o, Bodger. There's only one way to tell if a woman has a passionate
nature and it ain't the size of her orbs." Grift leant back against the
wall, arms folded behind his head in the manner of one about to impart
"How can you tell then, Grift?" Bodger drew close, in the manner of
one about to accept such knowledge.
"Body hair, Bodger. The hairier the woman the more passionate the
nature. Take old widow Harpit, she's got arms as hairy as a goat's
behind and you won't find a randier woman anywhere."
"Widow Harpit's not much to look at though, Grift. She's got more
hair on her upper lip than I have."
"Exactly, Bodger! A man would count himself lucky to bed her." Grift
smiled mischievous and took a long draught of ale. "What about your
Nelly. How hairy is she?"
"My Nelly has arms as smooth as freshly turned butter."
"You won't be getting much then, Bodger!"
Both men chuckled merrily. Grift filled their cups and they relaxed
for a while, supping their ale. They liked nothing better after a cold
morning patrolling the castle grounds, than to sit down with a cup of
ale and bandy ribald remarks. There was usually a little gossip
"Here, Grift, last night while I was relieving myself in the
ornamental gardens I heard Lord Maybor having a real go at his
daughter, he even gave her a good slapping."
"Maybor ain't what he used to be. Ever since this damned war with the
Halcus he's been getting nasty and hot tempered. You never know what
he's gonna' be doing next." Both men turned at the sound of footsteps.
"Here comes young Jack. Jack lad, do you fancy a sup of ale?"
"I can't, Bodger, I haven't got time."
"If you're off wooing, Jack," said Grift, "you'd better brush the
flour from your hair."
Jack smiled broadly. "It's there for a purpose, Grift. I want the
girls to think I'm old enough to be gray - just like you!"
Jack didn't wait around to hear the guard's reply. He was on his way
to Baralis' chambers and was late as usual. The king's chancellor had
been making him work long hours recently and he was often scribing into
the early hours of the morning. Jack suspected that the library he was
copying would soon be due back to its owner, and that Baralis was eager
to have what was left copied down to the last page as quickly as
possible. In consequence, Jack now spent his days baking and his nights
scribing. There was little time left for rest and he had been close to
falling asleep at his copying desk on more than one occasion.
Jack found that scribing became easier with time. At first he could
barely copy a page a day, but over the months he'd grown better at his
job, managing to complete as many as ten pages in one session.
Jack now had a guilty secret. For the past few years he had been able
to read every word that he copied. Five summers had passed since
Baralis had first recruited him to be a blind scribe, only Jack was no
It had begun after the the passing of three moons. Jack had started
to notice patterns in the words and symbols. His main breakthrough had
taken place over a year later when Baralis had asked him to copy a book
full of drawings of animals. Each drawing was meticulously labeled and
Jack recognized many of the creatures in the book; bats, bears, mice.
He began to understand that the letters underneath the drawings
corresponded to the animals names, and gradually he became able to
comprehend simple words, the names of birds or flowers or animals.
Eventually Jack had learnt other words, connecting words, describing
words, words that made up the basis of language. Once he had started he
raced ahead, eager for knowledge. He found a book in Baralis'
collection that did nothing but describe the meaning of words. Oh, how
he would have loved to have taken that precious volume to the kitchens
with him. Baralis was not a man to grant favors lightly and Jack had
never dared ask.
Over the past years he had read whatever he copied, stories from far
lands, tales of ancient peoples, lives of great heroes. Much of what he
copied he couldn't understand, and nearly half of it was written in
foreign languages or strange symbols that he could never hope to
decipher. All that he could understand made him restless.
Reading about faraway places made Jack yearn to visit them. He dreamt
of exploring the caverns of Isro, of sailing down the great River
Silbur, of fighting in the streets of Bren. He dreamt so vividly he
could smell the incense, feel the cool spray of water on his cheek, and
see defeat in the eyes of his opponents. Some nights, when the sky was
brilliant with stars and the world seemed impossibly large, Jack had to
fight the urge to be off. Desire to leave the castle was so great that
it became a physical sensation - a pressure within that demanded
Usually by the morning the pressure had lost its push. But more and
more these days, Jack's gaze would wander to the map pinned to the
study wall. He scanned the length of the Known Lands and wondered where
he'd visit first: should it be to north, over the mountains and into
the frozen waste; should it be to the south, through the plains and
into territories exotic and forbidden; or should it be to the east,
where the power lay? He needed a place to head for, and, eyes following
the contours of the map, he cursed not knowing where his mother had
come from, for he surely would have headed there.
Why had she kept so much from him? What was there in her past that
she needed to hide? When he was younger, Jack had assumed it was shame
that held her tongue. Now he suspected it was fear. He was nine when
his mother had died, and one of his most enduring memories of her was
how she would insist on watching the castle gates each morning to see
all the visitors arrive. They would go together arm in arm, up to the
battlements, where they would have a good view of everyone applying for
entry into Castle Harvell. It was his favorite part of the day. He
enjoyed being out in the fresh air and watching the hundreds of people
who walked through the gates.
There were great envoys with huge retinues, lords and ladies on fine
white horses, richly dressed tradesman from Annis and Bren, and farmers
and tinkers from nearby towns.
His mother would keep him amused by telling him who people where and
why they were important. What struck him now was how keen a grasp she'd
had on the affairs of Harvell and its northern rivals; she kept herself
well informed and was always eager for news of politics and power
plays. For many years after her death, Jack had thought it was
curiosity that made her watch the gates. Yet curiosity wouldn't make a
dying woman, who towards the end could barely walk, drag herself up to
the battlements each day to search the faces of strangers.
It was fear that marked her features at such times. Oh she tried to
hide it; she had a hundred anecdotes at her lips to take his mind from
the cold and from her true reasons for being there. She had nearly
succeeded as well. Even now though, he could recall the pressure of her
fingers as they rested upon his arm, and feel the delicate strain of
What had caused this watchfulness? This fear of strangers? To
discover that he must first find where she came from. His mother had
left nothing for him to go on. She had been ruthless in withholding all
information about herself. He knew nothing, save that she wasn't from
the Four Kingdoms and had been branded a whore. Through the long
nights, when sleep refused to come, Jack dreamt of tracking down her
origins like a knight on a quest, of finding out the truth behind her
Dreams were one thing, the reality of life in the castle was quite
another. If the night stirred his imagination, then the day stifled it.
