the pain was nothing, the risk of ridicule wasn't important - he had to know. "Where did she come from?" he cried.

He'd spoken the one thing that mattered most in his life. It was a question about himself as much as his mother - for wherever she came from so did he. He had no father and accepted that as his fate, but his mother owed him something, something she had failed to give him - a sense of self. Everyone in the castle knew who they were and where they came from. Jack had watched them, he'd witnessed their unspoken confidence. Not for them a life of unanswered questions. No. They knew their place, their personal histories, their grandfathers and grandmothers. And armed with such knowledge they knew themselves.

Jack was envious of such knowledge. He too wanted to join in conversations about family, to casually say, "Oh yes, my mother's family came from Calfern, west of the River Ley," but he was denied the pleasure of self assurance. He knew nothing about his mother, her birthplace, her family and even her true name. They were all mysteries, and occasionally, when people taunted and called him a bastard, he hated her for them.

Frallit eased up on his hold. "How would I know, where your mother came from," he said, "I never had call for her services." The master baker gave Jack's neck one final squeeze and then let go. "Now get some wood in the oven before I change my mind and decide to throttle you all the way." He turned and left Jack to his work.
Bevlin was expecting a visitor. He didn't know who it would be but he felt their approach. Time to grease up another duck, he thought absently. Then he decided against it, after all not everybody had a taste for his particular favorite. Better be safe and roast that haunch of beef. True it was a few weeks old, but that hardly mattered - maggot-addled beef had never killed anyone, and it was said to be more tender and juicy than its fresher counterpart.

He hauled the meat up from the cellar, sprinkled it with salt and spices, wrapped it in large dock leaves and buried it amongst the glowing embers of the huge fireplace. Roasting beef was a lot more trouble than greased duck. He hoped his guest appreciated it.

When the visitor finally arrived, it was dark outside. Bevlin's kitchen was warm and bright, and fragrant cooking smells filled the air. "Come in, friend," croaked Bevlin in response to the knock on the door. "It's open."

The man who entered was much younger than the wiseman had expected. He was tall and handsome; gold strands in his hair caught the firelight in defiance of the dirt from the road. His clothes however had little fight in them. They were an unremarkable grey; even the leathers that had once been black or tan bore testament to the persistance of the dirt. The only bright spot was a handkerchief tied about his neck. Bevlin fancied there was something touching about its faded scarlet glory.

The stranger looked a little saddle weary to the wiseman, but then that was to be expected; after all he lived in a very remote spot - two days ride from the nearest village, and even then the village was no more than three farms and a middens.

"Welcome, stranger. I wish you joy of the night; come share my food and hearth." Bevlin smiled: the young man was surprised to find himself expected, but he covered it well.

"Thank you, sir. Is this the home of the wiseman Bevlin?" The stranger's voice was deep and pleasant, a trace of country accent went unconcealed.

"I am Bevlin, wise man is not for me to say."

"I am Tawl, Knight of Valdis." He bowed with grace. Bevlin knew all about bowing; he had stayed at the greatest courts in the Known Lands, bowed to the greatest leaders. The young man's bow was an act of newly learned beauty.

"A Knight of Valdis! I might have guessed it. But why have I been sent a mere novice, I expected someone older." Bevlin was well aware that he had insulted the young man, but he did so without malice, to test the temper and bearing of his visitor, he was not disappointed with the young man's reply:

"I expected someone younger, sir, " he said, smiling gently, "but I will not hold your old age against you."

"Well spoken, young man. You must call me Bevlin - all this sir nonsense makes me a little nervous. Come, let us feast first and talk later. Tell me, would you prefer salt-roasted beef or a nice greased duck?"

"I think I would prefer the beef, sir, er Bevlin."

"Excellent," replied Bevlin moving into the kitchen. "I think I'll have the duck myself!"

"Here, drink some of this lacus it will calm the rage in your belly." The wiseman poured a white, silvery liquid into a cup, and offered it to his companion. They had ate and supped in silence - the knight had resisted Bevlin's attempts to draw him into casual conversation. Bevlin was willing to overlook the young man's reticence, as it could conceivably be due to gut sickness. Looking decidedly pale and sickly, the knight tasted the proffered drink. He drank reluctantly at first, but as the liquid found favor on his tongue he drained the cup empty. Like so many men, in so many ages, he held his cup out for more.

"What in creation is this stuff? It tastes like - like nothing I've ever had before."

"Oh, it's quite common in some parts of the world, I assure you. It's made by gently squeezing the lining of a goat's stomach." The visitor's face was a blank, and so Bevlin elaborated. "Surely you have heard of the nomads who roam the great plains?" Tawl nodded. "Well, the plains goats are the tribes' livelihood; they provide the nomads with milk and coarse wool, and when they are killed they provide meat and this rather unusual liquid. It's a rare goat that favors the plain. A most useful creatures to have around, don't you agree?" The young man nodded reluctantly, but Bevlin could see he was already beginning to feel much better.

"The most interesting thing about the lacus is that served cold it cures ailments of the belly and -how should I put it, the er, private parts. When the lacus is warmed however, it changes its nature and provides relief from pain of the joints and the head. I have even heard said that when condensed and applied as a paste to wounds, it can quicken healing and stave off infection."

Bevlin was feeling a little guilty. He realized the addled beef was responsible for his visitor's illness, and decided that before the young man left he would make amends by giving Tawl his last remaining skin of lacus.

"Is the lacus more than the sum of its ingredients?" The knight had keen perception. Bevlin revised his opinion of him. "One might say there is an added element that owes nothing to the goat."


Bevlin smiled. "You are most forthright. All too often these days people are afraid of naming the unseen. Call it what you like, it makes no difference, it won't lessen its retreat."

"But there are still those who.."

"Yes, there are those who still practise." The wiseman stood up. "Most think it would be better if they didn't."

"What do you think?" asked the knight.

"I think like many things - like the stars in the heavens, like the storms in the sky - it is misunderstood, and people usually fear what they can't comprehend." Bevlin felt he'd said enough. He had no desire to satisfy the youthful curiosity of the knight. If Tawl was to find anything out, let it be through experience - he was too old to play teacher. Guiding the conversation around to its former topic, the wiseman said, "I think maybe you should sleep for now, you are weak and need to rest. We will talk in the morning."

The knight recognised the dismissal and stood up. As he did so Bevlin caught a glimpse of a mark on his forearm. A branding - two circles, one within the other. The inner circle had been newly branded: the skin was still raised and puckered. A knife wound of some sort ran through the center of both circles. There were stitches still holding it closed. It seemed an unusual place for an enemy's blade to fall.

