ack was beginning to hate herbs - particularly the smelly ones.
He was waiting in the darkened storeroom, barely moving, barely breathing, whilst Stillfox dealt with his unexpected visitor on the other side of the door. Bunches of mint and rosemary hung above Jack's head, tangling in his hair and tempting him to sneeze. He'd been here for quite a while now, and his left leg was beginning to cramp. He couldn't risk stretching it out, though, so with teeth firmly gritted, his mind searched-out diversions.
Frallit used to say that the best way to stop cramping was to strike the offending limb with a good-sized plank of wood. Jack had once been the unlucky recipient of this cure, and had quickly learned never to claim cramp in Frallit's hearing again. Jack smiled at the memory. They were good days.
Or were they? The smile left his face: could he honestly say he'd been happyÉ at Castle Harvell? He had a bed to sleep in every night, food to eat and a measure of security about his future, but was he happy? People whispered behind his back, naming him a bastard and his mother a whore, as a mere apprentice he was treated badly by everyone around him, and Frallit was not the kindly father-figure that his memory seemed intent on creating. He was nothing more than a sadistic vengeful bully. And Jack still bore the scars to prove it.
No, Castle Harvell wasn't some wonderful peaceful haven, where worries and heartache simply didn't exist. It was filled with people who allowed him no freedom, who beat the will from his mind and drained the strength from his body. And he should never have allowed himself to look back at it through a romantic haze of longing. The past was all it was good for.
Jack was strangely exhilarated by these thoughts; there was power in them. +Why hadn't he seen all this before?
Then, from the kitchen, he heard a word that stopped all thoughts dead.
Jack was sure the name was hers - he heard it often enough in his dreams. Without moving as much as a finger's breadth, Jack trained every sense and focused every cell upon t he wooden-paneled door separating him from Stillfox and his uninvited guest.
Stillfox was speaking. "Who can say what Catherine will do to..." The scrape of iron poker against grate cut-off the end of the sentence.
Jack cursed all things metal.
"Well I wouldn't like to be in her shoes," said the stranger.
Did he mean Catherine or Melli?
"Aah well," Stillfox said, "we have our own troubles to worry about. I hear our generals travel to the Wall today......"
Jack got the feeling that Stillfox was deliberately changing the subject.
A week after he'd first came to stay with the herbalist, Jack had told him a shortened version of his life since leaving Castle Harvell. He had been very selective with the details - no one would ever know about Tarissa's betrayal - but he had confided to Stillfox about Melli. He had told him who she was, how they had met, and how they had come to be separated in Helch.
Even before the story was free from his lips, Stillfox had told him the news. "Maybor's daughter is to marry the duke of Bren," he said.
On hearing those words, Jack felt a confusion of emotions; relief that she was safe, wonder at how she had come to end up with the duke and, if he were honest, disappointment that she had finally succumbed to convention and married a man with position and wealth. He was jealous, too. Melli had been his to protect, his dream had been to save her. All gone now. A duchess in a fine palace needed saving from nothing except false flattery.
There had been no word of her since.
Until now. Stillfox's uninvited guest had brought news of Melli's marriage and, judging from the few snatches of conversation that Jack had managed to hear, things did not sound good.
Jack willed the stranger to leave. He needed to talk to Stillfox, to find out if Melli was all right. The ointment on his glass burns itched with gleeful intent. The storeroom began to seem impossibly small and confining. Herb dust choked in his throat, and the darkness fueled his fears. The idea that Melli could be in danger worked upon his brain like a poison. The longer he waited, the wilder his thoughts became. Had the duke decided to rid himself of his new bride? Had Baralis somehow discredited Melli? Or had Kylock abducted her in a fit of jealous rage?
At last the kitchen door banged shut. Jack was in the kitchen before the shutters stopped rattling. The light stung his eyes. Stillfox was leaning against the fireplace. He looked a little stiff, as if his position were posed.
"Sorry to kee p you in the storeroom for so long, Jack. There's no getting rid of Garfus."
"What did he say about Melli?" Jack hardly recognized his own voice. It was cold, commanding.