What was he but a baker's boy? He had no skills to speak of, no future
to plan for, no money to call his own. Castle Harvell was all there
was, and to leave it would be to leave everything. Jack had seen the
way beggars were treated at the castle - they were spit upon and
ridiculed. Anyone who didn't belong was considered lower than the
lowest scullery maid. What if he left the Kingdoms only to end up
scorned and penniless in a foreign land? At least the castle offered
protection from such failure; whilst in its walls he was guaranteed a
warm bed, food to eat and friends to laugh with.
As Jack climbed the stairs to Baralis' chamber, he couldn't help
thinking that a warm bed and food to eat were beginning to sound like
coward's reasons to stay.
Baralis was well pleased with the events of the last five years. The
country was still embroiled in a disabling war. A war that only served
to sap the strength and resources of both Halcus and the Four Kingdoms.
Many bloody battles had been fought and heavy casualties were incurred
on both sides. Just as one party seemed to gain the advantage, the
other party would suddenly receive some unexpected help; news of
enemies tactics would be whispered in an interested ear, details of
supply routes would fall into improper hands, or sites of possible
ambush were revealed to unfriendly eyes. Needless to say, Baralis had
been responsible for every fatal betrayal.
Stalemate suited him nicely; with the attention of the country
focused to the east, Baralis could hatch his own plots and follow his
own agenda at court.
As he sipped on mulled holk to soothe the pain in his fingers, he
reflected on the state of the king. Since he had taken the arrow to the
shoulder he had never been the same. The wound had healed after a few
months but the king had been badly weakened and could no longer mount a
horse. The king's wits were also sadly not all they had been - not that
the king had ever been a great thinker, thought Baralis spitefully. If
anything he may have gone a little easy on the poison the day of the
hunt, after all the king could still remember his name!
The king's affliction was never mentioned aloud at court. If people
talked of it at all, it was in hushed voices in the privacy of their
own chambers: it was not a subject to speak of lightly. The queen was
known to view any such talk as treason. Queen Arinalda had unofficially
taken the king's place as ruler, and Baralis grudgingly admitted that
the woman was doing a better job than her dull, hunt- obsessed husband
She had performed a delicate balancing act; due to her efforts the
Kingdoms were not perceived as a weak country lacking a leader. She had
kept up diplomatic ties with Bren and Highwall, and had even signed an
historic trading agreement with Lanholt. The Halcus were seething at
her success. But she had shown wisdom in her restraint as well as her
strength, and had not given the Halcus too much cause to worry - else
Halcus might be forced to go in search of allies and the war escalate
beyond the control of the two countries.
Today Baralis would tie up a loose end; one that had been left
dangling since the day the king was shot. Lord Maybor had been a thorn
in his side for many years now, the man had been party to the events
leading up to the shooting, but it had become evident that Maybor
regretted his actions and Baralis feared the man might use the incident
against him. There was potential for blackmail and other
unpleasantness. Baralis ill liked having reason to be wary of any man.
The portly lord was up to something else that gave him cause for
concern: Maybor was trying to secure a betrothment between his
daughter, Melliandra, and the queen's only son, Prince Kylock. Baralis
was not about to let that proposal take place. He had his own plans
for the king's heir.
"Crope!" he called, eager to be relieved of his problem.
"Yes, master." His huge servant loomed close, blocking all light in
his path. He always carried a small painted box, and was busy stuffing
out of sight into his tunic.
"Go down to the kitchens and get me some wine."
"There's wine here already. I'll fetch it for you." Crope started
to reach for the wine jug.
"No, you repulsive simpleton. I need another type. Now listen
carefully for I know you're liable to forget." Baralis spoke slowly,
pronouncing each word carefully. "I need a flagon of lobanfern red. Have
you got that?"
"Yes, master, but you always say lobanfern red tastes like whore's
"This wine is not for me, you feckless imbecile. It's a gift."
Baralis stood up, smoothing his black, silk robes. He watched Crope
leave the room and then added in a low voice, "I hear Lord Maybor has a
fondness for lobanfern red."
Crope appeared sometime later with a jug of wine. Baralis snatched
it from him, "Go now, fool." Baralis uncorked the jug and smelled its
contents, he grimaced. Only a barbarian could like this sickly brew.
He took the wine and moved over to a tapestry hanging on the wall,
he lifted it up and ran his finger over a particular stone and entered
his private study. No one besides himself knew of its existence. It was
where he did his most secret work, wrote his most confidential letters
and manufactured his most potent poisons.
Poison was now one of Baralis specialties and, since gaining access
to the libraries of Tavalisk - who was himself a poisoner of high
repute - Baralis had honed his skills to a fine art. He now realized
that the poison he had used on the king's arrow was the crudest of
Baralis could now make poisons that were infinitely more subtle, less
detectable and more varied in their results. It was a foolish
practitioner who thought poisons' only use was to kill or disable. No,
poisons could be used for much more; they could be made to slowly
debilitate a person over years, effectively mimicking the
characteristics of specific diseases, they could corrupt a good mind
and turn it rotten, they could weaken a heart to a point were it
stopped of its own accord, they could paralyze a body but keep the mind
Poison could rob a man of his virility, his memory or even his
youth. It could stunt the growth of a child, or, in the case of the
queen, prevent the conception of one. It was all a matter of the skill
of the poisoner and Baralis was now in command of such skill.
He moved towards his heavy wooden desk where an array of jars and
vials were placed. Most poisons were better made fresh as needed - for
poison, like men, lost potency over time. Baralis smiled inwardly; time
to cook up a batch.
Tavalisk entered the small, damp cell. He held a scented handkerchief
to his nose - the smell of these places was always most unpleasant. He
had just eaten a fine meal of roasted pheasant stuffed with its own
eggs. A truly remarkable dish, the flavors of which still played in his
mouth, whetting his plump tongue. Unfortunately, as well as lingering
on his tongue, a small portion of the tenacious bird seemed to be
caught between his teeth. Tavalisk pulled forth a dainty silver
toothpick from his robes and skillfully dislodged the offending piece
He found that torture and food complimented each other perfectly:
after eating a fine meal he liked nothing better than to dabble in a
spot of torture.