Battle scars aside, the knight was young to have gained the middle circle. Bevlin had guessed him to be a novice. Perhaps he should have spoken further about that which made the lacus sing. The knight would have been keen to learn - the second circle marked scholarship, not just skill with a blade. Still, he was offering the knight a chance for glory - why should he offer him knowledge as well?
As soon as Melli entered the chamver of her father, Lord Maybor, she made a bee-line for his bedroom, in there was to be found that most precious of objects: a looking glass. This was the only glass that Melli had access to, as they were considered too valuable for the use of children. Melli drew back the heavy red curtains and let the light shine into the luxuriant bed chamber.

Melli considered the chamber - all crimson and gold - to be a little gaudy for her taste, and resolved that when she had a chamber of her own one day, she would show greater taste and discrimination in the choosing of furnishings. She knew well that the rug she walked on was priceless and that the looking glass she had come to use was supposed to be the most beautiful one in the kingdom, better even than the one possessed by the queen. Still, she was not greatly impressed by these trappings of her father's great wealth.

Melli moved directly in front of the mirror. She was disappointed by what she saw there: her chest was still flat as a board. She breathed in deeply, pushing her meagre chest out, trying to imagine what it would be like to have womanly breasts. She was sure they would arrive any day now, but whenever she stole into her father's rooms her image remained unchanged.

Part of Melli longed to become a woman. Oh to be able to use her lady's name, Melliandra, instead of the rather short and decidedly unimpressive Melli. How she hated that name! Her older brothers would tease her mercilessly: Melli, Melli, thin and smelly! She'd heard that rhyme a thousand times. Oh, if her blood would only start to flow, for then she would be allowed to use her proper name.....and then there was the court dress.

All young ladies were given a special court dress on reaching womanhood. Wearing them they would be presented to the queen. Here Melli knew that she, as Lord Maybor's daughter, would have a definite advantage. He was one of the richest men in the Four Kingdoms and would certainly use the presentation of his daughter at court as an opportunity to show off his wealth.

She had already decided what her dress was to be made from: silver tissue - expensive and exquisitely beautiful, made from combining silk with threads of purest silver. The art of weaving such fabric had long been lost in the north and it would have to be specially imported from the far south. Melli knew nothing would please her father more than spending his money on such a publicly displayable commodity.

Becoming a woman was not all good though; at some point she would be forced to marry. Melli knew well she would have little say in the matter - as a daughter, she was considered the sole property of her father and would be used as such. When the time came he would trade her for whatever he deemed suitable; land, prestige, titles, wealth, alliances.......such was the worth of women in the Four Kingdoms.

She had no great liking for the pimply, simpering boys of the court. She'd even heard mention of a possible match between herself and Prince Kylock, after all they were the same age. The very thought made her shiver; she disliked the cold and arrogant boy. He may well be rumored to be learned beyond his years and an expert in swordplay, but he rather scared her and something in his handsome, dark face raised warnings in Melli's heart.

She was about to leave the bedchamber, when she heard the sound of footsteps and then voices in the other room. Her father! He would be most annoyed to find her here and might even punish her. So, rather than make her presence known by leaving, she decided to stay put until her father and his companion left. She heard the deep, powerful voice of her father, and then another voice: rich and beguiling. There was something familiar about the second voice, she knew she'd heard it before...

Lord Baralis! That was who it belonged to, half the women at court found him fascinating, the other half were repulsed by him.

Melli was puzzled, for although she knew little of politics, she was aware that her father and Baralis hated each other. She moved closer to the door to hear what they would say. She was not a eavesdropper, she told herself, she was just curious. Lord Baralis was speaking, his tone coolly persuasive:

"It will be a disaster for our country if King Lesketh is allowed to make peace with the Halcus. Word will soon spread that the king has no backbone and we will be overrun with enemies knocking at our door, snatching the very land from under our feet."

There was a pause and Melli heard the rustle of silk followed by the pouring of wine. Baralis spoke again. "We both know the Halcus won't be content with stealing our water, they will set their greedy eyes upon our land. How long do you think Halcus will keep this proposed peace?" There was a brief hush and then Baralis answered his own question. "They will keep the peace just long enough for them to mass and train an army, and then, before we know it, they will be marching right into the heart of the Four Kingdoms."

"You need not tell me that peace at Horn Bridge would be a disaster, Baralis." Her father's voice was ripe with contempt. "For over two hundred years, well before any family of yours came to the Four Kingdoms, we had exclusive rights over River Nestor. To give up those rights in a peace agreement is a serious miscalculation."

"Indeed, Maybor," Lord Baralis again, his tone calming, but not without irony. "The River Nestor is lifeblood to our farmers in the east and, if I am not mistaken, it runs through much of your eastern holdings."

"You know well it does, Baralis!" Melli caught the familiar sound of anger in her father's voice. "You are well aware that if this peace goes through, it will be my lands, and the lands set aside for my sons that will be affected the most. That is the only reason why I am here today." Maybor's voice dropped ominously low, "Mistake me not, Baralis. I will be drawn no further into your web of intrigue than I deem fitting."

There was silence for a moment and then Lord Baralis spoke, his manner changed from moments earlier, it was almost conciliatory. "You are not the only lord who will suffer from peace, Maybor. Many men with eastern holdings will support us."

There was a brief pause, and when Baralis continued, his voice was almost a whisper. "The most important thing to do now is to disable the king, and prevent the planned meeting with the Halcus at Horn Bridge."

This was treason. Melli was beginning to regret listening in. Her body had grown cold and she found herself trembling. She could not bring herself to move away from the door.

"It must be soon, Maybor," murmured Baralis, his beautiful voice edged with insistency.

"I know that, but must it be tomorrow?"

"Would you risk Lesketh making peace at Horn Bridge? He is set to do so and the meeting is only one month hence." Melli heard her father grunt in agreement. "Tomorrow is the best chance we have. The hunting party will be small, just the king and his favorites. You yourself can go along to avoid suspicion."

"I can only go ahead with this, Baralis, if I have your assurance that the king will recover from his injuries."

"How, can you ask that, Maybor, when it will be your man who will aim and fire the arrow?"

"Don't play games with me, Baralis." The fury in her father's voice was unmistakable. "Only you know what foul concoction will be on the arrowhead."

"I assure you, Lord Maybor, that the foul concoction will do nothing more than give the king a mild fever for a few weeks and slow down the healing of the wound. In two months time the king will appear to be back to normal." Melli could detect a faint ambiguity to Lord Baralis' words.

"Very well, I will send my man to you tonight," said her father. "Be ready with the arrow."

"One will be enough?"

"My man is a fine marksman. He will have need of no more. Now, I must be gone. Be discreet when you depart, lest you be marked by prying eyes."