"Why, Jack, give me a minute to get settled and I'll tell you all he said."
"Tell me now."
Stillfox made time for himself by raking through the ashes then pulling up chair. Finally he spoke. "Five of Annis' best generals are heading to Highwall to assist in coordinating the invasion."
Despite his determination to learn about Melli, Jack couldn't help but ask, "Invasion of what?"
The herbalist shrugged. "Bren of course."
"Why of course? Why not invade the kingdoms, or try and rout Kylock's forces on the Halcus field?"
"Because Bren will soon belong to Kylock."
Jack felt a single tremor pass down his spine. "I thought the duke's marriage had put an end to that."
Stillfox tried to back-track. "Ah well, when he marries Catherine it's as good as his. And Highwall isn't the sort of city to split hairs in matters of war."
He wasB lying. Self-righteous anger - so briefly tasted earlier while he thought of Castle Harvell - began to build within Jack. Stillfox was keeping something from him. He was playing him for a fool. "What happened between Melli and the duke?"
Stillfox looked nervous. "Jack, I have my reasons for keeping things from you-"
"Reasons! I don't want to hear your reasons. I want to hear the truth."
"You're not ready to run away to Bren yet. Your training has barely started." Stillfox took a step forward.
Jack took a step toward the door. "You are not my keeper, Stillfox. My life is my own responsibility, and I'll have no one deciding what is and isn't right for me to hear." Jack was trembling. Anger was flowing through him and he made no effort to control it. "Now either tell me what happened to Melli, or as Borc is my witness I will walk out this door and find out for myself."
Stillfox raised his arm. "Jack, you don't understand-"
Jack's hand was on the latch. "No. You're the one who doesn't understand, Stillfox. I've had a belly full of lies, they've destroyed everything I ever had - I'm sick to the death of them. And today I've finally heard one too many." As Jack spoke he thought of Tarissa, Rovas and Magra: they were all liars. Even his mother had practiced deceit. Who was worse, he wondered; people who lied outright like Rovas and Tarissa, or people who kept the truth to themselves like his mother and Stillfox?
Jack brought down the latch with his fist. He couldn't really see the difference.
"Jack! Don't go," cried the herbalist, rushing forward. "I'll tell you everything."
Opening the door , Jack said, "Too late now, Stillfox. I doubt if I'd believe you anyway." Stepping out into the warm summer rain, he slammed the door behind him. He set a course to meet with the highroad. If he was lucky he'd reached Annis by dusk.
Tavalisk had just come from his counting house where he'd been counting out his money. Such a trip always served to reassure him. Gold was the ultimate feather pillow - whenever one had to fall back on it, one could be sure of a cushioned blow. The archbishop's stock pile of gold was the nearest thing he had to a family; it was always there to comfort him, it& asked no questions and told no lies, and it would never ever die and leave him helpless.
Tavalisk did not remember his real family fondly. His mother might have indeed brought him into the world, but she chose both the place and the circumstance badly.
Born in a beggar's hospice in Silbur, his earliest memory was watching his mother's pig die of swine fever. It just lay in the rushes amidst its own filth and willed itself to death. Tavalisk remembered scraping around in the dirt to bring it acorns, but the creature refused to eat them. It simply stayed in its corner and never made a sound. Tavalisk had loved that pig, but when it let itself die, making no effort to save itself, he turned against it. He beat the last breath out of it with a warming brick he'd snatched from the hearth. Even <at such a tender age, when he was still breaking his milk teeth, Tavalisk knew that self preservation and self promotion were the only things that counted. And the pig, like his mother, had been sorely lacking in both.
Once the pig died, they had no choice but to eat the tainted flesh. He and his mother were the lowest amongst the low, the poorest amongst the poor. The only things they owned were the clothes on their backs, a sackful of turnips and two tin spoons. They had no knife, so his mother was forced to drag the pig's carcass to the meat-market to be butche red. The butcher had taken everything but the head in payment. Tavalisk could still remember the butcher now; rubbing pig-blood into his moustache to make it stiffen, whilst offering to take less pork if his mother agreed to bed him. Tavalisk would never forgive her for turning the man down: it would have meant cutlets not tongue.
