Authors: Clare Smith
THE WHITE ROBE
Book 2 of the
Sword and the Spell Trilogy
By Clare Smith
The White Robe is the intellectual property of the author
and may only be reproduced, copied or transmitted, in
part or whole, with the written permission of the author.
All characters are fictitious and any resemblance to real
persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental
Cover design and map by Graphicz X Designs
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A Map of the Six Kingdoms
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TEWNTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TEWNTY SIX
King Sarrat- King of Leersland killed by Maladran
Maladran- King Sarrat’s black magician killed by Jonderill
King Malute- Previous king of Leersland murdered by Sarrat
Gartnor- Sarrat’s Guardcaptain
Tarraquin– Rebel leader
Jarrul- Huntsman and friend of Tarraquin
Great Lord Andron- Highest ranked lord in Leersland
Lozin –Andron’s lover
Sharman –Andron’s Guardcaptain
Jonderill– A young magician.
Sheevar –A maid
Birrit –A maid
Shendar –A squad leader
Kadlin –One of Shendar’s men
Perro –A rebel
Jobes –Guildmaster and councillor
ZottCounting house master
King Steppen– Abdicated King of Vinmor
Queen Daun– Steppen’s daughter and Queen of Vinmore
Prince Pellum –Daun’s consort and Vorgret’s brother
Plantagenet– A retired magician
Animus- Aother retired magician
Swordmaster Dilor- Commander of Daun’s royal guards
Lias- Dilor’s nephew
Barrin– Squad leader and Jonderill’s friend
Tuckin– Guardsman and friend of Redruth
Tavlon– A minstrel
King Porteous– Abdicated King of Essenland
King Vorgret- Porteous’s eldest son and King of Essenland
Sadrin –Vorgret’s black magician
Nyte –Sadrin’s slave
Fubrig –A slave trade
King Borman- King of Northshield
Lord Rothers- Borman’s cousin
Rastor- Borman’s Guardcaptain
Callabris- Borman’s white magician
Allowyn- Callabris’s protector
Lord Sallins- Lord of the northern coast
Mallingar- Captain of Borman’s mercenaries
Tordray –Malingar’s second in command
Dandon –A Captain
King Hormund- King of Tarbis murdered in a coach crash.
Prince Newn- Heir to the throne of Tarbis
Lord Farrion- Newn’s uncle and regent of Tarbis
Tangier –Captain of Newn’s guards
King Duro- King of Sandstrone murdered by his brother
Tallison- Duro’s brother and Rale of Sandstrone
Coberin- King Duro’s magician murdered by Tallison
Jonderill- Coberin’s protector. Executed
Prince Kremin- Tallison’s eldest son
Prince Isallin- Tallison’s youngest son
Prince Quarim –One of Tallison’s bastards
Federa- Goddess of magic
Talis- God of pain and suffering
Pieces in Play
Gartnor crawled out from beneath the remains of his horse pushing the decapitated head from his chest and crawling over the stiffening legs which had crumpled beneath the animal when the demon’s tail had sliced through its neck. He reached the nearest body and pulled the young soldier over and then vomited as the top half rolled towards him whilst the bottom half remained where it was. There was blood everywhere, dark and thick on the black rock, pooling in cracks and crevices and splattered up the walls of the magician’s tower. He was soaked in it, mostly from the horse but a little of his own where he had cracked his head on a rock as the toppling horse had pushed him over. All around him was carnage; ripped and torn men and mutilated horses far worse than on any battlefield he had ever seen.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand smearing blood across his face as he staggered to his feet. His head swam from the blow he had received and his legs shook but at least he was alive, unlike the rest of the troop which had accompanied him and Sarrat to the magician’s tower. If it hadn’t been for Sarrat ordering him to give Maladran his horse he too would have been dead; ripped apart by the demon’s spiked tail or its sharp talons without having had the chance to pull his sword to defend himself. At the thought of his king he looked around wildly and then started to stagger from body to body searching for him. He hadn’t seen Sarrat fall so perhaps he still lived. Maladran, in the moments before he changed into a demon, might have remembered his loyalty to the king and spared him.
Gartnor turned bodies over, scaring away the carrion eaters with their graveyard feathers which had started to feast on the dead. They didn’t go far and as soon as he moved onto the next corpse they returned, picking at the torn flesh and covering their sharp talons and curved beaks with gore. When he had identified the last body and there was still no sign of Sarrat he turned his attention back to the magician’s tower standing starkly against the gathering darkness. He remembered Maladran coming out of his tower and stopping in the doorway when he saw his king waiting for him. Perhaps Sarrat had taken refuge inside when the demon attacked.
Taking care where he was putting his feet, Gartnor picked his way across the sharp black rock until he reached the closed door of the tower. He had been inside the tower several times before when he had accompanied Sarrat on his visits to the magician’s tower although most of the time he had only ever gone as far as the kitchens. Only on the day Sarrat had ripped the torc from the magician’s throat at the beginning of his long exile had he been into his private rooms and then they had left Maladran a weeping, shaking heap on the floor. The place gave him the creeps and as he reached the door he stopped to pull his courage together before he put his hand on the dark, solid wood.
As he touched the door, pain shot through his hand and arm and his mind exploded into a kaleidoscope of images; stone creatures with tusks and horns, sly hunters devouring human remains, rotting bodies, demons and dragons. Gartnor screamed and pulled his hand away from the door and fell to his knees. The last image, imprinted on his mind, was of the demon flying towards the forest with Sarrat’s body gripped in its talons.
He clutched his head and squeezed his eyes shut until the image faded and then rose unsteadily to his feet. In the distance, close to the forest edge and in line with where the demon had flown, a sly hunter called, followed by another and another. He started to run towards the call and the forest edge, stopping only once to pick up another sword from the hand of a mangled body.
The forest was dark and full of noise and tree leapers jumped out of his path as he bludgeoned his way through the undergrowth. Sky flyers shrieked as he disturbed them from their roosts in the tree tops and in the distance sly hunters called back to their pack leader. When the moon came out from behind the scudding clouds, Gartnor could see animal pathways through the forest which he followed as far as he could, tripping over tree roots and stumbling on loose stones, his breath ragged in his throat. He used his two swords to keep himself upright and to thrash at shrubs and briars that edged the narrow paths, making what he hoped would be enough noise to scare away any large predator.
To the right of the animal track he was following, the call of the sly hunters was almost continuous. As he careered forward he caught sight of the pack gathered around a tree out of the corner of his eye and he changed direction, charging through the undergrowth and screaming at the top of his voice. He had fought in a number of battles at Sarrat’s side, the most recent against Sandstrone’s desert nomads, and compared to them the sly hunters posed no threat at all; their growls and snarls just spurred him on with the need to get to his master before they did.
Before they could turn to face him he was amongst them slashing with his two swords at the lithe grey bodies as he fought his way through. Two collapsed as he cut their legs from beneath them and a third went down with a severed spine. He reached the centre of the pack and turned to face them, his back protected by the spreading everleaf the pack had been gathering around. There was no sign of a body but blood had run down the trunk of the tree and stained the roots at its foot.
Gartnor screamed something incomprehensible in fear and frustration and lashed out at the nearest animal, slicing through its jaw and sending the mutilated creature staggering back into its pack mates. The smell of blood from the freshly slaughtered sly hunters and the horse’s blood which soaked his cloak and clothes sent them into a snarling, snapping frenzy but when his sword ripped out the throat of the pack leader they quickly backed away out of sword reach. In relief he dropped the tips of his swords to the ground and relaxed his burning arms for a moment taking great gasps of breath to ease the pain in his chest and the pounding of his heart.
Bloody hellden,” he muttered to himself. “What the fuck am I going to do now?”
Around him the sly hunters snarled and paced back and forth but always just outside the reach of his swords. As long as he kept his back to the tree, his swords ready and himself awake he knew they wouldn’t attack but it had been a long day riding to Maladran’s tower from their last camp and before that, there had been endless days fighting the nomads.
He was exhausted and starting to feel the ache in every muscle as the adrenaline slowly left him. He needed a fire but dared not put his swords down to use his tinder and firestone. Instead he decided on a diversion to give him some room to move. It could only be a small one but it might give him enough time to find another way out of the dire situation he had managed to get himself into.
Carefully he propped the sword from his left hand up against his thigh where he could grab it in an instant if the pack regained its courage and attacked. He held the other sword out in front of him as far as it would reach, the tip wavering menacingly in the faces of the snarling sly hunters. With his free hand he unclipped the clasp on his cloak, pulled it from his shoulders and bundled it into a rough ball. It was still damp and stank of blood and dead horse. With a scream he took two steps forward and threw the balled up cloak as far over the heads of the sly hunter pack as he could manage. As he hoped the pack turned as one and fell on the bloody cloak, ripping it to pieces and snapping at each other over the scraps.
The diversion lasted only seconds but it was long enough for him to take another two steps forward, swap his swords for the knives at his belt and take a run at the tree. Everleafs had a smooth bark with a soft wood underneath and a hardwood heart. Their branches, two arm spans above the ground, spread wide with solid limbs more than able to take the weight of a man without breaking. This one was no exception and as Gartnor sprinted forward and leaped for the tree, he swung his arms and hands forward over his head and buried the two daggers into the trunk of the tree with all his force. It was a trick he had practiced as a boy but he had never tried it as a full grown man. His body slapped into the tree with a wallop and he gave an explosive grunt as the air left his body.
It was a desperate gamble and below him the pack snarled and snapped at his trailing legs. One of the sly hunters jumped and caught the heel of his boot so that he had to kick at it with the other leg to release the grip of the animal’s fangs. The movement loosened one of the blades buried in the bark enough to make him drop a finger’s length and making his heart skip a beat in panic. He scrambled to get some purchase with his knees and feet on the smooth bark in a desperate attempt to heave himself upwards out of the reach of the pack. As he increased his grip and started to squirm higher he looked up towards the branches he needed to reach and nearly lost his hold on the knives as a trailing hand reached down towards him.
“My Lord!” he gasped with relief as he recognised the royal signet ring on the calloused hand.
He hauled himself upwards and with a powerful heave dislodged the loose knife and grabbed the proffered hand instead. It was stone cold and slick with blood but he hung onto it whilst he pushed himself up with the other hand, every muscle straining and the sinews of his neck standing out like knotted rope. Balanced on the handle of the remaining knife he released his grip on the king’s hand, grabbed his shoulder and pulled himself into the branches where he looked into the dead eyes of his king.
Gartnor rolled over the body and propped himself up between the forks of two branches where they met the trunk and stared at Sarrat’s remains. There was no doubt that he was dead. Two holes in his chest and another in his abdomen, where the demon’s talons had snatched him from his horse and pierced him through, had bled out. His body, which had wedged in the lower branches of the tree when the demon had dropped him, was bent backwards and his head, which rested on a branch, was twisted at an unnatural angle.
The Guardcaptain swallowed a sharp lump in his throat and his vision blurred. Sarrat hadn’t been an easy man to like but he had served the king faithfully all his life and had been at his side the night he took the throne. He had always followed his orders and had done his best to protect the man but now Sarrat was gone and he was alone. Gartnor wrapped his arms around his bowed head and wept.
He awoke to the sun’s early rays filtering through the canopy overhead, that and the sound of some large creature moving below him. Gartnor moved slowly, every part of him aching from the previous day’s exertions and stiff from the awkward position in which he had spent the night. He didn’t recall falling asleep and counted himself lucky that he hadn’t fallen out of his perch. Next to him Sarrat’s body lay cold and unmoving and even the blood had stopped dripping from the gaping wounds. The noise of movement below him prompted him to full wakefulness and being careful not to slip from his precarious position he stretched across the prone body to part the screen of leaves so he could see how many of the sly hunters remained.
The sight of a fully saddled and bridled horse standing beneath the tree took him by surprise and he managed a grim smile. It must have been one of their own horses that had unseated its rider and bolted when Maladran transformed into the demon. The reins were broken and brambles and twigs were caught in its mane and tail but other than that it appeared unharmed. The horse was startled and threw up its head when he commanded it to stand, but apart from a nervous flicker of its ears, the horse did as it was trained to do whilst Gartnor climbed out of the tree onto its back and then onto the ground. Closer to, he could see that the horse was covered in dried lather and was missing a shoe so he guessed it must have been galloping around for half the night before coming to rest where it felt safe in the company of men.
He took the trailing reins, tied them to a bush and checked through the contents of the saddle bags which were still slung across its withers. There was hard dry travel bread, dried meat and a few wild onions that the horse’s previous owner must have gathered on their journey back from Sandstrone. There was also a half skin of wine which he gulped down greedily. It wasn’t the wine that officers drank but the harsh acid red which was issued to the fighting men.
The rough liquid hit the back of his throat and burnt his stomach like fire causing his head to swim enough to make him stagger. He put the stopper back on the skin and hung it on the saddle pommel whilst he rummaged in the other saddle bag and pulled out the change of clothing he knew would be there. The shirt was crumpled and stained red from the desert sand and the breaches stank of beer and piss but they were in a better condition than the bloody rags he wore.
As he changed he chewed on the dried meat and journey bread, taking small bites of raw onion to give it some flavour and washing it down with a few sips of the cheap wine. It would have been more palatable if he could have made a fire and cooked a stew but he had no water or cooking pot; Sarrat’s troop had travelled fast and light. Instead he chewed the food, stared at the body in the tree and thought about what he should do next. He had commanded men since before Sarrat had become king but there had always been someone to command him and tell him what to do. Now he was alone and the task of deciding what was best was beyond him. He only knew that he had to get his master’s body back for proper burial so he concentrated on doing just that.
He knew that Great Lord Andron held all the lands north east of the forest and whilst Tarmin would probably be closer he would have to travel a day and a night just to reach the edge of the forest with Sarrat’s body draped across the horse. The chances of getting safely out of the dense woodland and into the open countryside before the sly hunters picked up the scent of fresh meat was slight and he didn’t care for the idea of confronting them again. Andron’s estate was further away but the forest edge was closer, less than half a day’s ride, so most of the journey would be over open farm land and he was bound to find help on the way. Apart from that the Great Lord would know what to do with the body and how to go about finding a new king.
Using the horse to give him extra height he tugged on Sarrat’s dangling arm and tried to dislodge him from the tree but he was held fast between the forks of the branch. With a curse at his stupidity he climbed up onto the saddle and balanced precariously until he could heave himself back into the tree. Once there he tried to straighten Sarrat’s body so he could lower it to the ground but it had already become stiff and he realised that the only way he was going to get the body out of the tree was to break the corpse’s bones.
Gartnor wasn’t squeamish but it just didn’t seem right to him to do more damage to the body of the king as if it were just the remains of some peasant. Still muttering curses under his breath he lowered himself from the tree, retrieved the dead soldier’s blanket from behind the horse’s saddle and climbed back up. If he was going for help he needed proof that the king was dead otherwise the suspicious Great Lord would think that Sarrat had set a trap for him.
He tugged urgently at the ring with the royal seal on Sarrat’s finger but the finger had swollen and the ring wouldn’t budge. Unable to think of any alternative he took out his knife, cut the finger off and slid the ring onto his own hand, putting the severed finger into Sarrat’s pocket for safe keeping. As carefully as he could he wrapped the blanket tightly around the corpse, ensuring that any exposed flesh was covered and safe from the carrion feeders. Finally he tied the corpse to the branch so that nothing would pull it free and eased himself back to the ground.
By the time he’d finished the morning had gone and the sun’s rays had shifted to slant in through the trees at a different angle. Honey makers swarmed lazily in the warm still air and black buzzers crawled over the dried blood on the ground and the pile of discarded clothes. The horse was restless and in need of water and he needed to be clear of the forest before dark closed in. He marked the tree with his knife so that he could find it again, gave the wrapped corpse one last look and hoped that he had done enough to keep it safe from the sly hunters or anything else which hunted in the forest canopy. With that thought he climbed onto the weary horse and rode north east.
Gartnor stood as close to attention as his exhausted body and bound hands would allow as he thought of his journey. It had taken him longer to make his way through the close packed trees than he had thought it would so the sun had just set as he left the forest. He marked the last tree in a long line which went back to the everleaf in which Sarrat’s body lay and then he had travelled for most of the night without stopping using the North Star to guide him. Fortunately it had been a clear moonlit night which allowed him to guide his weary horse safely around the many ditches and walls separating field from field in Andron’s patchwork estate. When the North Star had dropped behind the horizon he stopped his horse, tumbled from the saddle and fell asleep on the ground beneath it.
Rain splashing onto his face just before dawn had dragged him from his exhausted sleep and he had stumbled onwards leading his lame horse down a muddy farm track that seemed to have no end. He was soaked through by the time he had eaten the last of his travel bread and had swallowed the last dregs of the sour wine. In the heavy rain which sheeted across the fields he had no idea how far he still had to travel to reach Andron’s manor house, but as there was no shelter nearby and he didn’t even have the protection of a cloak, he had no option but to keep going. Footsore, he had mounted his wretched horse and continued going straight into the wind and rain, which he guessed by its coldness, was coming from the north.
The horse died around midday. He had felt it shudder beneath him before it started to stumble so he had released his feet from the stirrups and rolled off the animal before it could crash to the ground and crush him. Whilst the horse took its last laboured gasps he undid the saddle and heaved the horse blanket free just as the last quiver left its body. The blanket was thick and matted and smelled strongly of horse and rotting leather, but it was better than nothing, so he pulled it over his head and around his shoulders to protect himself from the rain and the cold.
It was getting dark by the time he found the roadway which was lit by the moon that had risen from behind ragged clouds. He trudged on and eventually staggered to the gates of the fortified estate house where he dropped wearily to his knees. Despite the heavy rain the wind had died down but he still had to use the hilt of his sword to pound on the gates until someone heard him. Two guards, who were annoyed at having to go out into the wet, picked him up and dragged him inside where he tried to tell them who he was but they just took his weapons, his coin pouch and precious ring and locked him in a stone out house until morning. He had a vague memory of arguing with them and hitting one on the jaw but after that everything was blank.
Now he stood in the Great Lord’s stable yard with his hands bound in front of him and with four hostile guards surrounding him as they waited for Great Lord Andron to arrive. He hoped the Lord wouldn’t linger too long over his breakfast as he didn’t think he could stand to attention for much longer.