"Have no fear, Maybor, no one will see me leave. One more thing though. I suggest that once the arrow is removed from the king's body, it should be destroyed."

"Very well, I will see to it." Her father's voice was grim. "I wish you good day, Baralis." Melli heard the door close and then the soft tinkle of glass as Baralis poured himself another cup of wine.

"You can come out now, pretty one," he called. She could not believe he was addressing her. She froze not daring to take a breath. After half a minute Baralis' voice called again: "Come now, little one, step into the room, or I will be forced to find you."

Melli was about to hide under the bed when Baralis entered the bedroom, casting a long shadow before him. "Oh, Melli, what big ears you have." He shook his head in mild reproof. "What a naughty girl you are." His voice had a hypnotic quality, and she found herself feeling sleepy.

"Now Melli, if you are a good girl and promise not to tell what you heard. I will promise not to tell your father that you heard it." Baralis put down his goblet on a low table and turned towards her, fixing Melli with the full impact of his dark and glittering eyes. "Do we have an agreement, my pretty one?"

Melli's head felt so heavy she found she could barely remember what she was agreeing to. She nodded as Baralis sat on the bed. "That's a good girl. You are a good girl aren't you?" Melli nodded again dreamily. "Come here and sit on my lap and show me how just how good you can be." Melli felt her body move forward of its own accord. She settled herself on Baralis' lap, and put her arms around his neck. She smelled his scent: it was as compelling as his voice; the sensuous fragrance of rare spices and sweat.

"That's a good girl," he said softly, his hands enclosing her waist. "Now tell me how much can you remember of what you heard." Melli found she couldn't speak, much less remember, her mind was a blank. Baralis seemed satisfied with her silence. "Such a very pretty girl." She felt him caress the stiff fabric of her dress. His hand moved lower, down her leg and under her skirt, she felt his cool touch upon her calf. She was dimly frightened but she couldn't act, and his hand moved upwards. Then, with his other hand, Baralis traced his fingers over her thin breast, she noticed for the first time how loathsome his hands were, scarred and swollen.

Repulsed by the sight of the ugly hands, something in Melli stirred, and with great effort she forced herself out of her lethargy. Her thoughts sharpened into focus and she pulled away from him. Quick as a flash she stood up and ran out of the chamber, the sound of Baralis' laughter echoing in her ears.

That little whippet will be no problem, thought Baralis, as he watched her flee. It was a shame that she had seen fit to leave so soon. The encounter had just begun to get interesting. Still, he had more pressing matters to attend to and desire was already thinning from his blood.

He exited Maybor's chambers by means of a hidden passage, making his way to his own suite. He must prepare the poison for the king's arrow: a delicate and time consuming task - also a dangerous one - the many scars and blisterings on his hands could attest to that. The poison that he would paint on the arrowhead would be of an especially pernicious kind, and he would not be surprised if before the day was through, he had more welts and reddenings etched upon his tender palms.

Baralis had another task he was anxious to do: he needed to recruit a blind scribe. He'd just secured the loan of the entire libraries of Tavalisk - the events that he and Maybor had been discussing, were in fact part payment for the loan. He smiled knowingly. He would have arranged the king's accident regardless of Tavalisk and his precious library, but it suited Baralis for the moment to have Tavalisk believe that he was running the show.

Not that he'd ever make the mistake of underestimating Tavalisk. The man had a dangerous talent for trouble making. One wave of his heavily jewelled fingers and he could sanction the wiping out of entire villages. Whenever it suited the interests of his beloved Rorn, Tavalisk could be heard to cry loudly, "heretics". Baralis had to admire the particularly potent power which the man's position afforded him.

It was, however, not too stable a position. In fact, that was part of the reason Tavalisk had agreed to loan his library: he needed Rorn to be prosperous. As long as the city was doing what it did best - making money by trade and banking - his place would be assured. Rorn, much like a surgeon in times of plague, always did best when others did badly. A spark of insurgency in the north would result in the cautious money moving south.

There was more of course. With Tavalisk one always had to be careful - the man had knowledge of sorcery. How much was hard to judge, as rumour was never a reliable source. Baralis had met him once. It had proven difficult to take his measure - his obesity had proved an effective distraction. Yet it was enough for both men to know what the other was. Yes, it was best to be wary of Tavalisk: an enemy was at his most dangerous when he had intimate knowledge of the weapons at his opponent's command. That one day Tavalisk would become his enemy, was a fact Baralis never lost sight of.

But for the time being the alliance served both men: Tavalisk was able to promote income-generating conflict within the Four Kingdoms, and in turn Baralis was given access to some of the rarest and most secretive writings in the Known Lands.

He was no fool. He knew, even before the huge chests had arrived last week, that there would be volumes missing. Tavalisk would have kept back those writings which he considered too valuable or too dangerous for him to see. There was still however, a wealth of knowledge in what remained.

Brilliant, fantastic books, the likes of which he'd never imagined; bound in leather and skin and silk. Relating histories of peoples he'd never heard of, showing pictures of creatures he'd never seen, giving details of poisons he'd never made. Infinitely delicate manuscripts, made brittle by the passing of time, tied with fraying thread; providing incites into ancient conflicts, showing maps of the stars in the heavens, presenting listings of treasures long lost to the world...and much, more. Baralis was made light-headed by the thought of so much knowledge.

One thing he had determined to do was have all of Tavalisk's library copied before it was returned. To this end Baralis needed a blind scribe. Someone who could copy exactly sign for sign what was written on a page but not understand a word of it. Baralis had no intention of sharing the rare and wondrous knowledge which the books contained.

He needed a boy with a dexterous hand and an eye for detail. A clever boy, but a boy who had never been taught to read. Crope was out of the question he was a blithering, big-handed fool. The sons of nobles and squires were taught to read from an early age and so were of no use. Baralis would have to look elsewhere for a blind scribe.
Jack was woken up by Tilly. The pastry maid took great delight in shaking him much harder than was necessary. "What is it?" he asked, immediately worried that he'd overslept. The light filtering through the kitchens was pale and tenuous, a product of freshly broken dawn. Pain soared up his arm as he stood, and the memory of Frallit's words the night before raced after it.

Tilly put her finger to her lips, indicating that he should be quiet. She beckoned him to follow her and she lead him to the store room where the flour for baking was kept. "Willock wants to see you." Tilly pushed one of the sacks of flour aside to reveal a hidden store of apples. She selected one, hesitated a moment, considering whether or not to offer Jack one, decided against it and then pulled the flour sack back into place.