Such self-indulgent sacrifice had haunted his early childhood. His mother had taken a position as a church cleaner for no other reason than she didn't like to live off charity. Tavalisk quickly learned that priests were more miserly than money-lenders. Generous gifts of food were kept under lock and key, the level of blessed wine was marked against the bottle each night and every holy sweetmeat was counted after mass .
Oh but the ceremony was breathtaking, though. Priests were part-magician, part-actor, part-king. They performed miracles, granted forgiveness and held congregations of thousands in their thrall. They wielded power in this world and the next. Tavalisk watched them from his hideout behind the choir stall. He saw the glamour of it all; the gold and crimson tapestries, the snowy-white wax candles, the jewel-encrusted reliquaries and the silver-robed choirboys who sang with angel's voices. It was a world of gaudy enchantments, and Tavalisk vowed he would be part of it.
One year later his mother died and he was thrown out on the street, penniless. His love for the church, quite understandably, diminished, and it was many years and half a continent later before he felt its lure again. When the call finally came, however, it didn't take Tavalisk long to realize that in the politically sensitive hierarchy of the church, there was more than one way to reach the top.
Smiling gently, the archbishop moved across his study to his desk, where a splendid meal awaited him. His remembrances had acted like a fine white wine; honing an edge to his appetite, wetting his tongue for more. But, as with wine, Tavalisk was careful never to over indulge his memories - he wasn't about to end up a quivering sentimental fool.
He brought the duck-thigh to his lips, and all thoughts of the past vanished as the oil-rich flesh met his tongue. By the time he'd swallowed the meat his mind was firmly in the present.
Gamil chose this moment to knock upon the door.
"Enter, Gamil. Enter," called Tavalisk, rather pleased that his aide had arrived. There were matters he needed to discuss.
"How is Your Eminence this day?" asked Gamil entering the room.
"Never better, Gamil. The duck is crispy, the wine is tart, and war draws nearer by the hour."
"It is the war that brings me here, Your Eminence."
"Aah a meeting of the minds," Tavalisk was genial. "How very fortuitous. Tell me your news." He grabbed another thigh from the platter, dipped it into the pepper dish and set about tearing flesh from the bone.
"Well, Your Eminence, nine Annis generals are set to meet with their Highwall equivalents in three days time."
"And like a romantic couple they hope to set a date, eh Gamil?"
"Yes, Your Eminence. They mean to discuss invasion plans."
"Hmm..." Tavalisk toyed with the remains of the duck. "When do you think they'll head for Bren?"
"It's hard to say, Your Eminence. I think it's wise to assume they won't do anything until the wedding has taken place. After all, their grievances are with Kylock not Bren."
"That will take us into high summer then. If they have any sense they will make their move while the wedding bed is still warm."
"They may move into position before then, Your Eminence. It could take the Wall nearly two weeks to bring its foot soldiers and siege engines through the passes. If they were to wait until the wedding, the delay might prove crucial."
Tavalisk dislodged the wishbone on the duck. He always like to pull both ends himself - that way he was sure to receive all the luck. Oddly enough, this one snapped right down the middle. "Can't be done, Gamil. You must send a fast messenger out to represent the southern cities in the talks."
"But, Your Eminence, Annis and Highwall won't listen to us."
"Of course they will listen, Gamil. Who do you think is financing the damn war for them in the first place? The northern cities might be strong and well-peopled, but they are woefully short on cash. Why Annis couldn't even finance a pleasant mountain hike, let alone a full-blown siege." Tavalisk threw the offending pieces of wishbone on the fire: something about their matching length and symmetry sent shivers down his spine. "At the end of the day, Gamil, they will listen to us because they have no choice."
"What message would Your Eminence have me convey?"
"In no shape or form should Annis or Highwall make a move against Bren - and that includes taking up positions - until the marriage has been legally consummated."
"May I be permitted to know Your Eminences reasons for this?"