When the Great Lord strode into the stable yard Gartnor recognised him immediately. Andron was a tall man with red tinted hair and a drooping moustache of the same coppery shade beneath a long, thin nose. He usually wore bright red or orange clothing to set off his colouring but today he wore dark riding leathers and was armed with a heavy sword and a long side knife.
Gartnor had seen him many times at court dressed up in his finery like a coolly bird but, despite his flamboyant dress, he knew that Andron was the most intelligent, if not the most trustworthy, of the three Great Lords. At one time he had been a supporter of King Malute and had acted as one of his chief advisors but had been bright enough to make a show of changing his allegiance to Sarrat when he had taken the throne. Gartnor wondered what sort of king he would make.
Behind Andron stood his Guard Captain, a stout man of advancing years with a balding head and red nose from drinking too much grain spirit. He had once been a soldier of some renown but now looked more like a steward than a fighting man. Gartnor smiled to himself; if he played his cards right and supported Andron in his claim to the throne there could be a place for him at the new king’s side after all. He watched as the two men approached, coming to a stop an arm’s length in front of him before he gave a brief bow to the Great Lord.
“Where did you get this?” demanded Andron not bothering with an introduction but just holding out the royal signet ring in the palm of his hand.
“From the finger of King Sarrat, My Lord”
The Great Lord looked behind his prisoner as if he were expecting the King to be waiting there. “And where is the King?”
“I think, Lord Andron, I should answer your question in private.”
Andron took an angry step forward and raised his hunting whip. “How dare you, you insolent cur! I’ll have you….” He stopped in mid sentence and stared at the ragged man in front of him. “Gartnor? Captain Gartnor?”
“Yes, My Lord. We do need to talk in private.”
“Hellden’s balls, man! Whatever has happened to you?” Andron looked more shocked than Gartnor had ever seen him; including the day that Sarrat had announced to the Great Lords that he was their king. “Untie this man and get him some decent clothes, food and wine then bring him to my chambers.” He turned on his heel and marched back into his estate house with his Guardcaptain trailing behind him.
When he was escorted into the Great Lord’s chambers two candle lengths later, Gartnor felt considerably better. He had washed away most of the blood and grime and now wore clean clothes. They were the simple garments which a servant might wear, a white shirt and tan breaches, and were not what he would have chosen himself but they fit reasonably well and they were warm and dry.
The only thing that was missing was having his sword at his side and he felt uncomfortable and only half dressed without it. He had eaten two bowls of hot oats and half a loaf covered in dripping as well as a large pot of mulled ale. His head throbbed slightly from tiredness and some of his abrasions stung from the healer’s attentions but apart from that he felt reasonably fit.
“You look better,” commented the Great Lord waving the guards away and indicating that he should sit. “Now, where’s the King?”
“The King is dead, My Lord, killed by Maladran the black outside of his tower.”
Andron visibly paled and sat down heavily in the chair opposite Gartnor. “Dead? Please go on.”
“There’s not much to tell. We were fighting the nomads on the border with Sandstrone and had almost pushed them back across the border when we captured Prince Kremin, the Rale of Sandstrone’s son. Under torture he told Sarrat that King Borman of Northshield had been supporting Sandstrone in its invasion of Leersland from the start. Sarrat was furious and rode with a small troop back to Tarmin to raise another army to take north and have his revenge.
On the way he stopped to pick up Maladran but the magician changed into some sort of demon or dragon and attacked us. Its talons ripped Sarrat from his horse’s saddle and flew away with him. Everyone else was killed by the creature, but I managed to survive so I followed its flight through the forest and eventually found the King’s body in a tree. I couldn’t move it by myself so I covered it the best I could and came straight here marking the trees on the way so that we could go back and find the body and take it back to Tarmin for burial.
“And the ring?”
“I cut it from his finger to use as proof that what I am telling you is the truth.”
“Does anyone else know?”
“No, My Lord. As I said, the rest of the troop was killed by the demon. I was the only survivor.”
Andron stood and started pacing the room, a deep frown on his face. He paced back and forth until Gartnor gave up following his movements and stared longingly at the empty goblet of wine on the table in front of him.
“You know what this means? It means that the throne is empty; Sarrat had no relatives and no named successors. It means that the first person who gets into the fortress and places the crown on their head will be the next King of Leersland.”
Gartnor nodded and had he not been so exhausted or so preoccupied he would have heard Andron’s change of pace and direction. As it was he only had a moment to cry out as the Great Lord’s long knife sliced through his throat spilling bright red blood cascading down his simple white peasant’s shirt.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The prisoner opened his eyes slowly and blinked into the almost total darkness, concentrating on the small square of light in the far corner where daylight filtered through an open metal grill in the wall high above him. He resisted the temptation to crawl towards it and instead closed his eyes and concentrated on his other senses. From the smell of stone and dirt he was in some sort of cellar far enough below ground for the cold to make him shiver but not so deep that light didn’t penetrate. The place also smelled of damp and he could hear the drip of water in what was otherwise total silence. The other smell was dried blood and he realized it was his own.
Carefully he sat up and winced at the sharp pain in his side. As he pulled himself across the dirt floor to prop himself up against the wall, the pain in his side spread across his chest and he gasped at its intensity. When he reached the wall he rested his head against its damp surface and winced again as the lump on the back of his head pressed against the stone. He gently felt the lump which was just above the base of his skull and his hand came away damp and sticky.
He closed his eyes to ease the pounding in his head and took stock of his injuries; slight concussion, a couple of cracked ribs and heavy bruising down one side, presumably from the heavy boots of Prince Newn’s royal guard. The fact that he was whole and the rest of him was relatively unharmed told him that the changes he had made to his appearance had worked well enough for him not to be recognized. Whilst he couldn’t see what he looked like in the dark, he was certain that his disguise still held. What he needed now was sleep and healing before they came back to question him again. He closed his eyes and was instantly asleep.
The man woke to the sound of his prison door being opened and shielded his eyes with his arms just before a torch was thrust into the darkness. Not that it did him much good as rough hands grabbed him by his arms, heaved him to his feet and pulled him up the stone stairs and into the daylight. He blinked to clear his vision and thanked the goddess for her gift of healing. The day was overcast and chilly but by the distant smell of baking bread he guessed it must have been early morning. His stomach grumbled as he thought about food and he looked over to the east side of the courtyard where he knew the communal kitchens were located.
This particular courtyard was a place he knew well; kitchens to the east, barracks to the west and stables, kennels and store rooms to the north. He had just come from that direction so his guess that he had been held in some sort of root cellar was probably correct. The south side opened onto an area of packed earth where the guards trained and behind that was the old king’s sprawling hunting lodge.
Beyond was the forest where the king and the highborn of Tarbis used to hunt wild tuskers and forest runner. He wondered if the old king’s son kept up the tradition. His question was answered when a small party of horsemen approached from that direction and he watched them until one of the guards pushed him to his knees and rested his sword on his shoulder a finger’s length from his neck, daring him to rise again.
Prince Newn stopped in front of him flanked by his two body guards and stared down at him. “Well, merchant, have you remembered where you’ve hidden the rest of your goods yet?”
He sighed; the prince had certainly grown up in the four years since he had last seen him. Gone was the thin sallow boy to be replaced by a remarkably good looking young man with broad shoulders, strong hands and deep, dark brown eyes. As it was, the Prince who had ordered him to be beaten, his hope that the vicious boy would have grown into a good and just man seemed unlikely.
“Your Highness, I’ve already told you I’m a poor merchant and the gift I brought you from the Rale of Sandstrone is all I have. Please believe what I say, if there was more I would give it to you.”
“Why should I believe you, merchant? Sandstrone is rich in gold and gems and all you’ve brought me is a worthless bronze tree with silver leaves. You may be old and ragged but if you come from Tallison’s court you’ll have far more to give me than that. Now where have you hidden the rest of your goods?” The ragged prisoner shook his head and dejectedly looked down at the ground between his knees. “Chain him up and let’s see if the touch of the lash will loosen his tongue.”
He looked up in shock; this wasn’t at all what he had planned. Alarmed at what was about to happen he went to protest but before he could say a word the Prince gave the command to gag him. Two guards pulled him to his feet whilst a third forced a thick piece of rope between his teeth and pulled the ends roughly behind his head. He retched as the guard knotted the ends tightly over the lump on his head and choked as another pulled his shirt from behind, dragging at his throat and ripping it from his back. They dragged him across the courtyard and despite his struggles they shackled his wrists to the chains on the barracks walls and pulled his arms tightly over his head until his toes barely touched the ground.
“Well, merchant, I will give you one more chance to tell me what I want to know. Where are the rest of your goods?”
He shook his head, trying to get his thoughts together to prevent what they were going to do him, but when the first lash cut into his back the pain and shock scattered what little focus he had managed to gather. The second cut alongside the first, the tip of the lash snaking over his shoulder and drawing blood on his cheek. He tried to scream but the gag held his tongue down and cut at the corners of his mouth. Once again he tried to gather his focus but the third lash caught him high on the shoulders, the tip cutting his neck as it was withdrawn. The fourth crossed the other three and he lost control of his bladder. He sagged into the chains and after that there was just pain and fire and then oblivion.
When he woke again it was completely dark and he stank of blood and piss, sweat and fear. His back was a raging fire, his mouth was torn and blooded and his wrists were cut and bruised from the iron manacles. He shivered in the cold and longed for the water he could vaguely remember someone leaving in his cell.
Slowly he locked the pain away in a corner of his mind and focused his thoughts until a small ball of light flickered to life at the ends of his fingers. In its dim light he could see the bowl of water that had been left for him by the door. He eased himself to his hands and knees and slowly crawled over to it leaving a trail of blood behind him. The bowl of water was small, not enough to drink and clean his wounds, so he propped himself up as best he could and sipped the water, washing the taste of blood from his mouth.
“Damn fool. What would Allowyn say if he could see me in this mess?” he whispered to himself when he’d finished the last of the water. “Why couldn’t I do as I was told and just kidnap the Prince instead of going through all of this so he would have a chance to prove that there was some goodness within him?” He knew why of course; he owed it to the boy’s father who he’d served loyally for a dozen years or more.
He pulled the rest of his torn shirt from his arms and tore it into three ragged strips, wrapping two of them around his wrists to soak up the blood. The other one he used to wipe out the last of the dampness from the water bowl and dabbed the bloody cut on his cheek with it. “One last chance,” he muttered to himself as he lay down on the dirt floor, rolled onto his side and closed his eyes.
It was the small square of light shining in his eyes from the grill high up in the wall that woke him up; that and the sound of activity outside his cell door. He sat up and groaned at the pain in his back and the stiffness in his shoulders. In his sleep he’d accepted the goddess’s healing but not too much; it wouldn’t do to be completely healed when he was taken before the Prince again. Should Newn recognize him before he was ready to reveal himself then he could be in real difficulty. He checked his disguise in the square of light and chuckled to himself; ragged, bloody and dirty with three day’s growth of beard, made any other disguise unnecessary.
When his prison door opened he was still chuckling to himself but neither of the burly guards seemed to be amused by him or his stink as they pulled him to his feet and dragged him out of his cell. He stumbled in the bright sunlight and would have fallen if the two guards hadn’t had such a bruising grip on his arms. They marched him across the courtyard to where Prince Newn stood by a brazier warming his hands. When he and his escort came to a halt the Prince looked up and stared him in the eye. He shuddered, not just at the chill of the cold morning air on his bare chest, but the vicious glint in the Prince’s eyes. It reminded him of a beast just about to rip apart its defenseless prey.
“Well, old man, has a night spent in your own blood and filth jogged your memory of where you have hidden the rest of the gold and jewels you brought with you from Sandstrone?”
“Your Highness, please believe me I have no more gold and jewels, just the gift I have offered you. Please accept the bronze and silver tree and let me return to my home and family.”
“You lie. The Rale wouldn’t send me such a paltry gift as that.” The prince nodded to the guard next to him who handed him a thick gauntlet like the ones used by nobles to protect their hands from the talon’s of sky hunters. He pulled it on and flexed his fingers. “Hold him.” The Prince took hold of an iron rod which had been heating in the coals of the brazier and pulled it out of the fire. The tip glowed a menacing red. “Let’s see if this helps you to remember.”
The prisoner clenched his fists at his sides and the two guards staggered back as if they had been hit in the jaw. He raised his hands and took a step forward focusing his power into the iron rod in the Prince’s hand. Instantly the red from the tip glowed brighter and spread along the rod and into the Prince’s gauntleted hand. The Prince screamed and dropped the burning metal, clutching the smoldering glove to his chest. He stared in disbelief as the figure before him shimmered and changed from the ragged, tortured merchant to the magician in his pristine white robes who he remembered from his childhood. “You!” screamed the Prince in anger. “Guards, take him! Kill him!”
Callabris took another step forward and the Prince retreated whilst around him his guards blinked in confusion and started to wander aimlessly towards their barracks. Callabris waited for them to leave until there was only him and the Prince in the courtyard. The sound of breakfast being prepared in the kitchen became muffled and then ceased and the fire in the brazier flickered out, the glowing coals turning to ashes. Even the early morning sky singers above them ceased to call as the sky dimmed.
Prince Newn, visibly shaken and still clutching his singed hand gave a small whimper of fear. “Callabris, my old friend and mentor, I didn’t know it was you. If I’d known it was you I would have gladly accepted your gift and would have made you welcome here. You remember this place don’t you? You and I used to stay here in the summer and go hunting with my father. They were good times weren’t they? We could do the same again, just you and me.”
Callabris said nothing but watched as the young man fell to his knees and began to grovel. “I am sorry, Callabris, I really am. I didn’t mean to hurt you; you must know that I would never hurt you, you’ve always been my friend.”
“Don’t lie to me, boy. You sent men to kill Allowyn and me, a foolish and stupid thing to do and if you had known I was not the merchant I pretended to be you would have done the same thing you tried last time.” He sighed again and took another step forward to stand over the Prince. “Ah, boy, what have you become? You are vicious, spiteful, callous and little better than a beast. Your land and the rest of the six kingdoms need to be protected from you.”
“Don’t kill me, please don’t kill me!”
“I’m not going to kill you, boy. I honour your father too much to kill his only child, even if you do deserve it.”
The Prince looked up and wiped his eyes on the back of his hand. “What are you going to do to me then?”
“I’m going to turn you into the beast that you’ve become. You will stay here with your guards to protect you and your servants to wait on you until the day you can demonstrate that you’ve learnt about compassion, mercy and justice. But don’t take too long, boy. If you haven’t changed your nature by the time the last silver leaf falls from the bronze tree I have gifted to you then you will stay a beast until the day someone stumbles upon this place and slays you.”
“No!” screamed the Prince. “You can’t do this to me, you bastard, I’m a prince and I’ll kill you for this!”
Newn stood and grabbed for the sword at his side but his fingers twisted and changed into bent claws in front of his eyes. He screamed again but his words turned into a throaty growl issued from a gaping maw lined with jagged teeth. The beast howled as its back bent and its arms stretched to match the length of its clawed hind legs. Thick fur sprouted across the muscular body, pushing off the remnants of torn clothing, sharp ears flicked forward and tusks protruded from the creature’s lower jaw. The only thing that remained of Prince Newn was his deep, dark brown eyes. The beast howled in anguish and tore at the ground with its claws.
Callabris shook his head sadly and walked away and as he did so a high wall burst from the ground taking the place of the pole trees and ornamental hedges which had surrounded the hunting lodge and its buildings. Stone monsters with claws and fangs settled on the top of the wall and the two sky hunters which rested on their perches transformed into two giant raptors with metal wings and razor talons. They rose from their places to settle onto the stone pillars guarding a high gate, which clanged shut behind him.
Callabris emptied his pot of ale, put the pot back on the table with a quiet click and leaned gingerly back against the wall in the corner he had chosen for his meeting. With satisfaction he licked his lips noting that everything people said about the ale in Vinmore was true. It was rich brown, smooth and clear with a distinctive nutty taste and perfectly complemented the meat pie he’d just eaten. He’d travelled the length and breadth of the six kingdoms, with the exception of Sandstrone where his kind were definitely not welcomed, and Vinmore’s inns were by far the best. It was a pity that Vinmore already had two magicians otherwise he would have settled there instead of in the cold of Northshield.
Even on Vinmore’s southern border with Tarbis, where traders and mercenaries passed to and fro, the inn was clean and orderly and busy too. He chuckled to himself; at least it was busy everywhere else except for a large semi-circle around where he sat. Despite magic being accepted as a part of everyday life in Vinmore, people were still careful to give a magician a wide berth, which was probably a good thing, as his guest, when he arrived, would not want their conversation to be overheard.
The downside of course was that he had been sitting in this inn for two days and had spoken barely a word to anyone except to ask the innkeeper for food and drink and a room for as long as he needed it. If Allowyn had been with him it would have been different. Allowyn would have been out and about in the border town finding out the latest news and listening to the gossip. Afterwards he would have returned to the inn and recounted what he had found, either seriously if the news had warranted it, or with cynical humour if it were the usual mundane gossip. If there was nothing to report, he could always be relied upon to initiate a discussion on the latest political maneuverings of the monarchs of the six kingdoms, or failing that, a debate on some obscure aspect of their calling.
However, Allowyn wasn’t here and he missed his protector more each day. Since their pairing they had been apart only the once when they had both searched for their brothers who had been slain but that had been many years ago. He had forgotten how alone he could feel without his constant shadow. Allowyn had taken the opportunity of his absence to visit the Enclave to renew his vows and he wondered if he’d managed to go there yet or if King Borman had him running errands.
Callabris sighed and contemplated leaving his isolated corner to go and talk to the local people who had crowded into the inn to have a pot of ale or a goblet of Vinmore’s famous wine before returning to their homes or wherever else they were going to sleep that night. Most wore the short tunics and long red breaches of vine workers, including three or four of the women. They gathered in a loose group by the door talking quietly amongst themselves. Next to them, closer to the bar, stood a group of mercenaries clutching pots of ale and laughing loud enough to cause annoyance to the vine workers; not that they would do anything about it with so many swords resting on hips ready to be drawn.