"Are you sure it's me he wants, Tilly?" Jack was genuinely surprised. He had little dealing with the cellar steward. He cast his mind back to a few weeks earlier when he'd secretly tapped a few flagons of ale on a dare from a stablehand. It suddenly seemed quite likely that Willock had discovered the missing ale. After all the man was known for his scrutinous eye. Jack had a horrible suspicion that the famous and slightly bulging eye had turned its gaze his way.

"Of course I'm sure, pothead! You're to go straight to the beer cellar. Now get a move on." Tilly's sharp teeth bit through the apple skin. She watched as Jack smoothed down his clothes and hair. "I wouldn't bother if I were you. No amount of grooming can make a stallion out of a pack horse." Tilly gave Jack a superior look and wiped the apple juice from her chin.

He hurried down to the beer cellar, wondering what form his punishment might take. Last year when he'd been caught raiding the apple barrels in an attempt to brew his own cider, Willock had given him a sound thrashing. Jack sincerely hoped another sound thrashing would be called for. The alternative was much worse: being forced to leave the castle.

The kitchens of Castle Harvell had been his home for life. He had been born in the servant's hall. When his mother grew too sick to tend him, the scullery maids had fostered him; when he needed food to eat, the cooks had fed him; when he did something wrong, the master baker had scolded him. The kitchens were his haven and the great oven was his hearth. Life in the castle wasn't easy, but it was familiar, and to a boy without father and mother or anyone to call his own, familiarity was as close as he could get to belonging.

The beer cellar was a huge building filled with rows of copper vats, in which various grades of ale where produced. When Jack's eyes became accustomed to the dim light, he was surprised to find Frallit was there, standing beside Willock, supping on a cup of ale. Both men looked decidedly nervous to Jack. Willock spoke first. "Did anyone follow you down here?" His small eyes flicked to the door, checking if anyone was behind him.

"No, sir."

Willock hesitated for a moment, rubbing his cleanly shaven chin, "My good friend the master baker has informed me that you are nimble with your hands. Is this true, boy?" The cellar steward's voice seemed strained and Jack was beginning to feel more than a little worried. He brushed his hair back from his face in an attempt to appear nonchalant. "Speak up, boy, now is not the time for false modesty. The master baker says you have a real feel for kneading the dough. He also tells me you like to carve and whittle wood. Is this true?"

"Yes, sir." Jack was confused; after last night's encounter with Frallit he hardly expected praise.

"I can see you are a polite boy and that's good, but the master baker also tells me you can be quite a handful and need a good whippin' from time to time. Is this true?" Jack didn't know how to respond and Willock continued. "A rare opportunity may be coming your way, boy. You wouldn't want to mess up on a rare opportunity would you?"

The hair which Jack had pushed from his eyes was threatening to fall forward again. He was forced to hold his head at a slight angle to prevent its imminent downfall. "No, sir."

"Good." Willock glanced nervously in the direction of several huge brewing vats. A man stepped out from behind them. Jack could not see him clearly as he was behind the light, but he could tell the stranger was a nobleman from the soft rustle of his clothes.

The stranger spoke, his mellifluous tones oddly out of place in the beer cellar, "Jack, I want you to answer one question. You must give me a truthful reply and do not be mistaken I will know if you lie." Jack had never heard a voice like the stranger's before; low and smooth but charged with power. He didn't question the man's ability to tell truth from lie and nodded obediently. At this sudden move of his head, Jack's hair fell over his eyes.

"I will answer you truthfully, sir."

"Good." Jack could make out the curve of thin lips. "Come forward a little so I may better see you." Jack moved a few steps nearer the stranger. The man stretched out a misshapen hand and brushed Jack's hair from his face. For the briefest of instances the stranger's flesh touched his. It took all of Jack's willpower not to recoil from the touch. "There is something about you, boy, that is familiar to me." The stranger's gaze lingered long over him. Jack began to sweat despite the chillness of the cellar. The pain in his arm sharpened to a needle point. "No matter," continued the stranger, "on to the question." He shifted slightly and the candlelight fell directly onto his face, his eyes shone darkly, "Jack, have you ever been taught how to read?"

"No, sir." Jack was almost relieved by the question. The threat of being banished from the castle receded upon its asking.

The stranger held Jack enthralled with the force of his stare. "You speak the truth, boy. I am pleased with you." The man turned to where Willock and Frallit were standing, "Leave me and the boy alone." Jack had never seen either man move so fast and he might have actually laughed if it hadn't been for the stranger's presence.

The man watched with cold eyes as the two scuttled away. He moved full into the light, his silken robes softly gleaming. "Do you know who I am, boy?" Jack shook his head. "I am Baralis, king's chancellor." The man paused theatrically, giving Jack sufficient time to fully understand the importance of the person who was facing him. "I see by the look on your face that you have at least heard of me." He smiled. "You are probably a little curious as to what I want of you. Well I will prolong your wait no longer. Have you heard of a blind scribe?" "No, sir."

"A blind scribe is a contradiction in terms, for he is not blind, nor does he understand what he sees. I can tell I am confusing you. Let me put it simply, I require someone to spend several hours each day copying manuscripts word for word, sign for sign. Could you do this?"

"Sir, I have no skill with pen, I have never even held one."

"I would have it no other way." The man who now had a name drew back into the shadows. "Your job is merely to copy. The skill with pen is nothing. Frallit tells me you are a clever boy, you will pick that up in a matter of days." Jack did not know if he was more amazed at Baralis' offer or that Frallit had actually spoken well of him.

"So, Jack, are you willing to do this?" Baralis' voice was a honeyed spoon.

"Yes, sir."

"Excellent, you will start today. Be at my chambers at two hours past noon. I will require your presence for several hours every day. You will not give up your kitchen duties." Jack could no longer see Baralis, the shadows hooded the man's face. "One more thing, Jack, and then you may go. I require your complete discretion, I trust you will tell no one of what you do. The master baker will provide you with an alibi if you need one." Baralis slipped away into the darkness between the brewing vats. There was not a sound to be heard upon his departure.

Jack was shaking from head to foot. His knees were threatening a mutiny and his arm felt as if it had been keel-hauled. He sat down on the cellar floor, suddenly tired and weak. The stone was damp, but the unpleasantness went unnoticed as he wondered about what had happened. Why would the king's Chancellor choose him?

Coming to the lofty conclusion that the world of grown men made little sense, Jack curled up into a ball and drifted off to sleep.
It was a perfect morning for a hunt. The first frost of Winter hardened the ground underfoot and crisped the undergrowth. The sun provided light but not warmth and the air was still and clear.