He regarded the prisoner dispassionately. He was chained up by his
hands to the wall, his feet barely touching the ground. Tavalisk had to
admit that the young man did have an unusually high tolerance for pain.
He had been kept in this dungeon for over a year now. It might have
been enough to kill another man. This one however, had proven to be
Tavalisk had personally supervised the program of torture. Torture
was, he considered, a special skill of his. He had designed a specific
schedule just for this one prisoner, was this prisoner grateful? No.
This prisoner didn't even have the decency to succumb to the torture.
Burns to the feet had been useless, starvation had been useless, the
strain on his arms and wrists had been useless. Even his personal
favorite - hot needles in soft flesh - had proved useless. He had been
careful not to cause too much damage though, and had practiced great
personal restraint, for Tavalisk had far worse punishments in his
He didn't want to see this young man permanently disabled. He knew
that Tawl was a Knight of Valdis, that much was evident from the mark
upon his arm - two circles, one within the other, meaning the knight
had attained the middle circle and was obviously young to have done so.
Unfortunately, the young man had visibly aged since he had been under
his care. No longer did the golden hair shine and the cheek run smooth.
But that was of little consequence to Tavalisk, what did matter was
what the young man had been doing when his spies had picked him up. The
knight had been snooping around asking questions, wanting to find
somebody, a boy he had said. When the spies had brought him, bound and
gagged, to their master he had refused to speak.
There was one thing which made Tavalisk suspect the knight was
involved in something of importance: when he had been brought in, he
had in his possession a lacus skin. That skin had Bevlin's mark upon
it. Tavalisk was determined to find out what connection the knight had
to the aging wiseman.
Bevlin was considered an old fool by most people, but Tavalisk
preferred to give him the benefit of the doubt. Eighteen years ago
there had been a momentous sight in the night sky, Tavalisk himself had
even heard of it, most people said it was a sign that the next five
years would bring good harvest. And indeed Rorn hadn't had a bad year
since - though gold not grain was harvested in this fair city. But that
aside, Tavalisk had the uncanny feeling that the sign had meant more,
and that Bevlin had somehow discovered what it was. The wiseman had
ranted on about doom and its usual accompaniment, destruction. All but
Tavalisk had ignored him. I never hurt to keep an eye on the doings
of wisemen: like birds they always knew when a storm was coming. If
this prisoner before him was sent on a mission by Bevlin, then Tavalisk
was determined to find out the reason behind it.
Of late, he had grown frustrated by the prisoner's silence and had
decided upon another way to discover who the knight was looking for and
why. That was what brought him here today. He was going to let the
knight go free. All he would have to do is watch and wait, the knight
would lead him to the answers he sought.
"Guards," he called, moving the silken handkerchief from his face.
"Free this man and see he gets some water." The guards hammered the
metal stakes from the wrist irons and Tawl fell heavily to the floor.
"He's out cold, your Eminence."
"I can see that, take his body and dump him somewhere in the city."
"Any special part of the city, your Eminence?"
Tavalisk thought for a moment, a mischievous smile spreading across
his full lips. "The Whoring Quarter will do nicely."
The city of Rorn boasted the largest whoring quarter in the known
world. It was whispered that there was not a pleasure imaginable, no
matter how illegal or bizarre that could not be bought for the right
The quarter was a refuge for the miserable and the wretched; young
girls, barely eleven summers old walked the streets, beggars racked
with disease could be found on every corner. Pickpockets and
cut-throats waited in the shadows for a chance to relieve an
unsuspecting passerby of his purse or his life. Weapons and poison and
information could be purchased from the countless inns and taverns that
jostled for business on the filth ridden streets.
The streets themselves were so thick with human waste and rotting
vegetation, that it was said one could tell an outsider by the cloth he
held to his nose. It was not a good idea to look like an outsider in
the whoring quarter. Outsiders were an easy mark for con-men and
thieves, they were asking to be to be robbed or tricked of their money.
But still they came, drawn by the promise of illicit diversions and the
thrill of danger. Young noblemen and honest tradesman alike stole into
the quarter as the day grew dim, looking for a game of chance, or a
woman for the night...or both.
The sharp smell of excrement was the first thing he became aware of.
The next was pain. It was unbearable; pulling every muscle into its
knotted snarl. He tried to move through it, to come out where there was
now light, but he was too weak. He spiralled downwards to meet oblivion
and found that it too was crafted from pain.
The dream tormented him once more. He was in a small room, there were
children around the fire. Two young girls, golden haired and rosy
cheeked, smiled up at him. There was a baby in his arms. The door opened
and something glittered brightly on the threshold. Light from the
vision eclipsed the glow of the fire, but not its warmth. As he reached
towards the brightness, the baby fell from his arms. Stepping through
the portal, the door closed behind him. The vision fled, receding to a
pin-point on the horizon and he turned back to the door. Only the door
wouldn't open. Try as he might, he couldn't get back to the room and
the children around the fire. In desperation he flung himself against
the door. His body met with stone.
He awoke with a start, sweat dripping into the corners of his mouth.
Something had changed. Fresh air filled his lungs. It made him afraid.
He was accustomed to his cell and now even the comfort of familiarity
was denied him.
When had he been released? He could barely recall when he'd last
felt the cool brush of water upon his lips. One thing was fixed in his
mind though, and that was his name, he was Tawl. Tawl, but there had
been more than that, surely he had been Tawl of somewhere or something.
The vaguest of stirrings rose in his breast, his mind tried to focus,
it was gone. He could not remember. He was just Tawl. He had been
imprisoned and was now free.
He forced himself to deal with the present and began to take in some
of his surroundings: he was in an alleyway between two large buildings,
there was a chill in the air and he was alone.
Tentatively, he raised an arm and pain coursed through his body. His
arm was bare and he noticed the two circled mark. It was familiar to
him, it meant something, but he didn't know what. Tawl looked up as the
sound of voices approached him.