Apart from the four men who sat around a table with half a dozen bottles in front of them, the rest looked to be farmers or traders; too tired and grubby to be happy being disturbed by an outsider who wanted a chat. Callabris turned his attention back to the four men at the table with their selection of bottles watching them take small sips of wine, swish it around their mouth and then spit it into a spare pot which they passed around the table. It wasn’t difficult to concluded that they were vintners from different parts of Vinmore and as such would probably be educated enough to hold a decent conversation. He wasn’t sure how well they would react when a white robe butted into their private wine tasting but he was so bored that he was willing to take a chance of being rejected.
He stood, stretching slightly to get rid of the stiffness caused by sitting for too long and flexed his shoulder, grimacing at the ache across his back. Despite his healing powers he was still feeling the unpleasant effects of his brief stay in Tarbis. He picked up his ale pot, but before he could move to join the vintners, there was a commotion at the door and six guards in royal livery and carrying pikes pushed their way into the inn. The crowd at the door muttered angrily at the intrusion and stepped back into the mercenaries, pushing them further towards the bar. There was the scrape of metal as the mercenaries pushed the vine workers back and eased their weapons in their scabbards, but they decided against pulling their steel when the soldiers used their pikes to give their lord enough room to make a dignified entrance. Callabris sat down again and settled himself back into his corner to watch what would happen next.
The innkeeper, alerted to the change of mood by the clatter of weapons and the angry muttering of vine workers, put down the jug he was filling and grabbed the large club that he kept behind the bar. It was a good weapon with which to subdue trouble makers and rowdies. He pushed his way through the crowd with a determined look on his face, ready to sort out whoever was causing a disturbance in his well ordered inn. He took one look at the liveried soldiers and instantly stopped his forward march. Instead he bowed to his newest customer, trying his best to shuffle the club behind his back in the crowded space so that his exalted guest wouldn’t see it.
“My Lord Fallion, this is indeed a great and unexpected honour. May I welcome you to my humble inn.”
Lord Fallion looked annoyed at being hemmed into such a tight space and muttered something to the innkeeper which Callabris didn’t catch. He guessed what it was though and watched as the flustered innkeeper used his considerable bulk to move his regular customers aside so he could lead the regent of Tarbis across the inn to where he sat. Callabris stood and bowed briefly to the most powerful man in Tarbis, whilst the innkeeper pulled out a chair and cleaned off some non-existent dust with the cloth he had tucked into his belt. Fallion sat with a dissatisfied grunt and the innkeeper bowed and hurried away to fetch his best wine for his noble visitor.
“Callabris, it must be four years or more since we last met. I didn’t expect to meet up with you again, especially so close to the borders of Tarbis.”
“Lord Fallion, as always it is a pleasure to see you. May I thank you for accepting the invitation of my master to discuss matters of mutual interest.”
“Where is he? I expected King Borman to be here to meet with me, not his turncoat magician.”
Callabris smiled politely and ignored the acerbic remark. Fallion had aged in the four years since he had last seen him and the once smooth face was crossed with worry and frown lines. The once distinguished salt and pepper hair was now completely grey and the amused smirk, which he used to wear most of the time, had changed into a disapproving scowl. A downward tug of the lips with two deep creases descending from the edges of his mouth to each side of his pointed chin completed a picture of a very worried man. He tapped impatiently on the table waiting for Callabris to respond.
“How is the young master?” asked Callabris pleasantly.
“He’s damn well the same as he always has been, the bloody minded bastard, now where’s Borman?”
Callabris resisted the temptation to chuckle to himself. Clearly things hadn’t gone as well as Fallion had expected after he had arranged the murder of the Prince’s father and, knowing Prince Newn as he did, he guessed the boy had been making Fallion’s life a misery; a fitting reward for his treachery.
“You didn’t really expect the King of Northshield to come here and meet you in a public inn did you?”
“Where in hellden is he then?”
“In Northshield, where do you expect?”
“Here talking to me. That’s what the message said; he wanted to talk to me about a proposition of mutual benefit.”
“King Borman is tucked up safely in Northshield doing what kings do and I am here in his stead.”
Lord Fallion jumped to his feet, pushing his chair over backwards and glaring at the magician. “I’ll not waste my time talking to a turncoat who walks out on his master without a word!”
“And yet I am happy to deal with a traitor who kills his brother and his king so he can grab a throne.”
In a temper at having his time wasted Fallion turned to leave but the chair was in his way. He pushed it aside but as it fell the legs stuck out blocking his path. His temper even worse, he gave the legs a vicious kick which swung the chair completely around so that the back of the chair now blocked his path. One of his guards picked up the offending piece of furniture but instead of throwing it to one side he placed it directly in front of his lord. Fallion kicked it again and the chair fell backwards with its legs in the air but still in front of him and blocking his exit from the inn.
“Damn it, Callabris! Move this chair out of my way or I’ll have my guards run you through!
“The chair, like me, needs you to stay.” He sighed in annoyance. “Lord Fallion, I’m sure you haven’t come all this way just to look on the face of my master. His message said that he had something to discuss with you that would be to your advantage and that hasn’t changed just because he’s not here. Now, sir, please sit and listen to what I have to say.”
Callabris clicked his fingers and the chair flipped over onto its legs and the edge of the seat nudged carefully at the back of Fallion’s knees. With a muttered curse Fallion pulled it to the table and sat heavily with his arms folded stubbornly in front of him. The moment he sat the innkeeper came bustling over to the table and placed a newly poured flagon of Vinmore’s finest red wine in front of the regent.
With the same towel he’d used to wipe the seat of the chair a few moments before, he polished the two goblets he carried and placed them on the table looking extremely pleased with himself. He waited to pour the wine but caught a look from Callabris and hurried back to his bar. Callabris poured the wine and waited for the noise in the inn to regain its previous volume.
“My master sends his greetings and hopes that his cousin is in good health and high spirits.”
“Get on with it,” Fallion snapped.
“King Borman is genuinely concerned for your welfare and the welfare of your people. He’s heard that there is dissent in Tarbis and that opposing factions at court gather behind the Regent and the Prince. We are concerned that, without the aid of magic to help keep the balance, the situation could escalate into civil war which would damage Tarbis and could spread to the other six kingdoms. My master would not like to see Tarbis end up like Sandstrone; bereft of magic and in the hands of a fanatic.”
Fallion gave a bark of cynical laughter. “If you hadn’t deserted Tarbis and gone crawling to Borman this kingdom wouldn’t be without magic.”
“As I recall the assassins you sent to kill me were meant to give me a clear message that I was no longer welcome here.”
Fallion swallowed back his goblet of wine and put it firmly back on the table. “I know you will find this hard to believe, magician, but, as I told you before, I didn’t arrange King Hormund’s death. Neither did I arrange for you to be assassinated. Perhaps it was the boy; it’s the sort of thing he would do.”
Callabris looked at him curiously. “No, I don’t think it was Prince Newn, or at least not directly.”
“Then perhaps someone else is meddling in Tarbis’s affairs; there are others who would find this little kingdom attractive, including your King Borman.”
Callabris frowned and considered the idea and then shook his head and smiled. “One of the problems of being Federa’s servant is that magic is black or white, so we’re not good at unraveling the dirty grey of politics; we leave that to kings and regents.” He poured himself another goblet of wine and then regretfully decided that he had better not drink any more if he wanted to stay awake. “Prince Newn is a young man who has not yet learned what it is to be a king and until he has he’s a danger to himself, his people and the stability of the six kingdoms. Fortunately he has suddenly contracted a rare illness which will take him out of public life and out of your way for some time.”
Fallion sucked in a deep breath in alarm, looking genuinely concerned, and started to rise but Callabris waved him down. “The boy is unharmed and is confined to his hunting lodge with his guards around him to keep him safe and to keep unwanted curiosity seekers out. Nobody will be able to stumble on the place accidently and no man will be able to gain access, so you may find the place convenient to house the occasional long term visitor who you don’t want to hold in a more public place. I am sure they will be duly intimidated by the Prince’s changed persona. Newn’s absence from Tarbisian society will give you the opportunity to stabilize the kingdom and build good relationships with your cousin, who is most concerned about you.”
“And how long will this infliction last?”
“That depends. If the Prince learns how to be a king and gains the trust and affection of others there will be a very speedy recovery. However, if he doesn’t recover by the day he’s old enough to be crowned king, the affliction he currently has will be permanent, and you and your kingdom may wish to make other long term arrangements.”
The Regent leaned forward across the table and spoke in a low voice so others couldn’t hear. “I should be angry with you and Borman for interfering in the affairs of Tarbis but I’m not. You’re right, the boy was dangerous.”
“Don’t misunderstand me Fallion. My master and I cannot be seen to have any part in this that can be traced back to us. As far as the six kingdoms are concerned, the boy has an illness, and if at any time you accuse Borman or me of being its cause, then I will ensure that the illness really does become contagious. Do you understand?”
Fallion nodded with a disagreeable look on his face and pushed his chair away from the table. He turned to go but then returned to the table and emptied the last dregs from his wine goblet. “If at any time I decide that the people of Tarbis should find out about the Prince’s affliction and his lack of suitability to be king, would that cause you or your master a problem?”
Callabris smiled benignly. “As I said, the Prince has an illness. How you treat it is your own affair, but for his father’s sake, I wouldn’t want to see the Prince die of his affliction before he’s had the chance to redeem himself.”
Fallion smiled. “Thank you Callabris, I will keep that in mind.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The view took his breath away. It was different to Vinmore with its gentle rolling hills covered in vines and cool shady vales rich with fruit trees that produced the finest cider and mead in the six kingdoms. This was more like Leersland with its deep green horse pastures and everleaf forests, but the colours of Northshield were different than those of Leersland. The forests were paler, full of tightly packed slender silver bark, their leaves alternating between emerald and grey as the wind turned them on their supple stems. The fields also alternated colours, mostly the gold of ripening corn but many of them the creamy white of fibre leaf and shirt plant.
From his vantage point at the north east mouth of the Deeling Pass, Jonderill could see the winding snake of the Blue River sparkling in the sunlight as it wound its way from the north, separating Essenland from Northshield. Behind him and out of sight, the river flowed south through verdant pastureland and deep forests to separate Vinmore from Leersland. It would have been easier to follow the course of the river on his journey northwards, but that would have meant going into Leersland, which was not a good idea for a man with a number burnt into his arm and no freedman’s papers. In any case, if he’d followed the Blue River through the lowlands, he would have missed this breathtaking view.
His way ahead could clearly be seen; a grey ribbon of road crossing the river by the stone bridge and snaking its way into the distance to where Wallmore stood. From this distance it looked like a grey smudge on the horizon but, from what he had been told by those who he had met on the road, it was the largest and most unfriendly city in the six kingdoms. Having spent a part of his childhood in the kingsward compound in Tarmin, he found that hard to believe, but he had been warned.
Jonderill patted Sansun’s muscular neck and felt guilty that the horse’s fine silver coat was dulled by dried sweat and dust which had turned to the colour of mud in the last rain storm. He’d done his best to keep the horse groomed but, as they had climbed up through the Deeling Pass, they had both been soaked by heavy rain, battered by winds laden with grit and baked by the sun beating down between high rock walls. The last rainfall had left him feeling damp and itchy and smelling slightly musty. He guessed that he really didn’t look much better than his horse.
Sansun turned and butted him gently in the chest reminding him that he had stood for far too long in the one place and it was time to be on their way. Jonderill climbed wearily back into the saddle and Sansun set off of his own accord, picking his way down the rocky path until they reached the smoother roadway leading to the crossing over the Blue River. Despite leaving the mouth of the Deeling Pass when the sun had only just cleared the horizon it was late afternoon and two soakings later before they reached the narrow, stone bridge.
The Blue River might have looked blue and sparkling in the sunlight but under a dark, murky sky it looked a muddy grey, flecked with white caps as the gusting wind caught the top of the turbulent waves. A sturdy bridge with three arches crossed the swiftly flowing river, the stone dark and pitted beneath the arches and speckled with green and yellow moss where the spray from the river kept the stone constantly damp.
Two guards stood either side of the bastions at the entrance to the bridge with the tower and sword emblem of Northshield on their tunics and shields, a sword at their side and a halberd in their spare hand. Another two guards sat on a bench outside a stone building, which resembled a barn, bolt bows loaded and resting by their feet. As Jonderill approached one of them slowly stood and banged loudly on the barn door.
By the time Jonderill had come to a halt in the area between the building and the bridge and had dismounted, another guard had stepped from the barn and was walking towards him with the two bowmen close behind. He was dressed the same as the others except for the braiding around the cuffs of his shirt and a long brown cloak which identified him as an officer. Jonderill watched as the man looked him up and down, sauntered around his horse and returned to stand at arm’s length in front of him with his hands on his hips. The two bowmen took up position on either side of him, their weapons loaded and pointed at Jonderill’s chest.
“Papers.” demanded the officer.
Jonderill reached inside his jerkin being careful not to look as if he was drawing a hidden weapon. He removed the small scroll which had been sent to him from King Steppen and held it out at arm’s length. The officer took it roughly from his hand, unrolled it and stared at the contents, a scowl on his face.
“The mark of Vinmore ‘as no power ‘ere, this is King Borman’s bridge an’ if yer want to cross yer gotta pay a toll.”
Jonderill looked unsure; he’d never been in this situation before. “How much is the toll?”
The soldier looked appraisingly at the horse and then back at Jonderill. “Let’s say twenty Gellstart.”
He took a quick breath; twenty Gellstart was almost all the coin he had. “Does everyone have to pay that much?”
“They do if I says so.”
“And what if I can’t or won’t pay?”
“Then we takes it in kind see.” He nodded his head briefly to the two bowmen who dropped their bows and stepped to either side of Jonderill, drawing their swords as they did so. For a moment Jonderill thought of drawing his own sword but five to one was not good odds. Instead he gave a resigned sigh and unclipped the pouch of coins from his belt hidden beneath his jerkin. The guard snatched it eagerly from his hand and emptied out the contents, giving a low whistle of appreciation.
“Well, well, well. Looks like I didn’t ask for enough, did I?”
Jonderill stepped forward to protest but the two bowmen grabbed his arms and pulled him back away from their officer. Before he could say anything one of the guards punched him in the stomach making him double over, retch and gasp for breath.
“Den, ‘ave a look in ‘is things an’ see what else ‘e’s got.”
The guard by the bridge put down his shield and halberd and moved cautiously to the horse’s flanks giving him a nervous pat before rummaging through the saddle bags and dropping the contents onto the dirt. “There’s not much in here, just some food and spare clothes and this.” He held up the crumpled grey robe.
Den shrugged. “Looks like something me gran’ma would go to bed in.”
“Na,” said the other guard who had come to join the group. It looks like something Lord Callabris would wear only it’s too small and the wrong colour.”
Jonderill straightened up at the mention of the white magician’s name. “Leave them alone, they belong to me.”
Den ignored him and unwrapped the blanket tied behind Sansun’s saddle letting everything roll out. “Perhaps ‘e’s one of them magic workers.”
“Don’t be daft, do yer think ‘e would be letting us go through ‘is things if ‘e could work magic? The clothes aint worth owt but they’ll do fer cleaning me boots with.”
“What about these swords?” asked Den as the two weapons rolled out of the blanket and clattered to the ground.
“The new one should fetch a gellstart or two when we get back to Wallmore but the old bit of iron is useless. Now the ‘orse is a different matter, I reckon that under all that grime ‘es a real beauty.”
“I bet ‘e nicked ‘im,” suggested Den. “Got ter be a big reward for an ‘orse thief like ‘im.”
“Bet there is too.” The officer smirked at Jonderill and stepped forward to the horse, picking up its trailing reins.
“Sansun go! Run!” shouted Jonderill.
Sansun whipped his head around jerking the reins out of the officer’s hand and knocking Den to the ground with his shoulder. The officer staggered back cursing loudly and clutching at his hand where the reins had gouged a furrow through his palm and fingers. Sansun whipped his head back around again and snapped at the officer with his big teeth as he barrelled past, catching him in his upper arm with enough force to draw blood. Before the rest of the troop could move to stop him the horse was galloping away from the bridge, reins flying behind him, into the direction of the silver bark forest.
“Bloody animal bit me!” screamed the officer, clutching his upper arm. He turned back to where the bowmen were holding Jonderill with his arms twisted behind his back. “Yer goin’ ter pay for this yer bastard. Take ‘im out back an’ teach ‘im a lesson then lock ‘im in the wood store. Tomorrow we’ll ‘ang im from the centre arch as a warning to other ‘orse thieves who would try to trick us.”
Jonderill came slowly to his senses in the darkness, hardly daring to move as he listened to some small creature moving around in the back of the room where he lay. He hoped it wasn’t a gnawer; he hated filthy gnawers with their naked tails and sharp claws. The floor on which he lay was hard and cold and bits of wood chippings and bark pressed into his naked skin. His shirt had gone and he had vague memories of it being pulled over his head somewhere between them using their fists on his face and their feet on his body.
As well as his shirt his boots and his breaches had gone although he couldn’t remember them going. Pushing himself into a sitting position with his back to the stone wall, he winced at the bruises and split skin which covered the top half of his body and the welts across his back and his thighs. He didn’t recall them taking a strap to him but he had been beaten with one once when he was a small boy in the kingsward compound for taking another boy’s bread ration. He still remembered what it felt like.
Carefully he rolled his shoulders, moved his arms, legs and fingers and felt his ribs. Despite the beating nothing was broken which was a small mercy. The two guards were clearly experts at what they did, not that it mattered much if they were going to hang him in the morning. The thought added urgency to his assessment of the situation and once he was sure that the only real injury was a swollen eye he rolled to his knees and started to explore his prison. It didn’t take him long; there was a pile of chopped wood stacked at one end, solid stone walls around him, a solid wooden roof above and an even more solid wooden door locked from the outside. He tried to stand up but the ceiling was too low so he slumped to the floor in dejection.
“Where are you, Sansun?” He muttered under his breath before closing his eyes in misery.