King Lesketh felt the familiar knot of tension in his stomach that always accompanied the hunt. He welcomed the feeling, it would keep an edge to his judgment and a keenness to his eye. The small party had set off for the forest before dawn and now, as they approached their destination the horses grew skittish and the hounds barked noisily, eager to begin. The king briefly looked over his companions. They were good men and the fear of the hunt was a bond between them on this fine day; Lord's Carvell, Travin, Rolack and Maybor, the houndsmen and a handful of archers.

He did not miss the presence of his son. The king had felt relief when Kylock had failed to show at the predawn meet. The boy was turning out to be a brilliant sportsman, but his cruelty towards his prey troubled the king. Kylock would toy with his game, needlessly wounding and dismembering - trying to inflict as much pain as possible before death. More disturbing than that, was the effect his son had on those around him. People were guarded and uneasy in the boy's presence. The hunt would be more joyous in his absence.

The party waited as the hounds were loosed. Minutes passed as the dogs searched for quarry. The king's hounds had been specially trained to ignore smaller game such as rabbit and fox, they would only follow the bigger prize; the wild boar, the stag and the bristled bear. The hunting party waited, tension written on every man's face, their breath whitening in the cold air. Before too long the baying of the hounds changed and became a savage beckoning. All eyes were on the king. He let out a fierce cry, "To the hunt!" and galloped deep into the forest, his men following him. Sound blasted the air; the thunder of hooves, the blare of horn and the whelping of hounds.

The hunt was long and dangerous. It was difficult to manoeuvre horse around tree and over ditch. The hounds led the party on a twisting path into the heart of the wood. The trees became so dense that the party was often forced to slow down. The king hated to be slowed. The cry of the hounds urged him to go faster, to take risks, to pursue his game at any cost. Lord Rolack was at his flank and threatened to take the lead. Lesketh dug spur into horseflesh and pushed ahead. The men were gaining on the hounds. Over stream and fallen log they leapt, through glade and brush they charged. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, they caught a glimpse of a huge and fast moving form.

"A boar!" cried the king exultantly. That single vision had sent a shiver of fear through him, the beast was massive, much larger than was usually found in these parts.

The horsemen closed in on hound and boar, and the archers let off their first arrows. Most went wide as the boar dived once more into the bush. However, when the boar was spotted again it was sporting two arrows; one in its neck, the other on its haunch. The king knew that the first hits would actually quicken the boar, filling it with a dangerous blind rage. He turned his horse quickly and pursued the game deeper into the bush.

The hounds smelled blood and were wild with excitement, their cries reaching a fever pitch. The men responded to the sound. Blood had been drawn, the hunt had now truly begun.

The king had no time for thought. He survived on his reflexes and those of his horse, which seemed to know when to jump and turn without any prompting from its master. The boar was sighted again. This time its escape route was cut off by a deep gully. The archers fired once more and the boar was hit a further three times. The beast let out a piercing squeal. One of the arrows went astray, striking a hound and puncturing its eye. In the confusion the boar turned on the party and blazed a path through them. The king was furious. "Put that hound out of its misery!" he said through clenched teeth. He spun his horse round, drawing blood with his spurs and charged after the game.

The boar did not slow down. Pursued by the hounds it fled into the depths of the forest, leaving a trail of blood in its path.

Finally the boar was cornered by the hounds. It had run towards a still pond and could go no further. The dogs kept it from moving by forming a half-circle around it. The mighty beast kicked at the earth preparing to charge. The men readied their weapons. The king moved closer, his eyes never leaving the beast. One wrong move, one hesitation could lead to death. Lesketh knew he had only an instant before the boar charged. He neared the beast, raising his mighty spear and, with all the force in his body, thrust the spear deep into the boar's flank. The beast sounded a chilling death cry and hot blood erupted from the wound.

One moment later all the lords were upon the beast stabbing it countless times with their long spears. The boar's blood flowed onto the ground and down to the pond. The houndsmen called the dogs off. The party was jubilant.

"Lets have its balls off!" cried Carvell.

"Off with its balls," repeated Maybor. "Who will do the honors?"

"You should, Maybor. It's rumored you're skilled in the art of castration." Everyone laughed relieving the tension of the hunt.

Maybor took his dagger from its sheath and dismounted his horse. "By Borc! I don't think I've ever seen such huge balls."

"I thought you had a looking glass, Maybor!" quipped Rolack. The lords guffawed loudly. With one quick slice Maybor relieved the dead beast of its testicles and held them up for his companions to admire.

"On second thoughts," he said with mock seriousness, "I think mine are bigger!"

As the men chuckled in response, the king thought he heard a familiar whirring sound, the next instant he was knocked off his horse by the force of something hitting his shoulder. As he fell he saw what it arrow. The instant of recognition was followed by the forewarning of danger. It didn't feel right: he'd been hit by arrows before and knew well the sting of impact. The sting was still there but there was more, almost as if something was burrowing into his flesh. A thin but biting pain gripped his body and he passed out.
Bevlin awoke in a bad mood. He'd had a terrible nights rest. He'd slept in the kitchen amongst his books. He wondered where his good sense had been - here he was, as old as the hills, barely able to walk, and yet he'd offered his bed to the young and abundantly healthy knight. He himself had slept on the hard wood of the kitchen table. Of course he could have slept in the spare room, but the roof leaked above the bed, and he'd reach the age now, where he'd rather be dry than comfortable.

His spirits picked up somewhat when he discovered his visitor was cooking breakfast. "How did you manage to do that without waking me?" he demanded testily.

"It was easy, Bevlin. You were fast asleep." Bevlin did not like the idea of this handsome young man seeing him asleep in such an undignified manner. He was willing to forgive him, though, as the food he was preparing smelled delicious.

"There was no need for you to do this I would have cooked breakfast."

"I know," said Tawl, "that was what I was afraid of."

Bevlin decided to let the remark pass without comment. The young man had good cause to be wary of his cooking. "What are you making?"

"Ham hocks stuffed with mushrooms and spiced ale."

"Sounds good, but could you grease the ham up a little. It looks a smidgen dry to me." The wiseman had a liking for grease, it helped food slip down his rough, old throat more easily. "So tell me, where does a fine man such as yourself pick up the skills of the hearth? Last time I heard they didn't teach cooking at Valdis."

Tawl's smile was sad. "My mother died in birthing while I was still a boy. She left me two young sisters and a babe in arms to care for." The knight hesitated, looking deep into the fire, his face an unreadable mask.

When he spoke again his tone had changed: it was bright with forced cheer, "So, I learnt to cook." He shrugged. "It made me popular with my fellow knights at Valdis and I earned more than a few coppers roasting up pig's liver in the early hours of the morning."

Bevlin wasn't a man who valued tact highly and curiosity always got the better of him. "So where are your family now?" he asked. "I suppose your father will be looking after your sisters."

