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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 valuable knowledge.

"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 exchanged, too.

"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 longer blind.

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 release.

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 her fear.

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 fear.

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 ever had.

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 piss."

"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 potions.

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 sound.

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 of fowl.

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 most exceptional.

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 repertoire.

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 price.

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 dead."

"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 it."

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 more."

"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 pain.
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 years.

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 walls.

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 gossiping.

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 pawn.

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 tonight.

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 room."

"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 foolish.

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 night.

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 this.

"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 slow-drying herbs.

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 crust.

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 dreamless sleep.

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, losing consciousness.
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 disposal.

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 loaves.

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 morning?"

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 silk.

"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 feel well."

"Where is his room?"

"On the south side of the servant's quarters, right at the top."

Baralis paused a moment, his eye on the oven. "All the loaves must be destroyed."

"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 parts.

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.

Chapter I
Chapter II
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