"Hey, Megan, don't go near that man there. He looks as good as
"Hush, Wenna. I'll go where I please."
"You're not liable to get a penny out of him, he doesn't look up to
Tawl watched as a young girl approached him - he was unable to do
anything else. A moment later her friend also drew close and he began
to feel uncomfortable under their scrutiny.
"He smells really bad, like he ain't seen water for a year or
"Wenna, be quiet he might hear you. Look his eyes are open!" The one
called Megan smiled gently. "He's not like the usual type down here."
"He's half dead, ain't he? To me that's the usual type."
"No, he's young and golden haired." The girl shrugged, as if to
excuse her own folly. "There's something about him..... look, Wenna,
he's trying to say something." Tawl had not spoken for many months and
could only manage a bare murmur.
"I think he's saying his name, it sounds like Tork or Tawl."
"Megan, come away before you land us in a pickle. You're right he
ain't the usual type and that spells trouble." The one named Wenna
pulled at her friend's arm, but she would not be budged.
"You go if you choose, Wenna, but I can't leave him here all alone.
He'll surely die before the night is through."
"That, my girl, is not my problem. I'm off. I'm wasting precious time
here when I need to be earning. If you've any sense in that pretty head
of yours you'd do the same, too." With that the older of the girls
marched off leaving him alone with the other.
Tawl tried to raise his arm again, and this time the girl took it.
"Here, let me help you up." She noticed the mark. "Oh, that's strange.
I've never seen a knight's circle with a scar running through it." Tawl
let the girl help him to his feet and then promptly, fell over again.
He could not stand; his legs were not use to carrying weight. "Oh, you
poor thing. Here, try again. My little place ain't far from here. If
you could just manage to walk." They tried again, this time Tawl
leaning on the girl for support. He was surprised that she could bear
his weight for she was only slight.
"Come on," she encouraged him. "There's not far to walk. We'll be
there soon." Tawl struggled along by her side, learning to master his
Baralis carefully allowed four drops of the pink-tinged poison to fall
into the jug of wine. The poison rippled and then thinned; its deadly
transparency soon lost to the eye. He was rather proud of his latest
brew, as it was nearly without odor. He washed his hands thoroughly in
a bowl of cold water. It wouldn't do to have any residue of the
materials left on them, this was a particularly lethal mixture and he
could already feel a burn upon his flesh.
His hands bore the marks of years spent working with deadly
substances. Corrosive acids had gnawed the fat from his flesh, leaving
his skin resting upon the bone. The skin itself was taut and red, and,
as it tightened he could feel it pull upon his fingers, drawing them
inwards towards his palms. Every day he rubbed warm oils into the
straining flesh, hoping to retain what little mobility was left. His
fingers, once long and elegant in youth, were now old beyond their
It was a price he paid for his expertise. It was high for one who
valued manipulation and swiftness of hand as much as he did, but he
would have it no other way. There was a cost to all things, and glory
only came to those who were willing to pay the price.
It was time to place the jug of wine in Maybor's chambers. The lord
was usually away from the castle in the afternoons, hunting or riding.
This was a job he would have to do himself, he could not trust Crope
with a task that required such stealth.
He needed to be very cautious. He would have preferred to enter
Maybor's chamber at night, with darkness as his ally, but that did not
suit his plans. Twilight was the best he could manage. He slipped into
the labyrinth by way of the beer cellar - no one marked his passing. He
had a talent for going unnoticed; it was his natural disposition to
search out shadow and shade.
He made good time and was soon approaching Maybor's chamber. Baralis
was surprised to hear the sound of voices and he moved close against
the wall, putting his ear to a small crack in the stone. He was
astounded to hear the voice of the queen. Arinalda in Maybor's
chambers, what intrigue was this? The queen never visited private
chambers, she always called people to her. Baralis concentrated on
listening to the rise and fall of their voices:
"I am well pleased to hear that your daughter, Melliandra, is willing
for the match, as I had harbored a thought that she may have been
reluctant." The Queen spoke with little warmth, her regal tones
filtering through the breech in the stone.
"Your Highness, I can assure you my daughter wishes to marry your son
more than anything else." Maybor spoke with exaggerated deference.
Baralis' eyes narrowed with contempt.
"Very good," the queen was saying. "We will hold the betrothal
ceremony ten days from now. I am sure you will agree that we should
move quickly on this matter."
"I do, my queen. I also think, if you will pardon me for saying, Your
Highness, that the betrothal should be kept a secret until it has taken
place." There was a slight pause and then the queen spoke, her cold
tones carrying straight to Baralis' ear:
"I agree. There are some at court who I would prefer kept in the dark
about this matter. I will take my leave now, Lord Maybor. I wish you
joy of the day." Baralis moved his eye to the crack and saw Maybor bow
low to the queen. After the door closed, Maybor's expression of
humility changed to one of triumph.
Baralis smiled coldly as the lord poured himself a glass of wine.
"Enjoy your wine, Maybor," he murmured. "You might not relish your next
cup as much." Baralis settled down to wait for Maybor to take his
leave, the vial of poison warming in his hand.
Melli was in a turmoil. Her brother Kedrac had just left. He had
informed her the betrothment was agreed upon: the queen had set a date
for the official announcement.
On hearing the news of her fate, decided upon without her consent,
rebellion stirred within her breast. She would never in a million years
marry the cold and arrogant Prince Kylock. She had no wish to be queen
of the Four Kingdoms if Kylock would be her king. She couldn't exactly
say why she disliked him so much - he was always polite to her when
they met. But there was something about him that touched a nerve deep
within her. Whenever she caught sight of him around the castle she
shuddered inwardly. And now her father had finalized the match.
Oh, she new well what her father's plan was - with the king weak,
every lord was grabbing for power. Her father was no different: when he
was not at war he was plotting and scheming. Now he had decided upon
the ultimate move: to place his daughter in the role of future queen.
Maybor cared not a jot for her, his only interests were his precious
sons. One of the reasons the war with the Halcus had taken place was
because he had wanted to secure land for her brothers.