When a gnawer ran across his bare feet, its tiny claws digging into his skin like small needles and its long hairless tail trailing behind like a dirt crawler, he woke with a start, jumped to his feet and banged his head against the low ceiling. He cursed loudly but remained as upright as he could in the cramped space. There was no way he was going to share his prison with a filthy gnawer, especially one he couldn’t see.
In desperation he thrust out his hand and instantly a small ball of light appeared in the centre of it. He blinked his one good eye in amazement. It had been nearly five summers since he’d last produced elemental fire and even then, with daily practice, it had been a struggle to maintain a small flame but here it was sitting in the palm of his hand with barely a waiver.
Now, with the light in his hand, he had his first chance to have a good look at his prison. The door was as sturdy as he had felt it to be with no handle on the inside and just a small hole where a key would fit into the lock. The walls were plain stone with no windows and the low ceiling was made of thick boards without any gaps which he could lever apart. The woodpile, where the gnawer had escaped to, was loosely stacked against the far wall leaving a gap between the top of the pile and the wooden ceiling. From what he could see of the far wall, it was only made up of a thin wooden partition rather than stone blocks which the other walls were built from.
“That’s it,” whispered Jonderill to himself. If he could just break through that wall he was certain the living quarters would be on the other side. If the guards were asleep and he was very lucky he might be able to make his way out and escape before they woke. He stood and looked at the wall trying to work out how to break through it whilst his optimism faded. There was only one way to get through the partition but by the time he’d beaten the wall down with chunks of wood from the wood pile the guards would be awake, armed and waiting for him.
He abandoned that idea and studied the wall for a bit longer, the flame bright in his palm but bending slightly towards the partition wall with the draft coming from under the door. Then he smiled to himself. If he set fire to the wall sheltered behind the log pile, the wall would burn through and the slight draft from the door would send the smoke away from him to engulf the soldiers while they slept. Hopefully it would suffocate them before they realised what was happening. It wasn’t a terribly good plan but it was the best he could come up with and much better than waiting for them to hang him.
Jonderill lowered the flame to search the floor for wood chips and kindling which he could use to start the fire and noticed a grey bundle of rags by the door. Hoping that it was something which would burn well he picked the bundle up and discovered that it wasn’t made up of rags but was the old grey robe which the white magician had given him on his apprentice day. He tried to tear it into strips but the fibres wouldn’t part so, instead, he gathered up the scraps of wood and bark from the floor and piled them onto the old robe and then clambered over the top of the woodpile to reach the far wall. As he’d thought, the woodpile was loosely stacked which made clambering over it difficult, but it meant there would be plenty of gaps for the air to get to the lighted kindling.
When he was near the far wall, he pulled back as many of the logs as he could reach and placed the scraps of wood and bark in a hollow between two thick branches. A memory of him once before having to light a fire when the need was desperate and failing miserably passed through his mind but he dismissed it; then he didn’t have elemental fire to light the kindling. He lowered the flame to the small pile of scraps and waited for the first wisps of smoke to spiral upwards before placing some larger logs over the top, leaving enough space for the fire to get going. It wasn’t as close to the wall as he would have liked but he was certain that it wouldn’t matter once the fire caught.
In the darkness he slithered back along the woodpile, cursing under his breath as the rough wood scraped against his already bruised flesh. He felt his way along the wall until he reached the locked door, the old grey robe still in his hand. It had been a very long time since he had worn the thing and he had grown since then but he thought it might at least cover his head and help to keep the spreading smoke from his eyes and nose. He pulled the rough fabric over his head and was surprised when it slid easily down his body far enough to cover his small clothes.
On the other side of the woodpile the flames didn’t seem to be doing much except for making far more smoke than he’d anticipated. Already the top half of the wood store was shrouded in smoke and suffocating clouds were beginning to roil along the ceiling and down the walls. As the smoke became thicker he started to cough so he lay down on the floor with his nose and mouth pressed against the small gap beneath the locked door, greedily sucking in air.
It occurred to him then that this wasn’t a good idea after all and perhaps he should have checked to see how damp the wood was before setting light to it. Dark clouds of smoke started to roll down from the ceiling and over his back in a thick grey mass smelling of rotting trees and mouldering leaves, stinging his eyes and burning his throat.
In desperation Jonderill scraped at the hard packed earth at the bottom of the door, trying to make the gap big enough to put his mouth to it, but years of being trampled by solid boots had packed the earth to stone hardness. The smoke continued to fill the room, wrapping around Jonderill like a smothering blanket and he took one last gasp of fresh air before he was completely engulfed. On the other side of the door he could hear a scraping sound as if something metal was being drawn across the ground and the door rattled as something large pushed against it. He staggered to his feet desperately trying to wave the smoke away from his face so he could take a deep enough breath to shout.
“Sansun! Sansun, push!” He yelled, trying not to inhale the smoke.
The door rattled again and he could hear the horse snort as it pushed against the door of his prison.
“Again, Sansun! Push again!”
The horse pushed again making the hinges and lock rattle but still the door wouldn’t move. Jonderill began to cough violently and in frustration and fear banged both hands against the door. Instantly he was thrown back across the room as the door shot open. He hit the wood pile and slithered to the floor, the smoke nearly blinding him. By the flickering light of the fire, which had at last ignited, he could just make out the outline of his horse as the smoke twisted and turned in its escape through the open door.
He crawled across the floor with his eyes closed until his hands found Sansun’s trailing reins and hung onto them, whilst Sansun moved steadily backwards dragging him out of the smoke filled building. Coughing and choking Jonderill staggered to his knees and then onto his feet, clutching at the saddle to keep upright.
“Go!” he coughed and, with him hanging onto the saddle, Sansun started walking away from the building following the course of the river downstream away from the bridge and into the darkness.
Jonderill staggered alongside the horse, trying to clear his head and lungs of smoke and fighting off waves of dizziness and nausea. Behind him he could hear shouting and when he turned to look back he could see a smudgy red glow through his steaming eyes. Putting out the fire would keep the guards busy for some time but it wouldn’t be for long. By the time they had put the fire out and gathered their horses he needed to be well away from the bridge. He pulled Sansun to a halt and clambered unsteadily into the saddle, still gasping for breath. Sansun waited until he was settled and then broke into a steady trot away from the bridge as quickly as he dared in the darkness.
As the false dawn started to light the sky to the east Jonderill pulled Sansun to a stop and slid wearily from the saddle. The early morning was chill and he shivered where the breeze blew against his bare legs. He was blackened with soot and smoke, hungry, thirsty and sore from his beating. Beside him Sansun’s head drooped with fatigue and steam rose from his heaving sides in the cold morning air.
“We need a bath and some food and some sleep, old friend.”
Jonderill stroked the horse’s nose and felt helpless. Anything of any use was gone; his saddlebags with his store of food and clean clothing, his coins, his letter of freedom, even Plantagenet’s old battered sword had been taken. All he had was his old grey robe, a horse and a saddle. He felt carefully under the saddle flap for the hidden cloth bag which held the torc and sighed with relief as he felt its familiar shape. At least they hadn’t found that, not that it was much use in their current situation. He looked at the lightening sky and realised that they’d been travelling in the wrong direction, away from Northshield and back towards Leersland. They needed to go back in the other direction but as he stood there he was sure he could hear the distant drumming of hooves and the shouts of mounted men.
They couldn’t go back the way they had come otherwise they would run into the guards and neither of them were in a fit condition to go forward at any speed to escape their pursuers. As he stood there trying to decide what to do, wisps of dawn mist, touched pink by the rising sun, curled around his ankles reminding him of how close they were to the river’s edge. The mist rose from it in a thick blanket spilling across its banks and obscuring the other side. He thought that the far bank had to be a long way across, possibly further than he had ever swum before, and he had no idea how strong the current would be but the sound of galloping horses was getting louder and he had run out of options.
Being as quiet as he could, he led Sansun to the river’s edge and tried to make out the other side. With any luck the riders would gallop past them in the mist and wouldn’t see them swimming across the river. Once the guards realised that they had lost their quarry they would have to back track and when they found where they had crossed the guards would probably not follow them across the water but go back to the bridge and cross there. By that time he would either be far away or drowned.
“I hope you can swim, old boy,” he said as he led his horse into the water, the mist swirling over them and hiding them from view.
The sun was well over the horizon by the time Sansun pulled him out of the water and onto the far bank. With the last of their strength they staggered a dozen paces up the steep bank and disappeared into a small coppice of silver bark which lined the river. It had taken them longer to cross the river than Jonderill had anticipated, the current having taken them half a morning’s walk further down the river from where they had entered the water and the mist was thinning rapidly. Above the mist the sun shone brightly and sky singers flew in circles calling to each other. Jonderill collapsed onto the loamy floor of the small wood and instantly fell asleep.
When he woke Sansun was contentedly cropping grass at the far edge of the coppice and his stomach rumbled noisily. At that moment he wished he could eat grass too. He stood up and walked over to the horse which looked no worse for his swim except that his mane was knotted and the saddle had slipped sideways and was sodden with river water. Jonderill removed the saddle and checked to make sure that the torc was still secure in its hiding place. The sweat and the dust which had marred Sansun’s silver coat had been washed away and, whilst he didn’t gleam, the horse looked reasonably well cared for. This was more than could be said for himself, looking like a beggar in the short grey robe and bare feet.
He pushed his fingers through his hair trying to undo the tangles and went in search of some food. In the bushes he could hear long eared hoppers moving about and he had seen their scat but he had nothing with which to catch them and not enough patience to make and set snares. He knew there would be fish in the river which he could catch but there might also be guardsmen watching the river bank for him so that wasn’t an option either. Instead he picked a few late berries and some fallen nuts that he’d found and settled on those. When he’d finished his meagre meal he headed back to his horse, retrieved the torc from the ruined saddle and together they set out for Wallmore.
Riding without a saddle was a new experience for him and before the sun had set his legs were sore from rubbing against Sansun’s hide. Everything else ached with the strain of staying balanced on the back of the horse without the aid of stirrups. When they crossed a small stream which meandered away into some woods he decided it was a good place to stop for the night. He brushed Sansun down as best as he could with handfuls of dried grass and then collected some deadwood and used elemental fire to set it alight. After that he dug up some flour roots and wild onions which he placed in the embers at the edge of the fire to cook for his dinner. They were a bit old and dry and would be tough to eat but they were better than nothing.
Whilst he was waiting for them to cook he found an old log and pushed it to the edge of the fire and sat with his arms wrapped around himself trying to keep warm in the chill night air. Painful memories of another night he had spent like this when he was a small boy and had just met Maladran passed through his mind. Despite what had happened he missed the black magician, in fact, he missed everyone and came to the conclusion that he didn’t like being alone.
The feeling left a hard lump in his throat and the thought of food turned his stomach so he slid off the log and curled up in its protection. He found himself listening for the calls of sly hunters but everything was silent except for the crackle of the fire and the scurrying of small animals in the bushes which faded away as he drifted off to sleep.
When the first light of morning touched the pale leaves of the white bark trees Jonderill had reached a decision. It was a day’s walk to Wallmore, most of it along the open road he had seen from a ridge the previous afternoon. He had learnt a lesson from his encounter with Northshield’s guards; a beggar riding a horse of Sansun’s quality was too conspicuous and was asking for trouble. It wasn’t that he thought the guards at the bridge would have made a report about a horse thief who had escaped them but, even so, one look at him and Sansun together would be enough to arouse the suspicions of most people.
It was far too dangerous to take the horse further and Sansun would be safe in the woods where there was plenty of food and water until he could return for him. He buried the torc in its black bag, explained his plan to the horse and then left him to walk away from the edge of the woods and across the fields towards Wallmore.
Jonderill had left the fields behind around noon and had joined the roadway concentrating hard on avoiding loose stones which would bruise his bare feet whilst at the same time watching the city becoming larger and larger as he drew closer. He had stopped twice on the road; once to drink at a roadside well and once to help a carter unload and then reload his wagon because a wheel spoke had been in need of repair. For that he had received two copper gellstart, a hunk of bread which was at least two days old and a much welcomed ride to the city gates. Now he stood in line with families and traders, journeymen and farmers, waiting to get through the main gates and into the city.
The walls of Wallmore were massive; nearly three times the height of a man and the depth of a horse and cart. Firing slits penetrated the wall at regular intervals and soldiers with bolt bows manned the ramparts. It was nothing like open and peaceful Alewinder. By the time he reached the gates it was almost dark and most of those who had been in the queue behind him had given up any hope of getting into the city before the gates closed and were setting up camp outside of the walls for the night. Four guards were already pushing the massive gates closed and another two stood ready to drop the locking bar in place as he squeezed through. They all scowled at him.
“Papers.” snapped an irritated guard as he walked up to Jonderill with his hand out.
Jonderill tried to look innocent. “I’ve lost them.”
The guard looked him up and down in disdain. “We don’t allow beggars into the city at night. You’ll have to go before I lock you up.”
“I’m not a beggar,” said Jonderill. “I’ve got money and I’ve come to work for someone in the city.”
“Prove it.” Jonderill pulled the two copper gellstart out of the pocket of his robe and held them out in the palm of his hand. “Now isn’t that a coincidence? Two copper gellstart is the tax for staying here overnight.” The guard held out his hand and Jonderill looked at him defiantly. “If you want to come into my city you pay what I say you will.” Jonderill sighed in resignation and reluctantly handed over the two coins.
“Now who is it you want to see?” asked the guard as he pocketed the coins.
“I’ve come to see Callabris, King Borman’s magician.”
The guard gave a bark of laughter and waved the other guards over. “This one says he’s come to see the white robe do some tricks. Well you’re out of luck mate, Callabris don’t mix with the likes of you and even if he did he’s gone and won’t be back for a season. You two, chuck him out.”
Two of the guards grabbed Jonderill’s arms and dragged him to a small gateway which another guard unlocked and held open. The guards pushed him roughly through the door and slammed it shut behind him cutting off the sounds of their laughter.
Jonderill stumbled on the roadway and fell to one knee grazing it and the palm of his hand on the gritty road surface. He swore to himself under his breath and slowly rose to his feet hoping that nobody around had seen his undignified exit from the city. On the trampled land around the main gate carters and merchants were setting up camp for the night. Those with hand carts and single pack animals had gathered in one area and already a communal fire had been lit.
There was the smell of cooking food in the air and, as he looked around, he could see people gathering around a large cauldron donating bits of meat or fresh vegetables to the communal pot. Others were unrolling bedrolls or heaping packs around the fire as the travellers staked out their claim to the best sleeping places for the night as close to the fire as they could get.
Beyond the communal fire the owners of the larger wagons and the caravan drivers were claiming their own space, parking wagons, seeing to their stock and lighting their own fires to cook their evening meal. If any had noticed Jonderill’s forced exit from the city they didn’t acknowledge it but carried on with their evening preparations as if it were a well ordered routine. Jonderill brushed the dirt and specks of blood from his knee and hands, looked towards the distant forest which was fading into the gloom and tried to decide if he could make it back to the forest edge before total darkness fell.
The distant call of a sly hunter answered by its mate helped to make his mind up and he turned away, making his way carefully to where the communal fire lit up the outside of the city walls. As he passed the small hand carts draped with waxed covers to protect their contents from the evening dew, the smell of hot food coming from the cauldron suspended over the fire made his stomach rumble and his mouth water. It had been so long since he had eaten anything except burnt flour roots and over baked wild onions that the smell of fresh mushrooms, spiced beans and yard birds cooking together in a thick stew made his head spin.
He made his way through the small crowd towards the edge of the fire where two women, dressed in brown dresses tied at the waist with rough hemp belts, were cooking flour cakes on a hot stone. The younger of the two, with her hair held back by a scarf made of the same material as her dress, deftly turned half cooked flour cakes on a hot stone with a flat, broad knife. The older woman, as thin as a pike staff and with a sour expression, flipped the flat cakes off the hot stone and onto a platter which she held out to the people as they passed, nodding to each one as they took the offered food.
Jonderill took his place in the line but when he reached the old woman she pulled the platter of hot flour cakes out of his reach. “Where’s yer bit?” Jonderill looked blank and the old woman sighed in irritation. “What yer put in the pot, boy?”
“Nothing,” muttered Jonderill.
“Where’s yer coin then?”
“I don’t have any.”
“Then bugger off, this aint no charity fer bleedin’ beggars.” She shoved Jonderill out of the way and offered the platter with its hot flour cakes to the next person in line.
Jonderill went to protest but looking down at his bare feet, legs covered in dirt and poorly fitting robe he realised that he must have looked and smelled like a street beggar. He walked away with as much dignity as he could muster and made his way to where the bigger wagons and caravans were parked for the night hoping that someone would take pity on him. A number of small fires had been lit and pots of stew hung over several of them.
Others were tended by men or women who pushed wrapped bundles into the ashes to cook and one fire had a spit on two iron posts over it on which a pond wader roasted, dripping sizzling fat into the fire. Everyone turned their backs on Jonderill as he passed by and ignored him except for one fat merchant huddled in a richly embroidered blanket and flanked by two armed guards. He followed Jonderill with his eyes as he passed and then spoke softly to the guard on his left.
Dejectedly, Jonderill walked to the edge of the camp and sat with his back propped up against a large everleaf; close enough to the camp to benefit from its protection but far enough away that the smell of hot food wasn’t a torment. It was a long time since he had been very hungry but he remembered the unpleasant feeling and the unhappy memories which went with it. He almost jumped when a tall figure coughed loudly beside him and he looked up to see one of the fat merchant’s guards standing next to him, relaxed but with his hand firmly on the hilt of his sword.
“My employer would like a word with you.”
Jonderill shrugged but didn’t move. “What does he want?”
It was the guard’s turn to shrug. “Don’t know, he don’t tell me his business but we’ve got a dozen wagons and not enough hands to manage the merchandise so perhaps he’s got a proposition for you.”
Jonderill looked across to where the caravan was parked well away from the others with its covered and guarded wagons. There seemed to him to be lots of people in the encampment, most of them armed. The camp’s fire was the largest he had seen and two huge cauldrons were suspended over it cooking more food than could be eaten by those he could see. The guard followed the direction of his gaze and gave a rough laugh.
“Stews about ready, could be that the merchant will exchange some of the surplus for a bit of hired help.”
His stomach rumbled again making his mind up for him. “Lead the way,” he said as he stumbled to his feet.