"Gamil if I were to throw you into a pond you would surely sink straight to the bottom."
"Why Your Eminence?"
"Because you're about as dense as a piece of lead!" Tavalisk snorted with good humor. He always enjoyed pointing out how much cleverer he was than anyone else. "Really, Gamil. Don't you see? If Annis and Highwall make any move before the wedding is legally fixed, then there's a chance the whole thing might fall through. Do you really think the good people of Bren are going to cheer their favorite daughter down the aisle when an army, the size of which has not been seen in over a century, is poised in the passes ready to invade?" The archbishop finished his speech with a chorus of disappointed tut-tu tting.
"But surely if an army were in place, and the wedding was canceled then all our problems would be solved?"
"The only time our problems will be solved, Gamil, is when Tyren and the knighthood have been sent crying back to Valdis, and when that demon Baralis lays cold in his grave. Neither of which is likely to happen, I hasten to add, unless the whole northern crisis comes firmly to a head."
"Say that word once more, Gamil, and I swear I will have you excommunicated on the spot!" The archbishop brandished the bare drumstick like a weapon. "Think, man. Think. Just suppose the wedding didn't go ahead, where would that leaves us?" Tavalisk didn't wait for an answer. "It would leave us with Kylock still ruling a third of the north, and very liable, with the knights help, to conquer more. Baralis would still be behind it all, scheming and maneuvering, and Tyren - Borc rot his greasy little soul - would eventually be set to gain control of the church in the north. The only thing the wedding changes is the time scale. The marriage of Catherine and Kylock will only serve to accelerate events that have already been set in motion."
Gamil looked suitably contrite. "I see Your Eminence's point."
"There was never any question that you wouldn't," said the archbishop flashing his aide a distinctly cool glance. "Now. What I need you to do, Gamil, is scribe a persuasive letter to the duke of Highwall. Tell him that the south still stands beside him, and more money is on the way and so forth. Then inform him, in no uncertain terms, that we will completely withdraw our resources if he moves so much as a single soldier eastward before the marriage is in place."
"Very well, Your Eminence. Is there anything more?"
"Just one more thing, Gamil. Would you mind going down to the market district and buying me a fish?"
"What sort of fish, Your Eminence?"
"One in a bowl, Gamil. Ever since my cat had that unfortunate accident with the tapestry, I've been missing having a friendly creature around. I fancy a fish this time."
ã"As you wish." Gamil bowed and made his way toward the door, just as he stepped from the room, the archbishop called out:
"Oh and Gamil, I'm sure you will want to pay for it yourself. The Feast of Borc's First Miracle is coming up, and I feel a fish would be an appropriate gift, don't you?" Tavalisk smiled sweetly. "No cheap one, mind."
Tawl sat in the window sun-drenched window seat and whittled at a piece of wood. The cushion, which had rested invitingly atop the stone, lay discarded on the floor. Comfort was something that he just couldn't get used to.
Every so often, when a splinter of wood fell to the floor or his knife sliced into a knot, Tawl would look up through the open window and search for any sign of Nabber in the street below. The boy had been gone four days now and Tawl was worried sick abo ut him. Oh he knew why the boy had gone missing - he was keeping a low profile after what had happened at The Brimming Bucket the other afternoon - but bad deeds done with dubious intentions were Nabber's trademark, and Tawl could neither curse him or condemn him. He'd done much worse himself.
Maybor had returned to the hideout in early evening the day before last. The man was a little shaken and confused, and had finally admitted that he had a meeting with Baralis, and that Nabber had acted as go-between. Maybor was unrepentant. He railed on most indignantly about his right, as an expectant grand-father, to inform anyone he wished of Melli's delicate condition. When Tawl questioned him about the details of the meeting, Maybor was unusually reticent; a blank look came over his face, and he mumbled something to the effect that he wasn't about to be questioned like a prisoner in the stocks. Tawl suspected the great lord simply couldn't remember. WÕhich could only mean one thing: sorcery.