The war had backfired on him however, for his lands along the River
Nestor were now a battlefield and the yields of the famous Nestor
apples were at an all time low. Her father would be feeling the cruel
the pinch of war upon his pocket.
She hated him! She was not sure if she meant her father or Kylock.
Last night, when she had refused point blank to ever marry the prince,
her father had actually slapped her. In the gardens! Where anyone could
have seen. She had noticed of late her father often held his meetings
in the gardens, it appeared nowadays, that he didn't even trust stone
To Melli the past five years had been a great disappointment. She had
longed to become a woman, but when her breast swelled and her blood
flowed, she found that she was still a young girl. Her presentation to
the queen had not been the glorious triumph she had imagined. The
country was at war and no one had much time for frivolous ceremonies,
so there had been few to admire the beauty of her gown. That had not
been her biggest disappointment, though.
She was most disillusioned with her life as a lady of the court.
She'd come to realize that the very dresses and jewels she had once
dreamed of now bored her. The young men at court were naive and pompous
fools, she wanted none of them. What she most hated was the
restrictions placed upon a woman of her rank - as a child she could
race down the corridors, steal to the kitchens for an illicit treat and
laugh loudly at the top of her voice. Now, as a young lady she might as
well not leave her rooms for all the freedom she was afforded
elsewhere. It was always:
"Walk with your head up, Melliandra."
"Keep your voice low and pleasing, Melliandra."
"Never, ever contradict a man, Melliandra."
The rules for women were endless, she was expected to change clothes
three times a day, she was not allowed in the gardens without a servant
accompanying her, she could only ride sidesaddle, she must drink her
wine watered and eat her food like a bird. To top it all off she was
forced to spend all of her days cooped up with old matrons, sewing and
Her friends might love to dress up and flirt, but playing the role
of dumb female was beneath her dignity, and she would never, ever
pretend a man was right when he was wrong. She hated it so much! She
even hated the sound of the very name she had so desired, and now
longed to be just plain Melli again.
She sat on the corner of her bed and wondered what she would do. She
had no choice about the betrothment; her father was insisting upon it
and she dare not defy him. She'd heard chilling stories of daughters
who defied their fathers. Tales of floggings and starvations and worse
- stories told with relish by her aging nurse.
She'd harbored the distant hope that the queen might object to the
betrothal at the last minute, deciding she was not good enough, or
pretty enough, or well bred enough for her son, but it appeared that
the queen was as anxious for this match as her father.
Queen Arinalda was in a weak position. The country was ripe for
invasion. The Duke of Bren's greed for land was making her nervous. The
city of Bren was becoming too big to feed itself and was starting to
look elsewhere for food for its tables. The Four Kingdoms were a feast
for the taking. The queen needed the country to appear strong in order
to curb any thoughts of conquest the duke might be harboring. To this
end she needed to ally herself with the most powerful lord in the
Kingdoms: her father. Maybor would then be forced to defend the weak
king from those who sought to challenge or invade. Whatever the
reasons for the match Melli was sure of one thing - she was just a
She had tried to reason with her father last night. She had pleaded
with him to give up the idea of the betrothment. He would not listen to
her. He had pointed out that he owned every scrap of fabric on her back,
every ring on her finger and although he didn't say it...every
breath in her body. She was no more than a possession, and the time had
come to bring her to market.
No, Melli thought. I will not be traded like a sack of grain.
She would run away. Kedrac's visit had been the final straw. Her
brother had told her, in his condescending manner, that the betrothal
was a great honor for their family, a great advancement, a chance to
acquire more land and more prestige. Not one word about her. He'd just
droned on about his future, his increased prospects, his expectations.
She was nothing to him, merely a means to bring greater power and glory
to himself. The same was true of her father. The very fact that he had
sent Kedrac to break the news, instead of coming himself showed how
little he thought of her.
Melli took a deep breath; she was going to leave the castle. No
longer would she be beholden to her father and brothers, no longer
would she be a chattel, a pawn in their games of power. They had
misjudged her if they thought she would quietly submit to their plans.
Pacing the room, she tried to hold on to her anger, it strengthened
her, made her want to take charge of her own life. She moved to the
window, wanting to look upon the outside world, a world that she would
make herself part of. It was dark and quiet, a light rain was falling
and the chill of night caressed her cheek. Instead of feeling
exhilarated she found herself afraid. The world outside
beckoned...ambivalent and unfamiliar. Melli shuddered and pulled the
heavy brocade curtains together.
She would go ahead with her plan. She would leave the castle
Her thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of her maid. The
sly-eyed Lynni busied herself laying out a dress for the evening.
"You'd better hurry, my lady, or you'll be late for dinner."
"I am not feeling well, Lynni. I will take a cold supper in my
"You look well enough to me. You must go down, there are visitors
from Lanholt and your presence will be expected."
"Do as I say," said Melli sharply. The girl left the room, swinging
her hips with studied insolence.
Melli began sorting through her things, deciding what she would take
with her. She had no money of her own, but she was allowed to keep a
modest amount of jewels in her room, these she placed in a small cloth
bag. She scanned her chamber - she now possessed a mirror of her own,
and her reflection caught her eye. She looked small and frightened.
She caught hold of her straight, dark hair and pulled it back with
a leather thong, she thought it suited her a lot better than some of
the over elaborate court styles. She put on her plainest woollen dress,
tying the cloth bag which contained her jewels securely around her
waist, and then selected her thickest riding cloak. All she had to do
was wait for Lynni to return with her supper and she would be off.
Stealing out of the castle under the cover of darkness. Never for a
moment did she consider leaving without her supper, that would be
Melli slipped beneath the bedclothes to wait, and thought of where
she would go. Her mother, before she'd died, had spoke of relatives in
Annis, she would head there.
Lord Maybor was having a very good day. The queen had approved the
match between Kylock and his daughter. He'd ate and supped well this
As he dined, he looked around the hall. The huge tapestries caught
his eye. They showed the story of how the Four Kingdoms had been ripped
asunder during the terrible Wars of Faith. They went on to depict the
one man who, over a hundred years later, was responsible for re-uniting
the four, glorious territories in defiance of the Church. The Four
Kingdoms boasted the most fertile soil in the north. It was well placed
for farm land and timber, its people were plump and prosperous, its
armies well trained and well fed. Harvell the Fierce had been the
driving force behind the Wars of Re-unification. Thanks to him, the
green and vibrant country was made whole once again.