He followed the guard to the edge of the camp and then through the gap between two covered wagons grimacing at the smell of rotting flesh and animal waste as he passed by them into the light of the fire. The merchant sat in a portable chair as far away from the wagons as he could get. When Jonderill reached him the merchant looked him up and down with small beady eyes almost hidden in between heavy eyebrows and fat cheeks. He tapped a fat finger bedecked with rings against his painted lips and smiled. Instantly Jonderill knew he had made a mistake and took a step back into the guard behind him who gave him a shove forward closer to the merchant.
“Nice, very nice,” muttered the merchant. “Pity about the dirt but that’ll wash off. Is he alone?” The guard behind Jonderill gave a brief nod. “Good, I think I have a buyer in mind who would be pleased to purchase a strong young man.”
Realisation of what the smell had been from the wagons and what the merchant traded in suddenly hit Jonderill and he turned to run but the guard made a grab for him, catching his robe at the shoulder and at the same time hooking his bare feet from under him. Jonderill hit the ground hard and rolled, wrenching his robe from the guard’s grip and scrambling to his feet. Behind him another two armed men closed in blocking his exit.
He turned to face the new threat and in desperation threw two balls of flaming elemental fire at the approaching men. One of the guards knocked the ball away to one side with his sword but the other ball of flame hit the second man in his chest, igniting his tunic. The man screamed and rolled in the dirt to put the flames out and Jonderill took his opportunity in the confusion to run, but before he had taken two steps, a brilliant light and intense pain exploded in his head followed by total darkness.
Jonderill regained consciousness with a groan, his head throbbing in time to the beating of his heart. Wherever he was it was moving and his body and head was being jostled against a hard wooden floor. He came to the conclusion that he must be in one of the wagons he had seen in the merchant’s camp. When the wagon suddenly tipped into a pot hole his head banged sharply against the floor almost making him pass out again. His stomach roiled against the pain and the stench of the other bodies and their filth closely packed in the wagon. He tried to roll over and get to his knees, but his hands were firmly tied to rings in the floor so instead he turned his head to one side and vomited bile onto the wagon floor.
“Agh, puke, more stink,” croaked a voice next to him.
Jonderill turned his head away from the reek of his own vomit and tried to focus his blurred vision on the man who had spoken. “Where are we?”
“In Fubrig’s caravan on the way to Essenland’s silver mines, that’s if any of us live that long.” The speaker gave a hacking cough and spat red phlegm on the floor.
“But how? There’s no slavery in the six kingdoms.”
The man gave a cynical laugh. “Yer got anyone who’s goin’ to miss yer, boy? See, this is ‘ow Borman gets rid of those ‘e don’t want in ‘is kingdom; the ‘omeless and the beggars. ‘E sells them ter Fubrig and ‘e sells them to Essenland to work in their mines. Turns enough profit fer everyone ter turn a blind eye ter what’s goin’ on.”
“But King Porteous would never allow that to happen.”
“Where you been ‘iding mate? Porteous, the old windbag, don’t know owt about it, it’s that bastard Vorgret that does it an’ now that Porteous ‘as abdicated an’ Vorgret is king, there aint no stopping ‘im.”
Jonderill swallowed hard. It wasn’t the first time he had been sold but that had been as a stable hand and then a kitchen boy, being a slave and digging silver in a mine was a whole different matter. He lay back on the bouncing floor, closed his eyes and tried to think of a way out of his situation.
Without any warning he was thrown into the air and then sharply yanked back down again by the ropes around his hands which tethered him to the floor. Around him men screamed as they were thrown around from one wall to another as the wagon rolled drunkenly from side to side in its forward career over the rough roadway. The man he had been talking to was thrown into his side knocking the breath from him and then his legs were whipped away again as he lost his grip on the rings which secured Jonderill to the floor.
On the other side of the wagon there was a scream followed by a crack as another of the prisoners was thrown against the side of the wagon, his head hitting the rough metal side supports. Blood sprayed across Jonderill’s face mixed with the loose effluent which coated the wagon floor.
Jonderill tried to roll away but as he did so his world turned upside down. His body hit the wooden sides of the wagon with a thud that sent spikes of pain through every part of him and then he was yanked downwards with his feet scraping the top corner of the wagon until he was standing on the ceiling with his arms twisted behind his back and anchored to the floor above him. He balanced on his toes as the wagon swayed and settled knowing that his slightest move would break his arms or dislocate them from his shoulders.
An eerie silence settled over the wagon with only the occasional cough or groan to show that there were others still alive around him. Outside of his upside down world there were the distant sounds of clashing steel and the shouts of fighting which faded away into silence.
He really needed to relieve the pressure on his arms and toes but dared not move. Instead he took a deep breath and shouted for help but the rasping croak which was all he could manage was barely loud enough to echo around the wagon. He spat out the blood in his mouth where he’d bitten his tongue and tried again but the cry was still not loud enough to carry beyond the wagon doors. Flickering lights started to dance in front of his eyes and the edges of his vision darkened. Close to passing out he closed his eyes searching for a focus and with the last of his fading energy screamed out for help in his mind.
With his arms being slowly pulled from their sockets he balanced on his toes and fought to remain conscious. Next to him the man who had spoken to him groaned and cursed whilst someone at the far end of the wagon muttered a prayer to some unknown god. Above the noise he was sure he could hear the sound of running footsteps and shouted commands. He held on grimly as the rear door of the wagon was wrenched off its hinges and lantern light flooded the interior of the wagon. Men cursed and pleaded and wept as they were helped from the wagon and Jonderill collapsed gratefully into someone’s arms, moments before he would have passed out, as the ropes which bound his wrists to the rings in the ceiling were cut.
Jonderill woke to dappled sunlight playing across his face and an ache in his body as if he had been trampled by a herd of horses. He vaguely remembered being lifted from the overturned wagon and being given something sweet to drink, but after that, there seemed to be nothing. He opened his eyes slowly trying to work out where he was but from his position on the ground, all he could see were tufts of grass and the blurred shapes of people moving around him.
The odd angle made him feel dizzy so he closed his eyes again and listened to the sounds of a large camp. Men talked and called to each other and, somewhere to the right, he could hear horses move as they stood at a picket line. Closer by, a fire crackled, and he could feel the warmth of its flames on his back and the tantalising smell of food cooking on it.
The smell of hot oats and fresh bread made him realise how hungry he was, but more than that, it struck him that he could no longer smell himself; the smell of soot in his hair and the stench that had surrounded him in the wagon had gone. He opened his eyes again and started to mentally check his body for damage which, surprisingly, was very little. Beneath the blanket he was naked except for a cloth around his loins and two strips of linen around his wrists which gave off a vaguely herbal smell. Whoever had rescued him had gone to the trouble of bathing him as well, and apart from the aches and a few minor scrapes which had been covered in balm, he felt remarkably well.
“Good morning, you’re awake at last.”
With considerable effort and a muffled groan as his shoulders protested, Jonderill heaved himself into a sitting position clutching the blanket around him against the morning chill. In front of him stood a man with dark eyes and long dark hair pulled back and tied with a leather thong. He was older than Jonderill and had the build and stance of a warrior. The man was unarmed except for a baldric of small throwing knives across his chest but his clothes showed the marks where armour had recently been fitted. He smiled at Jonderill and held out a bundle of clothing and some boots. Jonderill had the feeling he had seen him somewhere before but couldn’t place him.
“These are for you. We’ve washed your robe which is still drying but, in any case, I think you will probably be more comfortable travelling in these.” He put the clothes and the boots next to where Jonderill sat. “When you’re ready come to the fire and eat.”
The man turned away and went back to the fire where a group of men were gathering around a large pot of food. Jonderill recognised the slave from the wagon who had spoken to him and was pleased that he had survived. Some of the others had clearly been the occupants of the other wagons by the way they were wolfing the food down, but most were young men dressed in grey uniforms who reminded him of his friend Barrin.
He dropped the blanket, pulled the soft green shirt over his head and then stood to pull on the slightly too large breaches which he fastened with a finely tooled leather belt. The leather jerkin and boots which had been left for him were made of good quality leather with fine stitching, and Jonderill smiled to himself at the absence of a sword. Clearly his rescuers were happy to clothe him, but giving him a weapon was another thing entirely. He walked to where his rescuer sat on a log by the fire, two bowls of hot oats dotted with the crispy rashers he’d smelled cooking and a pile of hot flatbread already waiting by his side.
“Thank you,” said Jonderill as he took the proffered bowl and sat. He slowly scooped the hot food into his mouth with the flatbread being careful not to eat too fast despite his hunger. The food was a delight and neither spoke whilst they downed the first bowl. Before he had quite finished a young man took the bowls away and replaced his with another bowl of oats, this time flavoured with a dollop of honey. The man bowed to them both before returning to the others around the fire.
“Thank you for rescuing me,” began Jonderill once the edge of his hunger had been sated. “I thought I was going to die in there.” He shuddered at the memory of what had happened. “Who were they and who are you?”
“So many questions!” the man smiled at Jonderill. “Fubrig was a slaver, not an official one mind you; slavery is frowned upon in the six kingdoms. He traded in men and sometimes women who were homeless and wouldn’t be missed and for a price relocated them to places where their labour and eventually their lives were stolen from them. He won’t be doing that again.”
“You killed him?”
“Yes and his cronies; they won’t trouble the roads anymore.”
“Is that what you do, stop slavery and the like?”
“No, although having seen the misery which Fubrig’s trade causes I almost wish it was my job. No, this was something special. I was sent to find you and to bring you into the safety of the goddess’s temple before your ignorance got you killed.”
Jonderill looked surprised and put his unfinished breakfast on the ground. “I don’t understand. Who are you?”
“We have met briefly before. My name is Allowyn and I am Callabris’s protector. My master is away in Tarbis at King Borman’s command and I have been using the time to visit Federa’s temple and renew my vows. It was the Goddess’s servants who sent me to find you.”
“I remember you now. You were at my apprentice day testing.” Jonderill reddened slightly at the embarrassing memory. “How did you know I was in trouble?”
“I didn’t but the Goddess did. She told her servant, the High Master, that it was time for you to discover your true calling and so they sent me and these armsmen to find you. Tomorrow, after you have rested and eaten your fill, we’ll leave for the Enclave and the goddess’s temple.”
“And what if I don’t want to?” asked Jonderill hesitantly.
Allowyn raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You misunderstand. You don’t have any choice in the matter; you belong to Federa now.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He stood in front of the full length mirror and studied the figure looking back at him. It wasn’t the first time he’d done that but today was different, today a king stood in front of the mirror and instead of the king’s heir, the new ruler of Essenland looked back at him. Apart from the crown nothing much else had changed though. He was still shorter than average with thick arms, hands and legs. His neck was still too short and so thick that there seemed to be no distance between his heavy shoulders and his jutting, square jaw. His skin was still pock-marked from the red plague which had almost taken his early life and his nose was still nearly flat from a mistimed sword stroke by a guard who later died as a slave in his silver mines.
What made all the difference was the crown he wore on his head. He might not have the lean body and type of looks his brother had, which made women lust after him, but he too had enough bastards to populate a small town. Laughing to himself he smiled at his reflection and decided that whilst he didn’t have his father’s ingratiating smile or diplomatic skills, nobody would dare ignore his demands. Like his mother before him, what he lacked in looks and grace he made up for in a belligerence and dogged determination that neither Porteous nor Pellum could ever rival.
Vorgret turned to present his other profile to the mirror, the one where a puckered scar ran from his ear to his chin and caught sight of the reflection of his father standing behind him. He still burnt with anger whenever he thought of how his father had always dismissed him in favour of his younger brother. As usual his father wrung his hands and grinned like a boy who had won a treenut competition. Porteous, Steppen and Hormand had ruled half of the six kingdoms with a soft skin glove, allowing the peasants to do as they wished, but now it was his turn. He would show them all that he wasn’t the compliant idiot they all thought him to be. Readjusting the crown on his head so it sat straighter and further forward he smiled at his father’s refection.
“Ah, my boy, the crown looks good on you but never forget it’s only a bit of metal. What’s really important is the way your people see you and the love that your people have for you. If you can keep a kingdom peaceful and prosperous as Steppen and I have done since before you were born then you will truly be a great king.” Porteous hesitated for a moment when his son didn’t respond; it was such a pity that Vorgret was his eldest child; Pellum would have made a much better king. “I know it will be difficult for you to understand everything that you are supposed to do as king but don’t worry, I will always be here to advise you.”
Vorgret swiped the crown from his head and threw it onto the table with a clatter before turning on his father. He took a threatening step forward. “You are a stupid, old fool. Do you think that doing nothing except fucking the wife of your best friend is the way to secure a kingdom? Don’t think for one moment that I don’t know that Daun’s my half sister and that you made sure that your son married her so that the two kingdoms would be joined by blood.
“Well, listen to me, I’m not like Pellum; there’s no way I am going to fuck my own sister to secure my throne. If it wasn’t for me there would be no bloody throne. You used the kingdom’s wealth to make your life easy and the people happy but without me and my mines and the slaves I own, you, my prick of a brother and the happy peasants would be nothing. Now that you’ve gone I’m going to have everything. I’m going to be a real king and people are going to do what I say. I’m going to take the power of Federa’s servants and make it work for me. I’m going to take the Western kingdoms including that of my bastard sister and make them my own and I am going to do all of this without you or your advice or even your presence.”
Porteous stared at him in utter shock and disbelief.
“Guards. Take this bag of ancient bones and blubber and dump it outside of Essenland’s borders with a grey plodder, a bag of scraps and six silver gellstart. If he tries to return across the borders of my kingdom I will pay an equal bounty for his head.”
Porteous made to protest but four guards in his son’s new, black livery had already surrounded him and were bundling him out of the audience chamber before he could recover from the shock. Vorgret picked up the crown from the table and placed it back on his head before once again contemplating his reflection in the mirror. Yes, he thought, they all believed he was some sort of idiot to be confined in the north and away from court, but he had his own court with his own guards and his own followers.
Whilst his father and his pathetic brother had been bowing and scraping to Vinmore and the rest of the Western kingdoms, he had been creating the wealth which would make the other kingdoms grovel at his feet. He despised them for their weakness as much as they mocked him for being the heir that his father didn’t want, but he would show them. Sarrat had turned Leersland into a powerful kingdom and he had everything that Sarrat had and more besides. He looked again into the mirror and smiled in satisfaction as a dark figure reflected back from behind him.
“Ah, Sadrin, the black suits you as I said it would.”
The young magician stepped forward, his robes almost black except for the fleeting grey shadows which swirled around him like a maiden with her first ball gown. “Your Majesty,” he said, tasting the words on his tongue to see how they fit. “Your Majesty, the kingdom is yours and I am your loyal servant.”
“Yes, I know you are and together we will be great, far greater than even Sarrat and Maladran are. However, before we can show the rest of the six kingdoms just how great we can be, we need to turn this kingdom’s greedy nobility and lazy peasants into productive workers and obedient soldiers, willing to die for their king when asked. For that we will need a change in attitude and coin, lots of coin. To get that coin we need men with special skills and in the same way as I have chosen you and have nurtured your skills, I have been developing others to rise to the challenges before us. Are my guests waiting outside?”
“Yes, My Lord, and I assume by the way they are snarling at each other they are strangers and have not met before.
“Yes, that is so, so this should be interesting. Show them in.”
Sadrin walked to the plain door of the audience chamber and opened it. He beckoned the three men in whilst Vorgret took an ornately carved ebon seat with deep red cushions on a raised dais where he could look down on people but still see his reflection in the mirror. The three men lined up in front of him with Sadrin slightly behind them and all four gave brief bows.
“Kneel before your king,” commanded Sadrin, seeing a scowl cross Vorgret’s face at their lack of respect. Two responded immediately but the third hesitated until a blow from behind knocked him to the floor.
“Thank you, Sadrin, it was so good of you to remind my guests of their manners. Now gentlemen you may rise.” The three men stood and the one who had been knocked to the ground by the magician’s spell looked over his shoulder and glowered at him before returning his attention to the king.
“As my black magician has announced, I am now King of Essenland and it is time that the three of you repaid the investment I have made, in making your life more comfortable than you deserve and developing your individual talents. If you work hard you will all be very rich men with enough land, slaves and whores to keep you happy for the rest of your lives. On the other hand if you disappoint me or even dare to think that you would like to sit in this chair with a crown on your head, Sadrin will burn you alive from the inside out. Do I make myself clear?”
The three men nodded.
“Captain Bant.” The man on the left in the black uniform came to attention and saluted. Even without a sword at his side he looked dangerous; massively built with the scars on his arms and hands gained from a life as a mercenary. The calluses around his wrists identified him as a onetime slave.
“You will take command of my army. Take your men and dispose of the high command starting with Commander Stanis who was a favourite of my father. Make sure their heads are on pikes outside each barracks before the guards parade in the morning. When the first man complains I want the men in that unit decimated, messily, and then work the rest until they drop. If there is any dissent after that, execute the dissenter and his family. Once you have their loyalty you are to train them to be real soldiers in your image, not the dressed up fops my father allowed.”
Bant gave a sadistic grin and saluted again.
“Quim, you are my tax collector. You will go to every dwelling in the city, starting with the nobility, and assess their wealth. I want half of it as a first payment by the time the next moon is full and, as from now, all their warehouses and their contents belong to the crown. When you have finished with the city you will move into the towns and do the same with the merchants. Whilst you are doing that you will send your men into the villages to deal with the peasantry. You may dispose of anyone who objects unless they have any worth as slaves.
Quim, tall and thin with sharp, pointed features and a scraggly beard on the end of his chin, bowed. He too had slave marks on his wrists. The third man, even more massively built than Bant with a patch over one eye under which an angry scar ran from hairline to ear looked eagerly at his king.
“Dorba, you’re my enforcer. You and your thugs go with Quim and make sure my decree is put in force. By the time you leave the city I want half the male population to have been conscripted into the army and any dissenters sent to the mines.”
Dorba grinned and slapped Quim on the back almost knocking him over.
“Well, what are you waiting for? You have your orders now get going! I want this kingdom changed and ready to go to war by the end of next winter.” The three men saluted and left.