"Suppose nothing about my family, wiseman."

Bevlin was shocked at the bitter fury in the knight's voice. He lifted his arm as a beginning to an apology, but was denied first say:

"Bevlin," said Tawl, his face turned back towards the fire, "Forgive my anger. I...."

"Speak no more, my friend," interrupted the wiseman. "There is much in all of us that bears no questioning."

A candle length later, when the two men had finished eating and were sitting in the warm kitchen drinking mulled ale, Bevlin carefully opened a fat, dusty book. "This, Tawl," he said gesturing the yellowing pages, "is my most precious possession. It is a copy of Marod's Book Of Words. Not any old copy mind you, but one faithfully transcribed by the great man's devoted servant, Galder. Before his master died, Galder made four exact copies of Marod's great lifework. This is one of those four copies."

Bevlin's old fingers traced the inscription on the sheep's-hide cover, "One can tell it's an original Galder copy if one looks very closely at the pages. Marod was so poor near the end that his servant couldn't afford to buy new parchment and was forced to re-use existing papers. Galder would wash the ink off the paper with a solution of rainwater and cow's urine, he would then leave the paper in the sun to dry. If you look carefully you can still see the ghosts of some of those previous documents."

Tawl studied the page that Bevlin opened. The old man pointed out the merest whisper of words and letters lying beneath the text. "Of course the unfortunate fact is that the very solution used to soak the pages clean, eats away at the nature of them making them brittle and delicate. I fear it won't be long before it is rendered unreadable and will only be good as a relic in a collection. That will be a very sad thing indeed, for Marod's book holds much of relevance for those who live today." The wiseman closed the book.

"But there must be thousands of copies of The Book Of Words around. Every priest and scholar in the Known Lands must have one."

Bevlin shook his head sadly. "Unfortunately copies are often vastly different from the original. There is not one scribe who failed to alter Marod's words in some subtle way; changing ideas to suit their beliefs or those of their patrons. Omitting sections they considered immoral or insignificant, altering verses they thought were mis-written or frivolous or just plain dull." Bevlin sighed heavily, the weariness of age marked clearly on his pale features. "Every translator's interpretation minutely altered the essence of Marod's words and prophesies. In consequence, through the course of centuries, his work has been irrevocably changed. The priests and scholars of which you speak may well have books of the same name, but they are not the same work.

"For all I know the other three Galder copies are lost or destroyed: I may be the only person in possession of the true word of Marod." The wiseman finished the last of his ale and placed the empty goblet on the table. "It is a source of much sadness to me."

Bevlin looked thoughtfully into the face of his companion: Tawl was young, maybe too young to undertake what would be asked of him. The wiseman sighed heavily, he knew the immensity of the task to be set. This young man before him; strong and golden and self assured, had his whole life infront of him, a life that could be blighted by a fruitless search. Bevlin extinguished the candles between his fingers. What could he do? He had no choice, no one had asked him if he wanted the responsibility for all that was to come. All that could be done was to give the young man a choice - he could at least do that.

The wiseman held his hands closely together to stop them from shaking and looked firmly into the blue eyes of the knight, "I expect you must be wondering what all this has to do with you coming here?"
"What you doin' here, boy? This ain't no place for the likes of you." The guard's voice echoed through the stone halls of the castle.

"I need to get to the nobles quarters," said Jack.

"The nobles quarters! The nobles quarters! What business could you have in the nobles quarters? Get going you little snot."

Jack was late. He couldn't understand why he'd been so exhausted after meeting the king's chancellor earlier, it seemed as if the man had drained all the energy from him. Much to his great misfortune: the morning loaves had been late to bake, and were, by the time they were ready, more precisely called afternoon loaves. Frallit's fury had been stoked to an inferno by that particular observation. Even more infuriating to the master baker was the realization that he couldn't beat Jack on the spot - he could hardly send a bruised and bloodied boy to the king's chancellor.

Jack almost felt sorry for Frallit, who was shown to be powerless in the face of genuine power. The master baker might be lord of the kitchens, but Baralis was lord of the castle. Still, Jack was sure Frallit would come up with some suitable punishment for sleeping when he should have been baking. Besides an armoury of physical punishments, the master baker had a stockpile of humiliations at his flour-caked fingertips. For the second time this day, Jack found himself preferring the tried and tested sting of a sound thrashing to the blow of the unknown.

Jack contemplated the guard and realized that he wouldn't get far with chit chat. The man wasn't going to believe he - a mere baker's boy - had an appointment with the King's Chancellor. For some reason Jack felt like action - it would be good to be the one in control for once. A faded tapestry hanging against the wall caught his eye. He took a step forward and pulled hard on its corner. It fell onto the floor in a cloud of dust. The guard's face had just time enough to register amazement and Jack was off, jumping over the tapestry, dodging around the guard and running down the corridor.

Dust was in his lungs, the guard was at his heels, stone raced beneath his feet. The chase was on.

In between wheezing breaths, Jack realized it hadn't been such a good idea - he didn't have the slightest notion in which direction Baralis' chambers lay. It was exhilarating to outrun the guard, though. To pit himself against another and grab the chance for success. After a short while the footsteps receded and his pursuer could be heard shouting obscenities from behind. Jack smiled triumphantly - a man reduced to shouting obscenities was a man with not enough breath to run.

Finding the chamber was not as difficult as Jack thought. Staircases and turnings presented themselves to him, and he knew instinctively which to take. It appeared that the very castle itself was beholden to the great man. Its most dark and vital passages seemed to lead to Baralis' door.

Jack paused on the threshold trying to decide if a humble tap or a confident knock was called for. He'd just decided that humility was probably his best course, when the door swung open.

"You are late." Lord Baralis stood there, tall and striking, dressed in black.

Jack tried to keep his voice level. "I'm sorry, sir."

"What, no excuse?"

"None, sir. The fault was entirely my own."

"My, my, we are an unusual boy. Most people would have a hundred excuses at their lips. I will forgive you this time, Jack, but do not be late again."

"Yes, sir."

"I noticed you were admiring my door." Jack nodded enthusiastically, pleased that the great man has misinterpreted his reason for dallying on the threshold.

Baralis ran his scarred fingers over the etchings on the door. "You do well to admire it, Jack, for it has several interesting properties." Jack expected him to expand further on the subject but Baralis just smiled; a guarded curve of lip with no show of teeth.

Jack followed him through what seemed to be a sitting room and then into a large, well lit chamber crammed from top to bottom with all manner of paraphernalia. "You will work here," said Baralis indicating a wooden bench. "You will find quill, ink and paper on the desk. I suggest you spend today learning how to use them." Jack was about to speak but was cut short, "I have no time for mollycoddling, boy. Get to it." With that Baralis left him at the desk and busied himself at the far side of the room, sorting through papers.