Maybor fancied there was a little of Harvell's nature in himself, and
certainly before the year was out he would form part of the great
tradition that was the lineage of kings. He would be father to a queen!
He could barely contain his excitement.
He noticed that many of the lords gathered around the great table
were puzzled by his uncharacteristic good humor, and it pleased him
greatly that they were ignorant of his impending elevation. Maybor felt
an overflowing of goodwill. He called for more venison and ale, and
even cheered the minstrels, who he normally enjoyed pelting with
vegetables and chicken bones.
The king must be made to step down, he thought. He is an empty vessel
and has no place on the throne of the Four Kingdoms. Fresh blood should
flow into the leadership; the blood of his future son-in-law, Kylock.
True, Kylock was young, but Maybor had plans to use that youth to his
advantage; guiding Kylock's decisions, molding the new king. He,
Maybor, would be the power behind the throne.
He paused in his delicious reverie for a moment and considered Prince
Kylock. There was something about the lad that gave him the shivers,
but no mind he thought, he will make a fine king with me to guide him.
Melliandra, his ungrateful rebel of a daughter, had actually said she
would not marry him, well it was too late for her objections now, he
would personally beat the defiance out of her if necessary.
The first thing he would urge the new king to do, would be to end the
war with the Halcus once and for all. He was tired of his lands being
used as campsites and battlefields. Once the war was he would claim the
land to the east of the river Nestor for himself: it was fine land for
growing cider apples.
Personal profit aside, there were other more pressing reasons why the
war should be won quickly. Bren was up to no good. The duke had already
started a programme of annexation to the south east, it wouldn't be
long before his eye turned west. Highwall and Annis were strong and
well armed, the Kingdoms, however, were so distracted by warring with
the Halcus, that they were practically asking to be invaded. No matter
they were a distance apart, the good duke's ancestors had once held
land west of the Nestor, and a prior claim, no matter how tenuous,
always served to incite the indignant passions of would-be invaders.
Maybor drained his cup. It was getting late and he took his leave
of his dinner companions, his feet a little unsteady from the large
amount of ale he had drunk. As he returned to his chamber the only
thing he wanted to do was have a glass of lobanfern red to aid his
digestion and then to bed for a deep sleep.
"Kelse, you idle lout," he shouted before entering his chamber. "Come
and turn down my bed and stoke up my fire. There is a bite in the air
tonight." Maybor was surprised not to hear the scurry of his servant's
feet on the stone. Kelse was usually quick to respond. He may already
be in the chamber, warming the sheets with hot bricks.
Maybor entered his room. It was cold, the fire had gone out. "Damn!"
he muttered. "Kelse, where in Borc's name are you?" Maybor crossed to
the table where he kept a jug of his favorite wine. He poured himself a
generous cup and moved through to the bed chamber.
As he lifted the cup to his lips he caught sight of a body on the
floor near his bed. It was his servant Kelse. Puzzled, he put down the
cup, moved toward the body and slapped Kelse hard on the cheek.
"Kelse, you drunken malingerer. Awaken this instant, or I swear I
will have your innards on a platter." Kelse did not respond. Maybor
grew alarmed; the man had not moved. "What treachery is this?" His eyes
alighted on the upturned cup that lay beside Kelse's body. Maybor drew
the cup to his nose and smelt it. Lobanfern red. He felt his servant's
lifeless body, it was cold. "Poison," he spoke.
Maybor felt the hairs on his neck bristle. He was in no doubt that
the poison had been meant for him. The unfortunate Kelse had stole a
glass of the loaded wine and had paid for it with his life. Maybor
smiled grimly. Kelse had unknowingly performed the greatest service a
servant could do for his master: lay down his life. He trembled to
think what might have happened if the drugged wine had passed his lips.
He would be the one lying on the cold stone, dead. He knew who had done
"Baralis," he whispered under his breath. He had almost been
expecting it. For many months now he had seen the look of hatred on
Baralis' face. They both had scores to settle and it seemed that the
King's Chancellor had made the first move to resolve them.
Poison was just the sort of cowardly method that Baralis favored.
Maybor was a fighting man, a veteran of many campaigns and had only
contempt for such underhand tactics. If he were to plan an
assassination and, after the events of tonight, it would seem likely he
would have to - a man could hardly be expected to ignore an attempt on
his life - he would resort to more conventional techniques. There was
more beauty and certainty to be found in a knife to the throat, than in
a jug of loaded wine.
"Your plans have gone wrong on this dark night," he murmured softly.
"Sleep soundly in your bed Baralis, lord and chancellor, for there may
not be many nights left for you to dream in."
Jack was as usual up at four. He no longer had to keep the ovens fueled
all night, that job had passed on to a younger boy. He was now in
charge of supervising the first baking and after the oven-boy left he
usually had the kitchen to himself for an hour before Master Frallit
and the other bakers appeared.
He dressed quickly, the temperature in his room giving speed to his
actions. His breeches were four months old and he was pleased to notice
they fitted him now exactly as they did when newly made, which meant
he'd finally stopped growing. About time, too. It wasn't much fun being
the tallest person in the kitchens. He was always the one called upon
to chase spiders from their webs and to shake the moths from
Pulling on a light tunic he noticed it smelled a little too strongly
of sweat. He'd hoped to cross the path of the table-maid Findra later
on in the day, and had recently found out that girls didn't appreciate
too generous a smell. Of course the confusing thing was that Grift had
informed him that no smell at all was worse than the most terrible
stench: "Women choose a lover with their noses first, so a man's odour
must declare his intentions," was a favorite saying of his. Deciding
that he'd flour his tunic down later to create the delicate balance
needed for wooing, Jack made his way to the kitchens.