Tawl shook his head, quickly glanced down to the street, and resumed his whittling. Maybor had no idea how lucky he was. He had been a fly who thought that just because the spider was out of its web that it somehow made it less deadly.
Two day's back Tawl had gone down to The Brimming Bucket to find out for himself what had gone down. The patrons, besides being blind-drunk to the last man, were united in their confusion about the events of the day before. A mysterious black-robed figure had shot lightening onto the floor, said one man. Another disagreed with him entirely, stating that the very ale on the floorboard had begun to sizzle of its own accord. One thing they all seemed to know, however, was the fact that Melliandra claimed to be with child by the duke.
The word was out now. All the city knew that Melli was pregnant. Just this morning, Cravin had visited the townhouse, bearing tales of people's reactions. "Most say Melliandra is a brazen liar and a whore," he had said. "But given time I should be able to whip up some support."
Tawl felt like murdering Maybor. With one single act of bravado, the man had endangered not his own life, but his daughter's, too. Now that her pregnancy was common knowledge, Melli was more vulnerable than ever. At this very minute Baralis would be having the city searched door-to-door. Posters offering rewards for details about Melli's whereabouts could be found on every street corner. The net was closing fast, and Maybor's little rendezvous had ensured that Baralis would pull it in all the way.
"I've got the pies, Tawl," came a voice from the bottom of the stairs. "Should I take one to the lady?"
"Make sure she gets the finest, Bodger," Tawl replied. "And test the milk before she drinks any - it must be fresh and cool."
"Grift's already done that, Tawl. Ain't nobody like him for telling when the milk has turned. He has óthe nose of a dairyman and the hands of a milkmaid."
Groaning, Tawl said, "Just take it to her, Bodger."
"It's as good as done, Tawl. Grift always says that..." The words padded into the distance along with the footsteps.
The two chapel guards had turned up on the doorstep the other day looking decidedly sheepish and reeling off Nabber's secret entry phrase. Tawl had no choice - as Nabber was well aware - but to take them in. They were a risk, they knew the address of the hideout, the only other alternative would have been to kill them: and he hadn't felt like murder that day. Despite everything Tawl couldn't help but smile. Those two guards were quite a pair.
And Melli owed them her life.
He only wished the duke had a similar debt.
Tawl stabbed at the window frame with his knife. Why was he destined always to fail? Why did he fail those he was sworn to protect? Again and again the knife came down. Why, whenever he felt as if he was getting ahead, did something always happen to pull him back? The knife hovered in the air an instant, then Tawl let it fall into his lap. Now was not the time for self-reproach. Melli was here, and keeping her safe was what counted. His oath as duke's champion was to protect the duke and his heirs. The duke might be dead, but his widow and his unborn child were still served by that oath, and Tawl was bound to guard them with his life. The whole of Bren had heard him swear it.
A quick look out the window - still no sign of Nabber.
They needed to leave the city. Baralis was tracking them, and Nabber and Maybor with their secret meetings and night time forays were practically asking to be caught. Of course they both thought they were as clever as could be. But Baralis was cleverer by far. It would only be a matter of time before they were caught. Unless they got clean away.
Sighing heavily, Tawl took up his piece of wood and began to whittle once more. His hands seemed intent on making something, but they hadn't yet informed his brain what it was.
There were two problems with leaving the city. First, every gate, every road, every dip in the wall was being watched by enough guards to take a fort. Baralis knew they would try and leave at some point and he was taking no chances. The passes were being monitored, the walls were patrolled by archers, even the lake boasted a ring of troops around its shore. There was going to be no easy way out. Secondly, even if there were an easy way out, Melli might be too sick to take it.
The pregnancy was not going well. Melli was losing weight. She was now so thin that it tore at Tawl's heart to look at her. For two weeks after the duke's death, she had simply refused to eat. She was in shock; unable to eat, talk or even cry. Then slowly she began to come round; taking bread with her milk, washing her face and hair, and even smiling at Nabber's antics. Thinking back on it now, Tawl guessed that Melli began to look after herself more about the same time she began to suspect that she was pregnant. Still even now, when her appetite had all but returned, she could barely keep her food down. No sooner had she ate something then it could be seen, as Nabber put it, "returning like an ugly sister."