“What task do you have for me My Lord?” asked Sadrin who had stood by without saying a word.
Vorgret stood and walked back to the mirror where he readjusted the crown which had slipped slightly. Behind him, reflected in the mirror, he could see Sadrin studying him closely. He looked too young to have so much power: young and innocent. The magician was young and naïve but he would change all that. The slave girl he had given him, a gift from Borman, would be able to teach him what he should know and when she’d finished with him there would be others who would develop his skills.
“Your job is simple, Sadrin, you protect me. You protect me from the army, the nobility and most of all, you protect me from those three thugs. When I need to teach them a lesson you will provide a display of power that will convince them that I am unassailable and when I no longer need their particular talents you will kill them.”
“And in return?”
“Don’t be greedy, magician. Being alive and serving me should be sufficient reward. However, when I’m king of all the Western kingdoms, I will do as I promised and make you High Master of Federa’s Enclave, then you can take your revenge on all those who mocked you and ignored your talent.”
“Put more wood on that damned fire!” snapped Borman, pulling his thick cloak around him and staring morosely into the flames. Rastor stepped forward from where he’d been waiting at the far side of the ornamental stone hearth and jammed another cut log into the already crowded grate. For a moment sparks shot upwards and flames licked around the edges of the smouldering logs then everything settled back to how it had been before; glowing embers and grey smoke. Rastor refilled his king’s goblet with cold red wine and returned to his place by the hearth.
“I hate this place,” grumbled Borman. He took a swig of the red wine, pulled a sour face and thumped the goblet back onto the table. Red wine sloshed over the side and pooled around the goblet’s base.
“It’s cold and miserable and full of peasants and fishermen. I should have let the northern raiders have the land and be done with it, but instead I ride north with my army and play the hero. And what have I to show for it? Half the army with holes in them or worse, the other half down with the flux and me stuck here freezing my balls off.”
Rastor tried hard to keep the smile off his face but it was difficult. He had served Borman as his Guardcaptain for fifteen summers and knew all his moods. This one would pass quickly if he could find his master the right sort of distraction.
“The men will recover, My Lord and the lords of the north were extremely grateful for your intervention. Without you coming to their aid they would have lost their homes and their lands. As it is, only the coastal lords lost anything and most of that can be rebuilt using the wealth we took from the north men’s boats. And then there are the slaves we have taken. They have been particularly useful in raising the men’s spirits.”
Borman looked up and Rastor gave him a wolfish grin. “You have tried one?”
“Several, My Lord. They fight like demons but we have them chained so their claws can’t reach you but they do grunt and squirm as you plough them. Perhaps my lord would like to take his pleasure with one or two?” Borman shook his head and took a gulp of wine, grimacing at the acid taste. “There are a few boys worth having as well if you would prefer, My Lord. They’re not virgins any more but some are still tight enough to make the experience worthwhile.”
“No, Rastor, I’m not in the mood tonight for such pleasures. No, what I need is news. Is there no word from Callabris?”
“No, My Lord. We escorted him as far as the border of Tarbis and then left him there. His protector has returned to the Enclave and as far as I know he’s still there.”
Borman scowled and stared thoughtfully into the fire. “I shouldn’t have separated them. Callabris is too vulnerable to be without his protector and if anything should happen to Callabris I will be at a disadvantage. What I need is another magician; a black would be good but failing that another white who knows how to look after himself and has more ambition than Callabris and has less scruples.
“I wonder if there’s any more news of that boy we watched in Vinmore? Callabris was very taken with him and thought he had potential. That was some years back so he must have improved by now. Perhaps I should take a trip to the Enclave whilst I’m in the north and talk to the High Master and even sample some of the delights that the acolytes offer to important visitors.”
“Travelling through Essenland uninvited may be more difficult now that Vorgret is king,” suggested Rastor. “I hear that he has posted more men on his borders and that anyone who travels through his kingdom without his permission is taken for ransom or to work in his silver mines.”
“Don’t be so stupid. He’s hardly going to attack the king of Northshield on the way to worship at the goddess’s temple is he? Yes, that would get me out of this dreary hole and if the boy is there I could purchase him. With a magician like that at my command I could move into any of the six kingdoms any time I pleased. Even Sandstrone would fall before me. Talking of Sandstrone, has there been any news of my cousin?”
“None as yet, My Lord. The girl has been sent to Vorgret to serve his needs and I have returned Prince Iselin’s remains after my men had finished playing with him. It wasn’t a pretty sight so I expect Tallison will take his revenge out on Rothers and will return him in pieces at some time in the future. It’s a pity about Rothers though; he made a good body servant and he was the nearest thing you have to a successor.”
Rastor took a deep breath. This wasn’t the best time to talk about the succession but as he had raised the subject and had not been instantly dismissed he decided to continue. “Your Majesty, some of the lords have been talking amongst themselves and they are really concerned about the succession and what will happen to Northshield if you have no son to follow you.” He waited for the usual explosion of anger when the succession was mentioned but only received an irritated grunt. “Some of the lords say that you should name a successor and take them into your confidence just in case.”
“I bet they do,” snapped Borman. “What do you think would happen if I raised one of them up to be my heir?”
Rastor thought about it for a moment. “I suppose the others would be a bit put out.”
“You’re damned well right they would be put out. They would gang up in little factions and before I knew it, I would have a civil war on my hands with me in the centre of it. They’re like a pack of hounds; give them nothing and they lick your hands in supplication, give them a bone and all hellden breaks out.”
“I never thought of it like that.”
“No, I don’t suppose you did think.”
“Well, what about taking a wife? Lord Drest’s daughter’s a pretty thing and Lord Tooley’s eldest is quite charming.”
“One’s hardly out of nappies and the other’s as fat as a grunter,” muttered Borman disdainfully.
Rastor continued despite his master’s acerbic comments. “Then there’s Lord Sullin’s youngest; she’s not married and I hear that she is quite something in bed.”
“They are all ugly, fat or sluts and none of them are worthy to be my queen.” He sighed in frustration. “The problem is that not one of the six kings has bothered to sire a female heir with the exception of Steppen and the Princess Daun but she’s married to that idiot boy, Pellum.”
“She’s a queen now that Steppen has abdicated.” Borman glowered at him but Rastor continued regardless. “Perhaps when you’ve taken Vinmore and got rid of Pellum you could marry her. I bet with her tits and long legs to push apart she’d be a great fuck.”
“Enough!” screamed Borman. “Get out!”
He threw his half full goblet of wine at the wall where Rastor had stood moments before. The silver goblet bounced from the wall splashing the contents across the cream stone like droplets of blood. The door closed loudly behind him and he looked for something else to throw, but as there was nothing to hand he kicked the smouldering logs with the sole of his boot heel sending sparks flying upwards.
If there was one thing he hated it was Rastor’s crudeness and lack of insight, but he was right of course; Daun was the only real option and it would make his conquest of Vinmore just that bit more palatable to that country’s inhabitants if he married her and she gave him a son. A hesitant knock came at the door and he scowled as Rastor poked his head around the edge of the door.
“My Lord,” said Rastor quickly before Borman had a chance to shout or throw something else at him. “My Lord, there is a messenger just arrived for you from Captain Malingar.”
“At last. Show him in.”
Rastor opened the door wide and ushered a man in mismatched clothing forward. He followed him into the room and closed the door behind whilst the messenger went down on one knee and bowed his head waiting for permission to speak. Borman vaguely recalled the man as one of his veterans and one of those who had been chosen to serve with Malingar to make sure he remained loyal and wasn’t tempted to branch out on his own. He felt irritated that the man was here instead of watching Malingar for signs of treachery but clearly the man had ridden hard for many days; his clothes were splattered with mud and his face was grey and lined with exhaustion.
Borman nudged him with the toe of his boot. “Well?”
“Your Majesty, Captain Malingar sends his compliments and begs to report that King Sarrat has repelled Tallison’s nomads from Leersland at considerable cost to his army but with minimal loss to those you sent to assist him. Captain Malingar reports that he has returned to Tarmin and, as you ordered, has made contact with the rebels and awaits King Sarrat’s return.”
“I don’t know, Your Majesty, the captain doesn’t share his plans with his men but we have been told to treat King Sarrat’s returning army as our brothers in arms.”
“Good. Rastor, what do you think? You know Malingar better than me.”
“I would say he’s doing just what you commanded him to do by keeping Sarrat sweet and staying in his good books until you’re ready to move. If he can hand the rebels over to Sarrat when he returns that will get Malingar close to the king. It’s a pity that the rebel leader will have to be handed over though, I met her when I was delivering your gold to support her cause and she is something quite special. She’s meant to be King Malute’s daughter you know.”
Borman raised an eyebrow and looked questioningly at the messenger. “I believe so, Your Majesty, although I haven’t seen her myself.”
“It’s a pity Sarrat won’t appreciate her,” put in Rastor with a wolfish grin.
“It can’t be helped.” Borman poured himself another goblet of wine and stared thoughtfully into its depths. “When you’re rested you are to return to the captain and tell him to continue ingratiating himself with Sarrat until I tell him otherwise. And tell him to keep the girl from harm if he can.”
The messenger stood and bowed and then left the room as Rastor opened the door for him. He closed the door again and turned back to the king with a smile on his face.
“Take that stupid smirk off your face, this is business not pleasure. Now get those who are fit to travel ready to move. We leave in the morning for Wallmore and the rest can follow when they are able.”
“Yes, My Lord, and perhaps some entertainment?”
Borman scowled at the suggestion but then thought about it. No, I will leave the prisoners to you but do ask Lord Sullen’s daughter if she would care to join me for a nightcap.
Tarraquin looked at the smudged plan drawn on the back of an old shirt in charcoal and frowned. “I can’t make head or tail of this,” she grumbled. “It looks like a tangle of dirt crawlers have squirmed across it with dirty feet and have left muddy prints behind. It could be anywhere.”
Across the table propped up in a padded chair Jarrul studied the upside down plan trying to make out which lines represented the outside walls of the fortress and which were the corridors and rooms. He’d been a huntsman all his life and could follow the faintest of animal tracks through any kind of forest, but reading a plan, particularly such a rough one as the one on the table, was beyond him.
The other problem was that his heart wasn’t in it. The last time they had tried to get into Sarrat’s fortress it had ended in disaster. Half of the rebel force had been killed in the streets when Lord Tulreth had betrayed them and they had been the lucky ones. He and twelve companions had been captured and taken to Maladran’s tower where they had been turned into stone monsters and he had been tortured. If it hadn’t been for Jonderill rescuing him he would have died there.
He looked down at his bandaged hands and wrists and moved uncomfortably in his chair. The healer said he would recover despite being half a hand span taller than before he had became Maladran’s reluctant guest. It was unlikely that he would ever have the strength to draw a bow again, or the ability to creep quietly through the forest. Sometimes he wondered if putting Tarraquin on the throne of Leersland would be worth all the pain and death that had gone before. He would do almost anything for the woman he secretly adored but the thought of trying to get into the fortress again terrified him.
“What we need is someone who has worked inside the fortress and knows the passages and the way to the throne room. If they worked with my man Tordray, who is good with maps and plans, they could come up with something which would make more sense than this thing.”
Jarrul looked up at the man who had spoken as he leaned over Tarraquin’s shoulder and pointed at the plan on the table. He was tall with dark hair and dark eyes and at that moment his body was pressed against Tarraquin’s side and his lips were far too close to her ear for his liking. It wasn’t that he disliked Malingar, he just didn’t trust him. Until recently he’d been fighting the nomads on the border with Sandstrone alongside Sarrat and here he was plotting with the rebels to overthrow the very same king. It didn’t make sense. Why would a mercenary with nearly five hundred men to arm and feed change sides and align themselves with a coinless rebel?
He’d asked Malingar that question and had been told it was because he didn’t like Sarrat and his men preferred to support a just cause, but he didn’t believe that. Unfortunately Tarraquin did believe him, either because she was desperate for some support or possibly she was in love with the mercenary. Jarrul turned away as Tarraquin gave the Captain a broad smile.
“That’s a good idea. Perro here used to be a servant in the fortress when my father was king. Whilst they work on turning this into something useable we can move onto more important matters.”
She turned away from the table leaving Tordray and Perro pouring over the map and strolled across to the four comfortable chairs pulled up either side of the hearth. A small fire burnt in the grate and she put on an extra log on the fire before settling herself into one of the chairs. Malingar moved to the dresser and poured two goblets of wine, handing her one before taking the seat opposite her.
“It was a good idea of yours to move into this inn, it’s much more convenient than the camp in the forest, not to mention more comfortable.”
Tarraquin shrugged. “We were lucky to find a sympathiser in Tarmin who owned such a place and could be persuaded to take the risk helping us.”
Malingar laughed. “The promise of a rich reward and a knighthood from the future queen is always very persuasive. It’s not just the improved comfort which makes this such a good place to be though; it means that we have better access to information about Sarrat’s movements.”
“Has there been any news?” asked Tarraquin anxiously.
“No, nothing’s changed. When my men and I left Sarrat and his army, they were still pushing the last of the nomads across the border. Prince Kremin was Sarrat’s prisoner and without him the nomads are leaderless and more or less defeated, so there was no point in me and my lads hanging around any longer. If everything goes as it should, it will be at least two moon cycles before he returns to Tarmin, by which time, you will be sitting on the throne of Leersland and the people will be firmly behind you.”
“I wish I could be sure.”
“Don’t worry. When we are ready to move a squad of my men, supported by the remainder of your rebels, will take out the guards in the fortress, there’s not many of them anyway. The rest of my men will enter the city under Captain Dandon and will secure the barracks and city walls. If there is any opposition they will deal with it. By the time Sarrat arrives Tarmin will be firmly in our control.”
“What about the men Sarrat brings back from the border war with him?” she asked. “Won’t there be enough of them to retake the fortress?”
“From what I’ve seen of them they are a rag tag lot. In any case they are going to be fewer in number than when they left Tarmin and weary from fighting the nomads for so long. If Sarrat wants to fight a battle outside of Tarmin’s walls, then it could be a close run thing, but with the city behind us I suspect most of the lords and their retainers will just drift away and leave him to it.”
“And what if they don’t?” asked Jarrul as he hobbled towards the fire supported by one of the rebels. He dropped gratefully into the chair next to Tarraquin.
“Well that depends a lot on you, doesn’t it?” snapped Malingar. “If you’ve done your job properly and have roused the city in support of their rightful queen there won’t be a problem. All those soldiers sitting behind Sarrat will have family and friends in Tarmin and they won’t want to fight and perhaps kill them, especially once they know that Tarraquin is King Malute’s rightful heir.”
“That’s all under control, isn’t it Jarrul?” asked Tarraquin.
“Our friends are talking quietly to all those who count and Tavlon is travelling the inns in the city with his ballad about the true heir returning to Leersland but if we are not to alert those who are loyal to Sarrat, or the royal guard, we have to be careful. It takes time to start a rebellion and overthrow a tyrant.”
“Time is something we don’t have much of.” snapped Malingar.
“That’s enough.” put in Tarraquin. “It doesn’t help to have the two of you squabbling all the time.”
“Even if the returning army doesn’t support him,” said Jarrul, ignoring Tarraquin’s admonishment, “Sarrat could still go to the Great Lords and raise an army from amongst their retainers.”
Tarraquin gave a cynical laugh. “If I know the Great Lords as well as I think I do they would rather cut Sarrat’s throat than help him to keep his throne. No, the Great Lords are not a problem; they have no power left and will sit on the side lines and do nothing.” She looked up as Tordray and Perro approached carrying a roll of parchment and looking pleased with themselves.
“Your Highness, Captain Malingar sir, I think we’ve found it.” They unrolled the parchment and propped it up on the spare chair. “It’s here,” said Tordray pointing to a thick black line which ran around the edge of the plan. “The track is outside the city walls not inside as we thought.” Tarraquin and Malingar leaned over to get a better view. “This is the entrance which is hidden by a gully so that it cannot be seen by the guards on the city wall. It leads to a passageway that runs inside the wall until it connects with the wall of the fortress just here.”
Perro nodded excitedly. “We always wondered why the two walls met at that spot and nowhere else.”
Tordray continued. “There is another passageway along the inside of the keep and two exits. It looks like one opens onto the courtyard behind this building and the other opens out into the throne room, either behind the throne or a bit further down.”
“The throne room entrance must be hidden by a tapestry and the other comes out behind some drapes and supporting pillars.” concluded Perro triumphantly. “It looks like the passageways are only wide enough for one person to walk at a time, but it means that we should be able to get into the fortress and the throne room without being seen.”
“Are you sure of this?” questioned Tarraquin. “I wish Jonderill were here so he could confirm it.”
“We are sure this is the way Maladran gets into the fortress without being seen,” said Perro firmly.
“If Maladran used the passageway it might be protected by magic.”
“I think I know someone who will be able to help with that.” They all looked at Malingar questioningly.
“And will your friend be able to help with Maladran when Sarrat sets him loose on us? I’ve seen firsthand what that black-hearted bastard can do with his dark magic,” said Jarrul bitterly. “If we can’t deal with Maladran, then none of this will work.”
Malingar started to respond but was stopped by the sound of shouting and boots pounding up the wooden stairs. He drew his sword and pushed Tarraquin behind him just as the door burst open. Captain Dandon rushed in flanked by two of his squad; all three had been riding hard and were covered in dust.
Dandon saluted briefly. “Captain, Your Highness. Sarrat has left the border and is on his way back to Tarmin in a hurry. He’s a day or two at the most behind us.”
“That’s it then.” Malingar sheathed his sword and took Tarraquin’s hands in his own. “We move now or not at all. Tomorrow, Your Highness, you will sit in your rightful place on the throne of Leersland.”
“Or we’ll all be dead.” muttered Jarrul under his breath.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The smell of roasting forest runner broke into his dream, out of place in the solitary darkness of a cold cell where he was chained to the wall. He licked his lips which should have been dried and cracked from being a prisoner for so long but instead they were moist and his mouth watered at the promise of food. At least his hunger made sense and his stomach tightened with the need to eat. He strained against the chains which held him and rolled onto his side as the iron manacles from his dream disintegrated and his nightmare dispersed like morning mist.