The first thing he did was add fragrant woods to the furnace. Frallit
maintained there were only two types of wood in the world: one for
heating and one for cooking. Over night the oven was fuelled with
plentiful woods such as oak and ash, but a day's baking called for more
delicate fuel. Hawthorne, hazel and chestnut were added before the
bread was put to bake. The master baker swore by them : "They give a
fragrance to the dough that becomes a flavour when the flame is high,"
he would say.
Once that was seen too, Jack brought the dough down from the shelf
above the oven. The shelf benefited from the heat of the furnace and
the dough rose well over night. He removed the damp, linen cloth from
the tray and absently punched each individual portion of dough down and
then kneaded them, his hands deft with experience. Quickly, he formed
neat rows on the baking slabs and then opened the huge iron door of the
oven, its blazing heat hitting Jack in the familiar wave. He had singed
his hair on more than one occasion in the past. He loaded the slabs
onto shelves and closed the door. Next, he threw a measure of water
into the furnace: the steam produced would add extra vigor to the
Jack then turned his attention to mixing the noon loaves. These
would be the third and fourth batches of the day. The population of
Castle Harvell was so great that the oven had to be in use nearly every
waking hour. The first batches of the morning were maslin loaves.
Formed from rye and wheat, maslin loaves were the staple of lords and
servants alike. What was cooked next often depended upon who was
visiting the castle. When foreign noblemen and envoys were in
attendance, the master baker usually honored them by baking their
native loaves and delicacies. Later in the afternoon, when the
sweetbreads and fancies were still cooling, Frallit would indulge in
what he called his "baker's privilege."
Harvell, like most towns, had several communal ovens where women
brought their dough to be baked. A copper penny a loaf was the charge.
Frallit had taken to renting out space in the castle oven for a similar
rate. Being a canny businessman, the master baker offered the women one
free loaf in a dozen, and now had rather a profitable side line going.
The head cellarer and the chief cook were given a silencing cut of the
proceeds. Jack's inducement for keeping quiet was nothing more than the
threat of a sound thrashing.
Once the noon loaves were mixed and the yeast set to proof, Jack
was free to find himself something to eat. He usually spent the
proofing time visiting the servant's hall for a measure of ale and and
a bowl of whatever was eaten the night before. This morning however,
Baralis had kept him up so late scribing, that all he wanted to do was
sit down for a while and have a short rest.
He settled himself on the baker's bench and rested his head against
the ledge. His eyes were heavy with lost sleep, he'd only managed to
snatch about three hours rest last night and he was tired beyond
measure. Before he knew it, he had drifted off into a light and
When he next opened his eyes, he saw the alarming sight of black smoke
bellowing from the oven. "Copper pots!" he exclaimed, immediately
realizing he had fallen asleep leaving bread baking in the oven. He
rushed over to the oven, but his nose had already told him what his
eyes could see: the loaves were burnt. All eight score of them. Jack
grew cold with fear. Frallit would surely kill him for this. Half the
morning's bread burnt to a cinder. Oh, if only he hadn't fallen asleep.
His mind was racing with panic, he stared at the charred loaves in
the oven, desperately wishing they were not burnt. Master Frallit had
whipped the hide off a boy once for burning the loaves. The boy had
never been seen in the kitchens again. Just this week the master baker
had warned Jack about sloppy work, threatening to send him away from
the castle if he didn't improve. It was one thing to dream about
leaving, but quite another to be thrown out.
What was he going to do? Master Frallit would be along any minute.
If only he could change things, make the loaves dough again. His brow
creased with desperation and he felt pain course through his head. He
suddenly felt faint and light headed, and stumbled to the floor,
Baralis had not slept all night. His head was full of what he'd
overheard outside of Maybor's chamber. The queen was obviously trying
her hand at politicking; seeking to consolidate her position by
marrying Kylock to Maybor's daughter. She would be a fool to think that
the king would be made safe by an alliance with Maybor. The first thing
Maybor would do would be to oust the old king and put Kylock in his
place, thinking he could control the young and inexperienced boy.
Only now there would be no betrothal: with Maybor dead, the queen
would find his charming daughter, Melliandra, to be less useful a bride
for her son. Baralis smiled; his teeth glittering in the firelight. He
had a more glorious match for Kylock in mind; he would see the prince
married to one more exalted than the daughter of a mere lord. It was
time that the kingdoms took up a more central position in the arena of
the civilized world.
Baralis tossed and turned in the pale morning light, imagining
gleefully what the new day would bring. To finally have that scheming
viper, Maybor out of his way ! He must be careful to rehearse Crope in
his alibi: he and Crope were to have been out yesterday gathering
special herbs for medicines, and indeed it was partly true - he had
sent Crope to the woods and told him to pick some flowers. Flowers to
place on Maybor's grave.
Suddenly, Baralis felt something; the unmistakable sensation that
signaled the use of power. Someone was drawing raw, untrained power in
the castle. Foreboding crept over him, the power being wielded was
mighty indeed but strangely crude. Baralis' body was a razor edge of
perception. He shot out his mental awareness, searching out the source
of the drawing.
"Jack! Jack! Wake up! What do you think you're doing falling asleep
when there's loaves in the oven?" admonished Tilly. "It's a wonder they
didn't burn, else you'd been in deep trouble with Frallit."
Jack satup, startled. "But they did burn, Tilly, I......"
"Oh hush, you big dimwit. You must have been dreaming. They're just
browning off nicely now. Look."
Jack looked through the gap in the oven designed for monitoring the
baking, and was startled to find that Tilly was right; the loaves were
not burnt. Someone must have replaced the burnt loaves with a new batch
while he was unconscious. He stood up and felt a wave of nausea flood
over his body.
He checked the trays of dough, there was the same number as earlier
- if a new batch were in the oven they would be empty. He smelled the
air. There was the faintest whiff of burning. He had not been
dreaming. He rushed over to the waste bins, but no charred loaves had
been thrown out.
Tilly was looking at him as if he was mad. He was sure he hadn't
dreamed the incident - the loaves had been burnt. What had he done? He
recalled the instant before he passed out, there had been a sick
feeling in his stomach and great pressure in his head.
Jack felt the turn of fate. Something had happened here, something
that went against the laws of nature, something terrible - and he was
responsible for it. He was trembling and his legs were threatening to
give way beneath him, he needed to lie down, to sleep, to forget.