Everyone spoiled her. Nothing was too good, or too much trouble. Pies were brought fresh each day, Maybor had purchased a hen so she would have newly-laid eggs, and Nabber brought her flowers and fruit. Despite all this attention, however, Melli's health was not improving.
Tawl had lost loved ones. He knew what it was to grieve. Daily he wrestled with the soul-destroying what ifs? Melli had watched an assassin cut her husband's throat and she would have to deal with her own set of regrets. What if she had entered the bedchamber first? What if she had only screamed louder? What if she had never married the duke at all?
No, Tawl shook his head softly, it was hardly strange that Melli was not well. That she got through each day was miracle enough.
Tawl checked the street as a matter of course. No Nabber, no strangers, no guards.
What was he going to do about Melli? Should he place her unborn child at risk by taking her from the city? Or should he place the child's health first and stay put? If they left the city there would be many days of hard traveling, mountains to cross, soldiers to evade; they would have to live rough and be light on their feet in case chased. If they stayed in Bren they risked capture, but at least Melli's pregnancy would run smoothly.
Tawl looked down at his hands, he saw for the first time what he was sculpting: it was a child's doll.
Was his first loyalty to Melli or the baby? he wondered.
Jack's feet felt as if they had been run over by a loaded cart. The rest of his body wasn't doing too well either - particularly the glass burns. Stillfox certainly knew how to turn an ointment into a weapon. For two days now his arms and chest had been throbbing, but over the past four hours his feet had stolen the show.
He had finally made it to Annis. The city lay ahead of him, its gray walls gleaming in the moonlight. The road to either side was lined with houses and taverns, their shutters and lintels painted many shades of blue. People were everywhere; driving cattle home from pasture, bringing unsold goods from market, walking slowly to evening mass, or briskly to well-lit taverns. The wind was cool and smelled of woodsmoke. Stars glinted high above the mountains, and somewhere water skipped noisily over a quarry's worth of rocks.
The road consisted of crushed stones which crunched with every step. Jack could feel their sharp edges cutting through his shoes. He was nervous. Surely people were staring at him? Yet he looked no different from anyone else. His clothes, which had been provided by Stillfox, were much the same as any man's. True, his hair was long, but it was tied at the back of his neck with a length of Wadwell rope. Jack's hand stole up to check it - a gestur e he caught himself doing more and more these days - and he found the rope was still in place. Nothing made by the Wadwell's was likely to wear out, drop off or break. In fact Jack was pretty certain that the rope would have to be buried with him.
Smiling, Jack looked up. A young girl was staring straight at him. As soon as their glances met she looked away. Jack moved on. He made a point of walking where the light from the houses couldn't catch him.
It had been ten weeks since he first met Stillfo x and over three months since the garrison burned. Could the Halcus still be looking for him? With the war all but lost and an invasion of Bren planned, did they really have time or resources to search-out one man?
All thoughts vanished from Jack's head as he reached the outer wall of Annis. The gate was being drawn closed for the night. The portcullis was being lowered, the overhead timbers creaking with the strain. Jack ran toward it.
"Watch out boy!" came a gruff warning. "Or the spikes will have your shoulders for mincemeat."
Jack took a step back. "I must enter the city tonight." As he spoke, Jack attempted to mimic Stillfox's way of speaking - his kingdom's accent would give him away.
A second man, situated high atop the wall, shouted down. "Slip us a few golds and I'll hold the gate while you pass."
"I don't have any gold."
"Then I don't have the strength to hold the gate." The portcullis plunged toward the ground. Jack contemplated making a run for it, decided it wasn't a good idea, so hissed a few choice curses instead. The spikes fell straight into waiting pits and the city was closed off for the night.
"Try us in the morning, boy," said the gatekeeper pleasantly. "My strength might have returned by then."
Jack smiled up at the man, while naming him a smug devil under his breath. How was he going to get in the city now?