Unfortunately the ache in his back and shoulders was real enough but when he opened his eyes, speckled sunlight filtering through the everleafs lit up a large clearing alive with sounds and smells and activity. Jonderill blinked away the confusion and slowly sat up, ignoring the complaints of aching muscles and bruised flesh. He struggled to dispel the last remnants of his unpleasant dream, which still played at the edges of his mind, but the bustle of the campsite was pushing it further away.
The smell of roasting meat was coming from the fire at the centre of the camp, where two men in grey livery attended to a spit which held the carcass of the small forest runner. They took turns turning the spit and basting the meat with the contents of a small skin which made the fire spit and crackle as the surplus fell on it. On the other side of the fire another man in the same livery threw a handful of dried leaves into a pot of steaming water, stirring it gently. Beyond the fire a group of men with rolled up shirt sleeves brushed the coats of the horses or combed out manes and tails whilst one worked his way along the string of horses checking legs and hooves.
To Jonderill there seemed to be less horses there than there had been the night before, but as his recollection was a bit hazy he couldn’t be sure. A clash of weapons from the other direction made him start and he turned to watch six lightly armoured men face off in pairs going through the movements which the Cadetmaster had taught him and which once had been so familiar. They were good, very good, and he could almost hear Swordmaster Dilor calling out the moves. Instead Allowyn, minus his bronze armour and formidable array of weapons, called out corrections as the moves were repeated again and again.
Jonderill pulled himself to his feet, rolled up the blanket with which someone had thoughtfully covered him and took it to the neat mound of blankets stacked under a waterproof covering. His new shirt and breaches were crumpled from having slept in them, but apart from that and his stiff muscles, he felt better than he had done for several days. He picked his way over to the fire and took the proffered bowl of herb tea from the man by the cauldron. It was hot and bitter and hit the back of his throat like grain spirit, but by the time he had finished the bowlful, his head was clear of sleep and the echoes of his dream had disappeared.
Seeing Jonderill awake, Allowyn dismissed his men and joined him by the fire. “Good evening, I hope you are feeling better?”
Jonderill looked a bit sheepish. “Yes I am thank you. I’m sorry; I don’t usually fall asleep straight after breakfast, I don’t know what came over me.”
“Don’t think anything of it; it wasn’t your fault anyway. Dozo put a sleeping draft in your second bowl of oats. You needed the rest and some time to recover from the beating you’d taken.” Jonderill looked suspiciously down at the dregs of his herb tea and Allowyn laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s not something Dozo does often but as well as being our cook he’s also our healer. He would have asked your permission if he thought you would have given it so instead he asked me. I hope you will forgive us this once, I promise I won’t let him do it to you again.”
Jonderill nodded and smiled. “Do you always ride with a healer?”
“No, only when I’m on Federa’s business, then I take men with as many different skills as possible as I never know quite what we’ll run up against.”
Jonderill looked around the camp. “Where are the rest of your men and the others you rescued from the slaver?”
“All those we rescued were asked if they wished to join us at the goddess’s Enclave, but no one volunteered, very few do. So some of my men have taken them in a wagon to Vinmore where they will be safe. The rest of my men are either on patrol, on fatigues or are on an errand for me. We will stay here until they return.”
He took Jonderill’s empty bowl from his hand, refilled it and led the way to the log they had shared at breakfast that morning. “Jonderill? That sounds Esslandian, is that where you’re from?”
Jonderill shrugged. “I don’t know but it is unlikely; it’s the name that was given to me when I was a kingsward in Leersland. As far as I know I’ve never been to Essenland or anywhere apart from Vinmore, although I did set out to go to Tarbis once as I wanted to see the great ocean, but I never got that far.”
“Some people I knew in Vinmore had a problem so I went back to help them.”
“It’s a pity you didn’t get there; the great Southern Ocean is worth seeing. I went there once with my brother; his name was Jonderill too which is why I thought you might have come from Essenland.”
Jonderill looked at him quizzically. “Where is he now?”
“Dead. He was a protector like me but he died trying to protect his master, or at least that is what we believe. Neither his body nor the remains of his magician were ever found although we are pretty certain that Tallison destroyed his brother’s magician when he murdered his brother to take the throne of Sandstrone.”
It was Allowyn’s turn to shrug. “Don’t be, we both knew what could happen to us when we took up our calling as protectors, but neither of us would have it any other way, you wait and see.”
“Have you always been a protector?” asked Jonderill curiously, not certain what a protector was.
“Aye, nearly all my adult life. I was called by the goddess in my twelfth summer which is a bit old for a protector to start training, but I’ve always had a bit of magic, you know, enough to light a fire or move small objects a short distance or open the occasional door. I think it was that which brought me to the attention of the goddess. I trained at the Enclave for ten winters before I was eventually paired with Callabris. I was beginning to think I would never be called to serve and would spend the rest of my days as an armsman like these men you see here.”
Jonderill looked thoughtful. “So not everyone who is taken to the goddess’s Enclave becomes a protector or a magician?”
“Good goddess, no. If they did there would be magicians and protectors everywhere and that would cause chaos. No, there is a natural order to things, ordained by the goddess and controlled through the High Master who is Federa’s voice and the master of all those who live, work and study in the Enclave.”
“Then if I decide to go to the Enclave with you I could spend the next ten winters learning to be just a man at arms?”
Allowyn frowned and shook his head. “As I told you this morning, you have no choice in whether you go or not. The goddess has called for you and even the High Master cannot override her wishes, although I heard that he doubted the wisdom of taking you in. You see most acolytes are called before their tenth summer and some are even born in the Enclave in the shadow of Federa’s temple.
“They all go there hoping they will become a magician, but those who have no power train to be the best at whatever talents they were born with, whether it’s blacksmithing, farming or healing or anything else. And everyone learns the use of arms in case they are called upon to become a protector and to be paired with a white robe that has come into their power.”
“What did you train as?”
Allowyn looked down at his feet and shuffled them around piling up a small mound of earth and leaves between his toes. “I had some magic so they thought I might be a white robe but I never got any further than producing a bit of elemental fire and opening the door to the wine store. I got into a fight in my third summer and accidently killed someone and after that, all the magic I produced got absorbed into my fighting skills.”
“Don’t be. Like my brothers before me I am one hellden of a good protector and I have a fine life travelling the six kingdoms serving my master. On the rare occasions when he cannot take me with him it gives me the chance to return to the Enclave to hone my skills and renew my vows to Federa. Callabris is a good man who I would be proud to lay down my life for should the need arise.”
“I would have thought magicians would have been able to defend themselves; Maladran never had a problem with that.”
Allowyn looked at Jonderill in surprise. “You knew Maladran?” Jonderill just nodded. “Maladran was of the black and has no need of protection unless it’s protection from himself. Callabris is of the white and cannot use his magic to protect himself or to kill another, that’s why he needs me.”
“What about Plantagenet and Animus?”
Allowyn gave a gentle laugh. “Both are retired from a long life serving the six kingdoms. In her wisdom Federa left them enough magic to live in comfort but not enough to cause themselves or anyone else any harm.”
Jonderill laughed. “You have clearly never been around Animus when he’s trying to use his wand.”
They both laughed and sat in companionable silence for a while watching the activity of the camp.
“I can’t think why your goddess should take an interest in me; you’ve seen how much magic I have and that’s after being apprenticed to Plantagenet and Animus for more summers than I care to count. I probably have enough talent to make a mediocre armsman, either that or the goddess has made a mistake.”
“The goddess has her own reasons for who she calls and she certainly doesn’t confide in the likes of me, but when we reach the Enclave the masters will test you and if it’s Federa’s will, you will discover what your calling is to be.”
“Tests! What tests?”
Allowyn shrugged. “Everyone has a different test but nobody has been harmed by them yet.”
“There’s always a first time,” muttered Jonderill under his breath.
“It could be that Federa is seeking a new servant or even a protector for the future. Since the passing of Coberin there haven’t been enough white robes in the six kingdoms to maintain the balance of power so someone must come into their power soon.” Jonderill looked confused.
“I am not permitted to say more but the masters will explain everything to you when we reach the Enclave. Until then I think I need to teach you how to use a sword so that you can at least protect yourself next time someone tries to take you prisoner against your will.” He held out his hand and pulled Jonderill to his feet. “The meat won’t be ready until moonset and some exercise will ease your stiffness.” He laughed at Jonderill’s look of uncertainty. “Don’t worry, I’ll go gently with you.”
Together they walked across the camp to the open area where Jonderill had seen the guards practicing with Allowyn earlier, stopping to borrow Dozo’s sword on the way. The protector handed the hilt of the sword to Jonderill and went to show him how to hold the blade but Jonderill ignored him, made a few practice swings and walked away to take up a defensive stance. Allowyn saluted in acknowledgement and took up his stand opposite.
Slowly they circled each other until Allowyn made the first move, a simple upward cut which Jonderill easily parried. Allowyn attacked again with a slightly faster diagonal slice designed to disembowel an opponent. Jonderill batted the strike aside and followed through with a straight cut at thigh height which was blocked with a move so quick that he hadn’t seen the sword move. He licked his lips nervously and moved back into a defensive position. Again they circled each other until Allowyn lunged forward and snagged Jonderill’s shirt at the waist and withdrew before Jonderill could react. A small bead of blood stained the shirt where the sword had nicked his body.
“First blood!” called one of the armsmen who had come to watch.
They circled each other again and this time Jonderill stepped into the attack with a head cut but before the strike could make any contact, Allowyn had moved behind him and the broadside of the sword landed with a thwack on his exposed back making him stagger forward and stumble.
“Second blood!” called the same armsman to a ripple of laughter from his comrades who had joined him.
Jonderill retook his defensive stand, his face flushed with embarrassment and his mouth set in a firm line determined to do better. He’d thought that he was good with a sword but he’d been a fool trying to show off his meager skills in front of this expert swordsman. They circled again and this time he concentrated on looking for the small signs of attack like the tensing of muscles before a lunge, but there weren’t any
When the attack came it was all he could do to catch the blade on the hilt of the sword and hold it there against Allowyn’s pressure. Instead of increasing the pressure to force him backwards as he expected, Allowyn took a step back, slid his blade upwards and with a deft flick sent Jonderill’s sword tumbling through the air and onto the ground. Jonderill followed its flight and when he looked back the tip of Allowyn’s sword rested in the hollow of his throat.
“And out!” cried the armsman to a round of applause and some derisive laughter.
Allowyn withdrew the point of his sword and turned to glare at the laughing armsmen. There was instant silence and they all hurried away back to their duties. He walked to where Jonderill’s sword had landed, picked it up and handed it back to Jonderill. “You’ve been well taught but you’re a bit out of practice and dangerously overconfident.”
Jonderill grinned sheepishly. “Not to mention piss stupid and arrogant.” They both laughed.
“Let’s just practice some forms, shall we?” suggested Allowyn
Jonderill nodded in agreement and for the next candle length they practiced together with Allowyn working alongside Jonderill and correcting his movements as each form changed. Jonderill settled into the steady rhythm of the exercise, relaxing with the familiarity of what he’d been taught by the Cadetmaster and Swordmaster Dilor. When the last form had been completed and they had saluted each other he was gasping for breath, sweating and steaming in the cool night air like a horse after a long race. Next to him Allowyn was barely breathing any harder than normal.
He smiled at Jonderill and slapped him on the back. “Well done, we’ll make a swordsman out of you yet. Now go and wash up and grab some food before my men eat it all and leave you with nothing but the bones, horns and hooves.”
Jonderill staggered away to the stream and when he returned to the fire, Dozo had saved him several thick slices of hot meat and spiced wild onions piled on a platter of fresh flat bread. He sat next to Allowyn and devoured the food as if he had never eaten before and washed it down with gulps of sweet red wine from a large skin which was passed companionably around the circle by the armsmen. When he dozed off and nearly fell off the log backwards they all laughed and two guards helped him to where his blankets had already been laid out for him. He went to protest about taking his turn on watch but he was asleep before the armsmen had chance to respond.
He woke to the sound of the camp being broken up and realized that today he would be escorted by Allowyn and his men to Federa’s Enclave to face a future he didn’t really want any part of. For a moment he thought about leaving whilst everyone else was busy and just walking in the opposite direction but there was little point. He had nowhere else to go and his experience so far of travelling by himself was enough to put any sane person off walking the roads of the six kingdoms alone.
Jonderill rolled out of his blankets and did his best to smooth down his crumpled shirt and breaches. He wasn’t going to make a very impressive sight arriving at the Enclave like he’d slept under a hedge for a seven day. His shirt had a hole in the side and was stained with the dried sweat from the sword practice of the previous day and there was a grass stain on the knee of his breaches. He sighed to himself and thought how useful it would be if his clothes were made of the same stuff as a magician’s robe, then they would never need cleaning or mending. The idea made him think about his old grey robe and he wondered what had happened to it. Perhaps Allowyn or Dozo would know.
Jonderill folded his blankets and carried them across to where the pile of spare blankets had been. Now they were neatly rolled and strapped ready to be loaded onto the horses. The armsman in charge took the blanket from him and left Jonderill staring around the remains of the camp, which seemed a totally different place than the night before. The central fire had gone although the stones surrounding it remained. What was left of the ashes, which had been dampened down, were being carried away and tipped into the now exposed latrine pit. Two guards stood nearby with shovels ready to fill the pit in with earth and replace the cut turf.
Most of the horses were saddled and those that were not were having a last brush down. The remains of the slaver’s wagon had been chopped up for firewood, which had been stacked next to the empty ring of stones waiting for the next traveler to camp there. Dozo stood on the other side using the stump of a tree as a table, wrapping packages of last night’s meat and flat bread into leather pouches for the journey. He saw Jonderill and waved him over pushing a chunk of hard cheeses and some travel bread in his hand before returning to his task.
With all the activity he hadn’t noticed that the only person who wasn’t involved in the preparations for departure was Allowyn. He looked around the camp site and was surprised to see him alone and fully armoured in the centre of the practice area. Jonderill wandered over and squatted on the ground nibbling his cheese and watched as the protector went through his exercises. Each movement was familiar to him; they were the same ones that all swordsmen practiced but he had never seen them preformed like this before with such speed and precision.
Jonderill watched as Allowyn moved seamlessly from movement to movement without any hesitation, firstly with a single sword and then with sword in one hand and his long, wickedly sharp knife in the other. His strange leather and bronze armour glistened in the early morning sunlight, and sword and knife flashed and blurred with the swiftness of cut and thrust. At the climax of the movements, when a swordsman would usually hold the pose of the final thrust before winding down, Allowyn thrust forward with his knife burying it at waist height into one of the four posts which had been erected in the practice area.
Then he was gone again, moving fluidly into a new set of movements. This time the movements were delivered at an even faster speed as Allowyn attacked the posts, cutting from every direction but with such control that each blow stopped fractionally short of its target. With each turn Allowyn pulled a knife from his baldric and threw it at one of the posts until each post had two knives buried in their wood at head height.
When the last knife had left his hand he drew his second sword from the scabbard at his back and without slowing repeated the forms. The final climax, when it came, was delivered with such violence that Jonderill took two steps back and stared in awe as the swordsman stood with crossed swords held a fraction from each side of a post at head height, his muscles quivering with the need to complete the move.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” said Dozo at his shoulder making Jonderill jump. “And you are privileged to see it but you’d better let him be for a while; it’s dangerous to go near him until he’s come fully back to himself from his devotions.”
“Thanks for the warning.” He turned back and stared at the protector who still held his pose, his body completely still, but every muscle tense.
“When he’s ready he will need a hand off with his armour and these.” Dozo pointed down to the towels, clothes and water skin at Jonderill’s feet and a large bag containing rags and oil.
“Should I help collect his knives or something?”
Dozo gave a bark of a laugh. “Only if you want one buried in your throat, young man. Nobody touches a protector’s weapons and lives, not even their magician. Just keep an eye on him until he recovers and make sure he towels off properly; protectors have been known to sometimes neglect such matters and I don’t want to have to treat him for a chill before we get back to the Enclave.”
He gave Jonderill a friendly pat on the shoulder and walked back to what was left of the camp site. Jonderill turned back to the practice area and could already see a change in Allowyn. It was as if oil was draining from a small skin, each part relaxing as the oil drained away. After a few moments Allowyn stepped back from his stance, gave the post a brief bow and sheathed his swords. One by one he acknowledged each post with a brief bow and retrieved his throwing knives and finally his long fighting knife.
When he reached Jonderill he didn’t say a word but waited patiently whilst Jonderill fumbled with the unfamiliar straps and lifted the heavy armour from his body. Underneath the metal strips the padded jacket was soaked through with sweat and he helped to pull it free of Allowyn’s body before handing him a towel and using the other one to wipe his back. His whole body was covered in thin white scars like spiders’ webs which criss-crossed each other and other scars which were larger and faded with age.
“Thank you.” croaked Allowyn between rasping breaths. He took the water skin, poured half over his head and drank the rest, and then pulled on his shirt and leather over tunic and piled his armour into his bag.
“I think I will just have time to clean this before the others return from their errand.” He smiled at Jonderill. “Have you eaten?”
Jonderill nodded. “Have you?”
“Not yet, not before my devotions, but I expect Dozo will have something ready for me; he’s a bit of an old woman like that.”
He led the way back to the remains of the camp site and dropped the bag of armour beside the log around the empty fire ring. Before he’d finished cleaning the first piece, Dozo approached with bread and cheese in one hand and Jonderill’s grey robe draped across his other arm. He held it out for Jonderill to take.
“It took a bit of drying but all the stains have come out.”
Jonderill held it up and studied the garment. “Many thanks for having a go at it. I think the sun has bleached it a bit but apart from that it looks as good as new.” He folded the robe in half and rolled it into a ball.
Dozo gave the protector a quizzical look and turned back to Jonderill. “Aren’t you going to wear it?”
Jonderill shook his head. “No, not unless you want these clothes back which you lent me.” He looked between the two of them. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” said Allowyn, “Unless…” He was interrupted by the sound of approaching horses which drew their attention.