Jack didn't have the slightest idea of what to do. He had never seen anyone use a pen before. Certainly no one in the kitchen could read or write; recipes for breads, beers and puddings were kept in the head. The cellarer was the only person who Jack knew could write. He was the one responsible for keeping account of all the kitchen supplies, but Jack had never actually seen him use a pen.

He picked up the quill and turned it in his hands, he then readied a piece of paper and pressed the nib to it. Nothing. He realized he must be missing something. His eyes glanced around the desk. The ink. That was it. He poured a quantity of the liquid onto the page, where it quickly spread out. He then ran the quill through the ink making crude marks. He felt he hadn't got it quite right so tried again on a fresh piece of paper, once more pouring the ink onto it. This time Jack managed to trace some lines and shapes in the ink.

"You fool." Jack looked up to see Baralis hovering over him. "You are not supposed to pour the ink on the page. The ink stays in the pot. You dip the pen into the ink. Here." Jack watched as Baralis demonstrated what he described. "There. Now you have a go." Baralis left him alone once more.

Several hours later Jack was beginning to get the hang of it. He had mastered the exact dipping angle required to pick up maximum ink and could draw signs and shapes. To practice he drew what he knew of - the shapes of various loaves: the round, the platt, the long loaf. He also drew baking implements and various knives and weaponry.

After a while Jack's attention began to wander. He'd never been in a place of such wondrous luxury. Walls lined with books and boxes tempted him, bottles filled with dark liquids wooed him. He couldn't resist. He stole over to the wooded sill and took the stopper from a particularly seductive looking jar. A smell sweet and earthy escaped. There was nothing to do but try it. He raised it to his lips.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Jack," came Baralis' mocking voice. "It's poison. For the rats."

Jack's face was hot with shame. He hadn't heard Baralis approach - did the man walk on air? Quickly replacing the stopper, he tried his best not to look like a person caught in the act. He was almost light headed with relief when someone else entered the room. Jack recognized the huge and badly disfigured man at once.

"Yes, Crope," said Baralis, "what is it?"

"The king."

"What about the king?"

"The king has been hit by an arrow while out hunting."

"Has he indeed." For the briefest instant malice flashed across Baralis' face, but just as quickly, his expression changed to one of deep concern. "This is ill news." He looked sharply at Jack. "Boy, go back to the kitchens at once."

Jack raced out of the chambers and down to the kitchen, his mind awhirl with thoughts of the king. He would probably be the first person downstairs with the news, he would be the center of attention and Frallit might even treat him to a cup of ale. The thought of ale wasn't as cheering as normal and it took Jack a moment to realize why. He was afraid. The look that had so quickly flitted across Baralis' face had formed a memory too disturbing to ignore. Jack hurried on his way. Baralis' expression would be one detail he would leave out of his account to the kitchen staff - he was a smart boy and knew that such things were best not repeated.
"There are grave times ahead." Bevlin exhaled deeply and continued, his voice thin with age. "Just over twelve summers back I saw a terrible thing in the sky. A fragment of a star fell from the heavens. As it sped toward the earth a great cleaving occurred. The two pieces lit up the sky with equal brilliance before disappearing beyond the horizon in the east." The wiseman walked over to the fire and stirred the embers. He had need of more warmth.

"I need not tell you that such an event is a sign of great importance. At the time I had little idea what it meant and I have spent the past years looking for answers. I read all the great books of prophesy, all the ancient scripts." Bevlin managed a wiry smile. "Such works are always filled with vague predictions of doom; dark clouds looming on the horizon, fatal curses upon the land - the stuff that parents frighten their children into obedience with. I found little of value in any of them. More often than not they are written with the reasoning that if one predicts doom long enough, one is bound to be proven right. Doom, I fear, is just as inevitable as leaves falling in autumn."

Bevlin placed a pot of ale upon the fire and spooned some honey into it. "Of course, one man's doom is often another man's triumph." He grated cinnamon into the pot, stirred it once and then spat in it for luck. He let it warm a little while and then ladled the mixture into two cups, handing one of them to Tawl.

"Marod's work is different. He is emboldened to specifics - he was not a man given to ambiguity like a cheap fortune teller." The wiseman's hand settled on the thick, sheep's-hide book, "Marod was chiefly a philosopher and historian, but, thanks to the benevolence of the Gods, he had instances of foretelling. Unfortunately, although he was a specific man, he enjoyed making references to other, more obscure works known to him. Most of those works have failed to be passed down to our time. They have either been lost or destroyed: burnt by overly fanatical clergy, eager to be rid of the works of heretics."

"I finally managed to track down one such book mentioned by Marod. I paid a heavy price for what was little more than a few pages with failed binding. In that book I found what I was looking for - a mention of what I saw in the sky twelve years back.

"The pages tell that it was a sign of birth, duel births. Two babes were begot that night, two men whose destinies lie in shaping the world - for good, or bad, I do not know. Their lives are linked together by an invisible thread and their fates will pull against each other."

"There is a specific prophecy divined by Marod, which I believe is relevant to one of the two. You may be familiar with some of it, scholars have pondered its meaning for years, but this is the original. Possibly no one else besides you and I will ever know the true wording of the script:

When men of honor lose sight of their cause
When three bloods are savoured in one day
Two houses will meet in wedlock and wealth
And what forms at the join is decay
A man will come with neither father nor mother
But sister as lover
And stay the hand of the plague

The stones will be sundered, the temple will fall
The dark empire's expansion will end at his call
And only the fool knows the truth

Bevlin warmed his hands against his cup and looked into the eyes of his companion. Tawl met his gaze and, with the fire crackling in the background, an unspoken communion passed between them.

"The world is ever changing," said Bevlin softly, breaking the silence. "And it is always greed that compels those changes: the Archbishop of Rorn cares more for money than he does his God, the Duke of Bren grows restless for more land, the city of Marls in its desperation for foreign trade has brought a plague upon itself. Even now as we speak, King Lesketh in the Four Kingdoms seeks to avert war with the Halcus... it is not for me to say if he will succeed."

Bevlin and Tawl remained silent for some time, both deep in thought. It was the young man who first spoke, just as the wiseman knew it would be. "Why was I sent here?"

Bevlin suspected that the young man already knew the answer. "There is one thing I believe you can do."

"Tyren expected you would set me a task. What is it?" Tawl was so willing, so eager. The wiseman felt an unaccountable sadness.

"Your job will be to find a needle in a haystack."