"Tilly, I don't feel too good, I need to have a rest."
Tilly, seeing something strange in the young boy's face, softened,
"Very well, I'll cover for you with Frallit, be off now."
Baralis perceived that the unleashing of power had come from below and
he became a hound on the scent. Quickly, he dressed and called for
Crope. When the huge simpleton arrived, they both headed out of his
chambers and down to the lower depths of the castle.
Baralis knew fear for the first time in many years. He hated the
unknown. He was a great believer in careful planning and attention to
detail, nothing disturbed him more than the unexpected. Users of
sorcery were few and far between - particularly in the north - indeed
that was why he had settled here in the first place: to be the only one
at the court of the Four Kingdoms with the advantages of devilry at his
For that what the fools thought sorcery was - a gift from the devil.
Let them think what they would; the ignorance of others had long proved
to be one of his greatest allies. The people in the castle were afraid
of him; they whispered that he was a demon, a sorcerer, a madman. It
suited him nicely to let the whisperings persist: people were afraid of
him and he liked it that way.
The thought that someone in the castle had access to the same elusive
source as he, gave great haste to his step.
He drew nearer to where the power had been drawn, Crope lumbering
behind him. The kitchens! The power had been drawn in the kitchens, he
was sure of it. Baralis was oblivious to the servants and guards who
quickly stepped out of his way to let him pass.
Once he found himself in the huge castle kitchens, he could feel the
aftermath prickling upon his skin. Without a word to the startled staff
he crossed from the cook's section to the baker's kitchen. This was it,
every hair on his body confirmed it. He drew close to the huge oven,
vestiges of the drawing lapping over his body in waves. It had happened
here. Wildly he looked around, ignoring the master baker and Tilly.
Next to the oven was a large wooden table on which scores of loaves
were cooling. It was the loaves! The power had been drawn on the
It seemed like madness. Who would draw the power to eight score of
loaves? Baralis rubbed his chin as he considered the situation. He
looked to the master baker and to Tilly, it was certainly neither of
those terrified wretches. He surprised Tilly by grabbing her arm and
twisting it painfully behind her back.
"Now, my pretty little wench," he said, the gentleness of his voice
belying his actions. "I see you are frightened by the sight of my man
Crope." Another twist of the arm, "You do well to fear him, for Crope
is a dangerous man. Aren't you Crope?" He turned to Crope who nodded
enthusiastically. "Now answer my question. What happened here this
Tilly looked bewildered. "Nothing, sir." Tears welled in her eyes.
"Who was in the kitchen this morning?" Another twist of the arm.
"Why, no one, sir, just me and Master Frallit and Jack."
"Are you sure there was no one else?"
"Well, sir, I've only been here a few minutes - you'd better ask Jack,
he was here earlier."
"Where is Jack now?" Baralis' voice was as smooth and inviting as
"He went to lie down. He said he wasn't feeling well."
Baralis let Tilly go, a notion beginning to form in his mind. "What
do you mean he felt unwell? What was wrong with him?"
"Well sir, it was quite queer really, when I came down he was fast
asleep on the floor, and he said something about the loaves being,
burnt, and of course they weren't.....and then he said he didn't
"Where is his room?"
"On the south side of the servant's quarters, right at the
Baralis paused a moment, his eye on the oven. "All the loaves must
"But that's half a morning's baking-"
"Do as I say!" Baralis' gaze challenged the master baker to defy him.
Satisfied he would be obeyed, he spun round and marched out of the
kitchen, Crope in his wake.
Jack had decided not to go to his room, but to get some air instead.
His head felt thick and heavy, like it did when he drank too much ale.
He sat down on the grass, his legs giving way beneath him. When he
looked up he saw in the distance the unmistakable figure of Baralis. He
was followed by Crope, and they were heading across the grounds in the
direction of the servant's quarters. They had come from the kitchens.
There was something about the sight of Baralis' dark cloak shifting in
the breeze that filled Jack with apprehension.
Although he was some distance away, Jack saw determination in the
line of Baralis' brow and the sight of it made him shudder. Jack knew
without a doubt they were looking for him.
He began to piece his thoughts together. He had done something
terrible this morning, he'd transgressed some fundamental law. And now
it seemed that Baralis, the one person in the castle who was rumoured
to have knowledge of such things, had discovered what he'd done.
Baralis and Crope were looking for him, probably to punish him or
worse. He'd changed the course of events, performed an aberration
against nature...and people were stoned for such things in these
Everyone knew there were forces in the world that couldn't be
explained, but no one liked to speak of them. To mention sorcery was to
mention the devil, Grift had told him so a hundred times. And everyone
knew the dangers of naming the devil. What did that make him then? He
didn't feel evil - sometimes he was slow about his work and didn't pay
the respect he should to Master Frallit - but was he evil?
Clouds drifted across the path of the sun, casting Jack in the
shade. There was something about him that was evil. One thought in his
mind that was as good as a sin. He harbored a terrible hatred - the man
who had fathered and then abandoned him, he would like to see dead. It
was the first time that Jack had ever admitted the full strength of his
feelings. For too long he tried to fool himself into believing he
didn't care a jot about who his father was. Yet the events of this
morning had somehow allowed him the freedom to admit the depth of his
feelings. His mother was no saint, that was common knowledge, but she'd
deserved better than to be forsaken - they both did.
Somehow it seemed that all things were connected: the loaves, his
mother, his father. He tried to grasp at the common thread but it
eluded him, and then, after a moment, it was gone.
What did remain was the reality of this morning. He had a decision
to make: should he stay in the castle and risk the wrath of Baralis and
the condemnation of his friends; or should he leave and make a new way
in the world?
Perhaps because the shade was akin to the night, Jack felt the urge
to be off. If the sun had still been shining maybe his life would have
taken a different path.
With the decision made, Jack began to feel calm. Perhaps this morning
was a blessing - it gave him reason to do what he'd only dreamt of
before. Swiftly, not turning to look back, he made his way across the
castle grounds and to the outer wall. With each step came strength of
purpose and by the time he passed the castle gates, he was sure he'd
made the right choice.