With nothing else to do and nowhere to go, Jack began to walk around the walls. Made of light gray granite, they had been finely polished and then chiseled with a diamond's edge. Demons and angels had been carved side by side, the sun shared the sky with the stars, and Borc and the devil walked hand in hand.
"Annis is a city of intellectuals," Grift had once said. "They're not happy unless they're confusing, confounding and acting as devil's advocate." Jack remembered that Grift's first wife had come from Annis, so that probably explained a lot.
The temperature was dropping sharply and the wind from the mountains was picking up speed. Jack knew the wise thing to do would be to turn around and head back to Stillfox's cottage. Wearing only a light wool tunic and britches however, he was not dressed for the night. His limbs were aching and his feet were sore and chaffed. The herbalist would take him in, feed him, give him medicine and brandy, and now, after their argument this morning, very probably tell all he wanted to know about Melli.
Yes, Jack thought, the wise thing would definitely be to go back. Only pride wouldn't let him. He had left swearing to Stillfox that he would find the truth out on his own, and so by Borc he would! Even if it killed him.
Annis was turning out to be quite a size. The walls towered so high above him and stretched out so far ahead, that they disappeared into their own dark shadows, merging as one with the night. Jack had to constantly watch his step; water pipes, sewer ducts and rain channels all led away from the wall. Once out of the city, these carefully constructed conduits simply ended in pools of stinking slop. Jack grimaced as he was forced to jump over one. It seemed even intellectuals were capable of embracing the idea of out of sightæ out of mind.
An owl called shrill and close. Jack was so startled, he stepped right back into the puddle he'd just safely jumped. "Borc's blood," he hissed, scraping the soles of his shoes against a rock. Owls weren't supposed to live by mountains!
Just then he heard a soft whisper carried on the wind. Jack froze in mid-scrape. A second whisper chased after the first; a man's voice beckoning. Looking ahead, Jack tried to make out the details in the shadow. A row of high bushes cut straight across his line of view. Strange, the bushes led straight to the wall. A man's head appeared above the leaf-tops, then another, the another. Where were they coming from? As far as Jack could make out, the bushes sloped away from the city and then curved into darkness down the hillside.
Very slowly Jack placed his foot on the ground. There were no twigs or dry leaves to give him away. He began to creep toward the bushes. More heads bobbed over the top, al"l heading for the wall. As he drew near, Jack could feel his heart banging against his chest. Saliva had all but abandoned his mouth, leaving it rough as a dog's snout.
Suddenly a hand slapped over Jack's mouth. Pudgy, moist and broad, it cut off the air to his lungs. Jack whipped around, elbow out like a club. The man the hand belonged to was massive; rolls of fat quivered in the moonlight. Just before Jack slammed his elbow into him, he let out a mighty roar:
The word was a battle cry and even as its caller went down, a score of men rallied to the cause. The bushes opened up and an army of fat men dressed in baker's white came out brandishing sticks and knives. Jack knew when he was outnumbered. He raised up his hands in submission.
The man on the ground made a quick recovery, flesh trembling as he raised himself up. His army drew close, no longer running but with weapons still before them. Jack felt the return of the pudgy hand.
The white-aprone"d men formed a half circle around him. "He looks like no miller I know," said one of their number.
"Aye, Barmer, but you know millers - sneaky through and through." This comment, made by the fattest of the group, illicted several grunts of approval.
The pudgy-handed one spoke up from behind. "Do we give him chance to speak, or club him where he stands?"
"Club him!" cried the fattest.
"Search him first for gold," cried Barmer.
The hand that was pressed against Jack's mouth smelled strongly of yeast. "Well," said its owner, "I think we should question him anyway. Suspend his vitals over a hot griddle and we'll soon learn what the millers are up to." The word millers was spoken with an enemy's contempt.
Jack was beginning to realize what he had chanced upon. Snapping back his jaw, he jerked it quickly forward and bit the pudgy-handed man squarely on the thumb. Free from the man's grip for an instant, Jack cried, "I'm not a miller! I'm one of you. I'm a baker."