"What do you mean?" Tawl was mouthing the appropriate words but Bevlin realized that the knight knew the future was set, and all that was now being said was already understood and decided.

"I need you to find me a boy, a boy of about twelve summers."

"Where will I find this boy?"

"There are no easy answers to that question I'm afraid."

"One of the two?" asked Tawl. The wiseman nodded.

"The one named in the prophesy." Bevlin resisted the urge to talk further about the prophesy - the knight would not be pleased with his reasons for believing it would soon come to pass. "I have little for you to go on, the only advice I can give you is use your instincts. Look for a boy who appears more than he seems, a boy set apart. You will know him when you find him."

"And if I find him?"

"Then you will receive your final circle. That's why they sent you here, wasn't it?" Bevlin regretted the words as soon as they were spoken. The young man before him had done nothing to deserve offence.

"Yes, that's why I came," the knight's voice was gentle. "These," he uncovered his circles, "are all that matter now."

Bevlin watched as he pulled down his sleeve. Tawl was somehow different than other knights he'd met. The commitment was the same, but it was tempered with something akin to vulnerability. Valdis specialized in breeding a particularly single minded race of knights; unconditional obedience, no question of marriage, all income to be relinquished to the cause. And what was the cause? The knights had started out as a moral order, dedicated to helping the oppressed and the needy. Nowadays it was discussions on politics, not humanity, that could be heard most often filtering through the halls at Valdis.

Money was ever an interest too. It was gold that had brought the knight here - though Bevlin was certain Tawl had no knowledge of the transaction. Tyren had probably told him there was a great deed to be done, a chance to bring honor to the knighthood. And there was of course, but Valdis didn't know it. All he was to Tyren was a foolish old man with a dream of stopping a war that hadn't even started. Well, if his gold had spoken more seductively than his prophesies, so be it. The result was still the same. He got what he wanted; which was a strong young knight to help him search for the boy, and Tyren got what he wanted; more money to finance his political manouverings.

It hadn't always been that way with the knights. They had been glorious once. Famous for their chivalry and learning. They were counted on to keep the peace in times of unrest, famine and plague. No city was powerful enough to intimidate them, no village too small to ask for their help. A whole legion of them had once road a hundred leagues with barrels at their back to bring water to a town that was dry. A thousand songs were sung about them, generations of women swooned at the sight of them. And now they had stooped to intrigue.

Exactly what the knights hoped to achieve by their manouverings was difficult for Bevlin to understand. Valdis was not as great a city as it once was, Rorn had long eclipsed it as the fiscal capital of the Known Lands, and Valdis was obviously envious of its rival's success. Tyren, perhaps in an attempt to regain a foothold in trade, was quietly buying up interests in salt pans and mines. If the knights gained control over the salt market, it would mean they could virtually hold cities for ransom, especially the ones dependent on the fishing trade in the south. But there was more than trade at stake: Tyren had only taken over the leadership a year ago, but he was already advocating a more zealous approach to their faith.

The major southern cities; Rorn, Marls, Toolay, all followed the same religion as Valdis, but they were more liberal in their interpretation of the creeds and dogmas. Hence Valdis were positioning themselves as the moral leaders in the south, and had begun stirring up trouble in the name of religious reformation.

All in all, it added up to trouble. Bevlin foresaw conflict ahead. It was really quite ironic - the knights, who with their peculiar mix of greed and religious fervour could conceivably spark off a major war, had sent one of their number to find a boy who could conceivably end one! Indeed by sending Tawl here, with gold not good deeds as their motive, they may well have put Marod's prophesy into motion: When men of honor loose sight of their cause.

Bevlin sighed deeply. There would be much suffering ahead. He turned and looked at Tawl. The young knight was sitting quietly, lost in thought. There was something about the way he sat, with his whole body enthralled by the fire, that affected the wiseman deeply. The knight was trying to deal with some inner torment, every muscle in his face, each heedless breath from his lips, attested to it. Bevlin made a silent promise that he'd never be the one to tell Tawl the truth behind Valdis' reasons for sending him here. "Well, my friend," he said. "Have you made your decision. Will you help me find the boy?"

"There was never any question," Tawl looked up, his blue eyes deep with need, "I will do as you ask."
Baralis entered King Lesketh's chamber. All the members of the hunt were there, still wearing clothes soaked in boar's blood. The queen was at the king's bedside, her normally cool and haughty features were stricken with worry. The surgeon was busy stripping the clothes away from the king's shoulder while murmuring the appropriate prayers of healing.

"What happened?" asked Baralis.

"The King was shot." Carvell looked down at the floor, as if he bore part of the blame.

"Who would dare do such a thing!" exclaimed Baralis, careful to keep a note of indignant surprise to his voice. "Where is the arrow? Did anyone get a good look at it?"

"Maybor removed it," answered Carvell.

Maybor moved forward. "Yes, it is true I did, but in my panic to withdraw it from the king, I threw the damned arrow away." His gaze met Baralis'.

"That was not a wise move, Maybor." Baralis turned to look at the other men present, "What if the arrow had been barbed? You might have caused the King worse damage by removing it." There were murmurs of agreement in the room. Baralis noted the quick flash of hatred in Maybor's eye.

"How do you know the arrow was not barbed?" asked Maybor coolly. The room grew quiet as they waited for Baralis' reply.

"I could tell the moment I saw the king's wound that a barbed arrow had not been used." The men reluctantly nodded their heads. Baralis promised himself that one day he would deal with Maybor; the man was altogether too unpredictable. Furthermore he was beginning to suspect Maybor regretted entering into the conspiracy. Well I have one more card up my sleeve that you don't know about Maybor, thought Baralis, and it is time I played it.

"Did anyone else get a look at the arrow?" he asked, his voice pitched low to gain the attention of everyone in the room.

"I did, my lord." One of the houndsmen stepped forward. Maybor looked up, his face ashen.

"And who are you?" Baralis knew well who the man was - he had paid him ten gold pieces only days ago for his part in this little performance.

"I am Hist, king's houndsman."

"Tell me, Hist. What exactly did you see?"

"Sir, I can't be exactly sure, but the shaft did seem to have a double notch." Maybor stepped forward, his hand raised in protest, about to speak. Baralis did not give him the chance.

"A double notch!" he exclaimed to the room. "We all know the Halcus arrows are double notched." The room erupted into an uproar:

"The Halcus, those treacherous bastards."

"The Halcus have shot our king."

"To hell with the peace at Horn Bridge," pitched in Baralis.

"We must avenge this deed."

"We must beat the Halcus senseless."

Baralis judged the time was right, "We must declare war!" he cried.

"Aye," cried the men in unison. "War!"

Chapter I
Chapter II
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