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,
"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
"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
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
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'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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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'
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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.
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?"
"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
"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
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
was...an 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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."
"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
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?"
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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!"