Around the camp the men stopped what they were doing and ran into a defensive line with Allowyn at its centre and Jonderill behind. A piercing whistle in the near distance followed by another announced the arrival of friends and the whole line of men relaxed their grip on their sword hilts. A dozen grey clad armsmen rode into the camp, tired, lathered and dusty and in the middle of them trotted a silver-grey stallion a hand and a half taller than any of the other horses. It barged its way through the escort using its teeth when one horse and rider were slow to move out of his way and walked up to Jonderill giving him a playful head butt in the chest.
Jonderill staggered back a step and then threw his arms around the horse’s neck. “Sansun! Am I glad to see you.” The horse gave a gentle whicker in reply.
“Any problems?” asked Allowyn.
The man at the front of the troop, who Jonderill thought was one of the leaders that had rescued him from the slave caravan, shook his head. “None at all. The guards at the river crossing were easily persuaded that it was better to return Jonderill’s things than to be dead. They were a little more reluctant to pay interest or damages but in the end they saw sense.” There was some laughter amongst the rest of the troop.
“We had no problem finding the horse, in fact, he found us and as long as we didn’t try to mount him or lead him the horse was happy to come along.” He looked at Jonderill who was gently stroking the horse’s nose. “That’s a very special horse you have there; you need to be more careful about where you leave him.” He beckoned to one of the armsmen who came forward with a large bundle which he handed to Jonderill. “I think these belong to you.”
Jonderill put the bundle on the ground and undid the straps around it whilst the troop leader dismounted and took Allowyn to one side. Wrapped inside the blanket were his own clothes, the sword that Swordmaster Dilor had given him and Plantagenet’s old iron blade. The small bag of gold which had been a gift from Animus seemed to have grown heavier and the parchment with his pardon from King Steppen was noticeably more crumpled. The only things that were missing were his introduction to Callabris, which he no longer needed, and Maladran’s golden torc. He was sorry that it had gone but thought he was probably better off without it.
“Thank you,” he said to the armsman and then repeated his thanks to Allowyn.
Allowyn nodded in acknowledgement and then moved Jonderill to one side. “They also found this.” He handed Jonderill a black silk bag. Jonderill loosened the neck of the bag and took a brief looked inside; the ruby eyes embedded in the torc glowed in the darkness. “Do you know what this is?”
Jonderill nodded. “It’s the torc Maladran wore.”
Allowyn gave him a questioning look and shook his head. “The thing is evil Jonderill. You need to keep it safe and out of sight until we reach the Enclave and then give it into the keeping of the High Master.” He turned back to his waiting armsmen. “Now that matter is dealt with we can proceed with the goddess’s business. When the horses are watered we’ll take Jonderill to meet Federa.”
Jonderill rode up next to Allowyn and pulled Sansun to a stop. They had been riding westwards for nearly three and a half days across increasingly barren hills and through small woodlands. The weather had been pleasant with clear skies and a slight but cool breeze. It seemed to raise the spirits of the men as they rode and they talked and laughed whilst Jonderill became more and more nervous. Standing next to Allowyn, in the clear morning sunlight, he could see right across the valley to the steeply wooded hill on the other side and the distant mountains which reached to the horizon.
The valley sides here were steep and rocky although further along the valley they were greener and less steep. There was only the one well ridden pathway winding downwards from where they had stopped and an equally steep pathway leading upwards on the other side. Neither pathway would give easy access for a large force if it wished to reach the valley bottom at speed. On the floor of the valley, surrounded by a patchwork of cultivated fields, stood the goddess’s Enclave, a dark and menacing presence in an otherwise green and peaceful setting.
Sunlight reflected off the crystals buried deep within the grey granite walls, but instead of rainbow colours, the reflected light cast deep shadows across the barren land around it so that the very outline of the city seemed to blur. A line of pillars stood sentinel on each side of the roadway leading up to a towering archway supported on either side by two turrets. Even from this distance Jonderill could see the soldiers who guarded their crenulated walkways. Other turrets and towers broke up the continuous line of the outer wall whilst close to the entrance of the Enclave, towering above the walls, was a huge dome which glowed the colour of dried blood in the early morning sunlight.
The size of the Enclave took Jonderill by surprise. He’d expected a small village built around a stone temple, but instead the goddess’s Enclave was the size of a city, and a well guarded one at that. He sat and stared at the dark city gates and the doubts that had troubled him since Allowyn had first told him of the goddess’s call grew tenfold.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” said Allowyn, breaking the silence.
“You never said it was so big and that so many people worshiped Federa here.”
Allowyn laughed at Jonderill’s surprise. “There are only ever a few of us who are devoted to Federa and worship at her temple but there are many many more who live and prosper under her protection.”
He pointed to the eastern side of the Enclave where a grey pall of smoke hung over a corner of the city. “Craftsmen all live and work in the east of the city and where you see the smoke rising, that’s where the metal smiths can be found. Smiths from all over the known world come to perfect and ply their craft there and the weapons and armour they produce is the finest in all the six kingdoms.
The High Master controls the sale of all the smiths produce ensuring that a balance is kept between each of the armies of the six kingdoms. The same goes for leather goods or silks or anything which would give one kingdom an advantage over the others. It has been that way since Federa brought magic to our land and I pray to the goddess that High Master Razarin has the strength to keep it that way.”
He pointed to the west side of the city where a large stone building with rows of windows could be seen rising just above the city walls. “That’s the House of Learning where the Enclave’s acolytes discover what their calling is to be. All those who wear the white and the black have passed through its doors.”
“It’s a big place for so few,” commented Jonderill.
“It would be if it were just for magicians, but the finest administrators in the six kingdoms and in lands beyond our shores have learnt their trade there. Everyone who goes through those halls learns the ways of the goddess and of peace and justice as well as how to keep records and accounts. It’s another way that the High Master keeps the balance within the six kingdoms.”
“And the protectors, where do they fit in all this?”
“We have no single place which is ours in the Enclave. We work with the craftsmen in their quarter or learn with the acolytes in the House of Learning or train with the masters in the area beyond the city. In between that we man the walls and attend to the goddess’s business. We do as the High Master commands until the day we are paired with a white robe and then we do as they command until the day we die.”
Jonderill raised an eyebrow, “That is a lot of doing what others command. I’m surprised that anyone would want to be a protector.”
“You’d be surprised how many do. As I told you before, being a protector is a good life and the greatest honour any armsman can ever achieve but only a few are ever paired, the rest are used by the High Master to maintain the balance of power in the six kingdoms or do his bidding.”
“It seems to me that High Master Razarin has a lot of influence and power without being a king. Don’t the other kings object to his interference?”
Allowyn shrugged. “The goddess’s representative has always been respected in the six kingdoms and until recent times the rulers have always followed his guidance and put the welfare of the six kingdoms before their own ambitions.”
Jonderill looked skeptical.”What about Tallison of Sandstrone? Killing your own brother to gain a throne seems ambitious to me.”
“We are forbidden to talk about Sandstrone. In fact, I shouldn’t be telling you about any of this; when the High Master wishes you to know something, he or his masters will tell it to you.”
Allowyn kicked his horse forward leading the way down the steep path and Jonderill watched him with concern, not certain if he had been reprimanded or not, as the rest of the troop followed behind.
Only Dozo hung back and as he passed Jonderill he leant slightly out of his saddle so that the others couldn’t hear what he had to say. “Don’t you mind Allowyn too much; he gets a bit moody when anyone talks about Sandstrone. You see, he and his brother were very close and when his brother and his magician were killed Allowyn wanted revenge, but the High Master never allowed him to take it. Callabris and he are too valuable to risk their lives going into Sandstrone and it burns him up inside whenever it gets talked about. He’ll be okay again when Callabris returns.”
Dozo rode on to catch up with the rest of the troop who were eager to return to their homes and Jonderill followed behind, the only one reluctant to reach his destination. His reluctance increased as he approached the city and the shadow of the sixteen huge pillars crossed the cobbled roadway in front of him. Sansun slowed and then came to a halt as if he too was unsure if he wanted to go any closer to the Enclave. Jonderill looked around him and then up at the first pair of pillars.
The pillars were made of buff coloured stone and from a distance, looked to be plain, but up close he could see that each was carved with unfamiliar lettering and strange symbols. In between the unfamiliar words were strange creatures which seemed to twist and move around the stone pillars as if they were alive. Some were similar to the woodland creatures that he had grown up with or had hunted in Vinmore’s forest, but with parts of their body out of proportion or with extra claws or tusks, whilst others looked like demons or creatures out of a nightmare.
Jonderill urged Sansun to move forward to the next pair of pillars which were different again. Instead of creatures being carved into the stone, dark figures of beaten metal had been fixed to the pillars, their cloaks seeming to ripple and sparkle as the sunlight reflected off them. Sansun shifted nervously beneath him and Jonderill could almost feel the power radiating off them. He moved Sansun onwards where figures, some with wands in hand, had been carved into the stone. Other figures, smaller but wearing strange armour and with curved swords stood behind them interspersed with the outlines of cities with impossibly tall spires.
He moved on and stared in awe as thousands of tiny carved soldiers marched in columns round and round the pillars from their fluted tops to their broad bases. Some wore ancient armour and carried old fashioned wooden bows, whilst others looked like the soldiers of Vinmore or Leersland or any of the other six kingdoms. In amongst them, made of beaten bronze and fixed to the pillars, were protectors with their double swords. Jonderill tried to make out if one of them was Allowyn, but his search was interrupted by Dozo riding up alongside him.
“My Lord Jonderill, it’s not wise to stay in the shadow of the Pillars of the Allkinds for long, and in any case, you must come at once, you have been summoned to the High Master’s presence and he waits for no one.”
Jonderill felt a moment of concern. Allowyn had told him that it would be days, perhaps even a moon cycle, before High Master Razarin would see him, and he could use that time to wash and repair his clothes and become accustomed to living in the Enclave and the way of the masters. It looked like that luxury was going to be denied to him. Dozo rode behind Jonderill almost herding him forward and Sansun snapped irritably every time his horse came too close.
“Does the High Master usually summon people before they’ve arrived at the Enclave?” Jonderill asked.
“No, My Lord, never, or at least not since I have been at the Enclave and that is over thirty summers now.”
He jostled Jonderill forward again passed the other pairs of pillars, not giving him the chance to see what was engraved on them, and then fell back as Jonderill and Sansun reached the archway which was the main entrance to the city. Beneath the archway stood two severe looking men in grey robes, their hair cut short and their hands hidden in their wide sleeves. The rest of the troop had disappeared from view and only Allowyn remained kneeling to one side of the two grey robeswith his head bowed. Jonderill could feel Sansun tense beneath him as if he was about to bolt so he slid from the saddle and took hold of his bridle, gently stroking his long nose to calm him.
The taller of the two grey robes looked him up and down with a sneer of disdain on his face, whilst the other dismissed Allowyn with a wave of his hand. Dozo trotted forward and wrestled Sansun’s reins from his hands, giving him an apologetic smile before he led the horse away. Jonderill tried hard not to look as confused as he felt.
“The High Master has summoned you to his presence,” stated the grey robe who seemed to be in charge without bothering with a greeting. “You will follow me with your head bowed and your eyes lowered. You will not look at anyone and you will speak to no one unless you are commanded to do so.”
Both grey robes turned away and started striding into the city and Jonderill followed behind. Just beyond the archway the cobbled road separated into two, with one road going east and the other west. Where they forked, a smooth pathway of red veined marble, like veins in a man’s hand, led straight on towards the huge temple building. Jonderill followed them along the pathway feeling a bit like a miscreant as people stopped what they were doing and stared at him.
He could hear their whispers as he passed them and even some sniggering laughter from a group of young men in short cloaks and light grey robes who lounged against a nearby wall. The pathway ended abruptly in a flight of dull red marble steps that led up to the double temple doors. They were huge, at least the height of two men and six arm spans across. Each door had a large metal ring at the edge of its centre post and was bound in silver and bronze.
When the grey robes reached the bottom of the steps they turned and glowered at Jonderill. “Remove your clothes and boots,” commanded the grey robe.
“Why?” demanded Jonderill looking defiantly from man to man.
“You will do as you are commanded or you will leave the Enclave immediately,” snapped the other. “And you will do it in silence.”
Jonderill hesitated for a moment trying to decide if he really wanted to be here and conform to their petty rules or if he should just take Sansun and ride away to find a different life. He thought of his attempts so far at travelling the roads alone and decided that a little bit of humiliation was probably going to be worth it. With a resigned shrug he removed his boots, noticing that a fairly large crowd had gathered behind him to watch and he tried to ignore them.
He took off his leather jerkin and folded it neatly over his boots followed by his shirt. A mumble of disapproval erupted behind him which was instantly silenced by a stern look from the grey robe. Jonderill self consciously fingered the faded brand on his forearm but wasn’t sure if it was that which had caused the comments behind him or the welts and bruises across his back. He looked down at the leggings which covered his ankles and feet and his breaches and then defiantly back at the grey robe.
“I said remove your clothes.”
Jonderill hesitated and then took a deep breath and removed his breaches and leggings doing his best to ignore the whispering crowds behind him.
“Enough!” said the shorter of the pair when Jonderill reluctantly started to remove his small clothes. “You will wait here until you are summoned.”
He waved a servant forward who collected the pile of clothes and disappeared into the crowd. The grey robes gave him one last disparaging look and turned their backs on him without saying another word. He watched as they climbed the marble stairs and disappeared through a small door to one side of the great doors bound in bronze and silver. Jonderill remained where he was, goose bumps starting to prick at his skin as a chill breeze blew over his naked flesh.
Feeling foolish he looked down at his feet and wished that he was standing on something warmer than marble. Behind him he could hear the murmur of the crowd and the shuffling of feet as people started to lose interest and move away to return to their own business. Uncomfortably he shifted his weight onto one foot and lifted his other foot off the smooth marble to give it some respite from the cold for a moment and then repeated the process with the other foot.
He wasn’t used to the cold, especially standing in it with no clothes on and he tried to imagine the summer warmth of Vinmore to stop himself from shivering. When that didn’t work he concentrated on the building in front of him, counting the close fitting stone blocks which made up its circular wall. When he’d counted all the blocks he could see from his position in front of the great doors, he turned his attention to the people he could see moving around the building.
At first he thought they were wandering aimlessly along the side of the curved wall, but then he spotted a red brick pathway running around the outside of the building and realised it was the same people who were walking circuits of the building. He watched them as they passed through a tunnel beneath the marble steps and emerged from the other side to continue their circuit. At regular intervals, small alcoves had been excavated into the stone blocks with which the building was constructed. Some of the alcoves had wooden benches built into them, and occasionally someone stopped to sit in one of the alcoves either to read or talk to a grey robe, but none of those appeared to be the ones walking round and round the building.
Jonderill studied their faces as they passed him and decided they all looked as miserable as he felt, the only difference was that they were warm and he was cold. With the thought of being cold he started to shiver again so he concentrated on trying to discover who the walkers were and what they were doing. For a start they were all young men around his age wearing varying shades of grey clothing in roughly three styles.
There were clearly the rich ones in short cloaks and light grey robes decorated with embroidery at the edges who held their heads high and walked with a swagger. He’d met their type at Vinmore’s court; sons of the nobility who looked down on everyone else. There were five who wore short grey tunics and leggings and bowed slightly whenever they passed anyone who wore a robe. They reminded him of clucking yard birds pecking at weeds. The other two wore dark tunics, breaches and long cloaks and were heavily armed. They looked a bit like Allowyn only much younger.
By the time he had sorted the men into groups and had counted how long it took them to walk a circuit of the building, the sun had dipped behind the red metal dome. He was now standing in the shade of the building, and despite concentrating on other things, he was shaking with the cold. Irritably he increased the speed in which he shifted his weight from foot to foot in an effort to keep his feet from freezing until he was almost running on the spot, but it didn’t help much.
He even tried to produce elemental fire in the hope that the flame would warm his hands, but every time he tried, his focus seemed to be sucked away by the looming building. After his third failed attempt, he came to the conclusion that he’d had enough of freezing and being ignored and decided he would go and look for Allowyn or Dozo, even if he did look foolish walking through the streets in just his small clothes. He turned to leave and almost fell over the young man who had walked up behind him.
“My pardon, My Lord,” said the young man stepping smartly back out of Jonderill’s way. “I thought you might like to borrow this.” He held out the long grey cloak that he’d been wearing as he walked round and around the temple building and gave Jonderill a friendly smile. “I have finished my penance for today and will be returning to my rooms. I think your need of a cloak is greater than mine.”
“Thank you,” said Jonderill through chattering teeth. He took the cloak and gratefully wrapped it around his shoulders almost sighing with relief at the instant warmth. “Now I have this I won’t look quite so stupid walking through the city with nothing on but my small clothes.”
“You are leaving?” questioned the young man in alarm.
“Yes, I’ve had enough of standing here freezing my feet off and looking like a fool for no good reason.”
“You can’t do that; they’ll send you away if you do.”
Jonderill looked down into the earnest blue eyes of the young man and couldn’t help smiling. He was younger than Jonderill by at least two summers, slight and wiry, but with strong hands which rested on the two sword hilts at his side. He reminded Jonderill a little of Perguine the Pocket, only more innocent looking.
“Tissian! What in hellden’s name do you think you’re doing?”
Tissian gave an impatient sigh as he turned away from Jonderill and waited for the speaker to come to a stop in front of him. The newcomer was older than Tissian by at least four summers and was a good hand taller and much more muscular. He too wore a long cloak and double swords.
“What does it look like, Gellidan? I’m doing what a protector is meant to do and protecting this man from freezing to death.”
Gellidan gave Jonderill a brief appraisal and then ignored him. “If the masters have left him out here to be cleansed then that is their business and not yours. You’re not a protector yet and if you interfere you will do more penance than just walking the temple for a day. Now get your cloak and return with me to the chapter house and I will say nothing to the masters about your disobedience.”
“No.” said Tissian defiantly.
“That’s an order not a request.”
“No.” repeated Tissian pulling himself up taller and taking a step forward, his hands planted firmly on the hilts of his swords. “This man is under my protection, so if you want to remove the cloak that he wears, you will have to go through me.”
“You’ll not disobey my order; I’m the senior protector here.”
Gellidan pulled his swords threateningly from their scabbards, but before he could go further, Jonderill stepped between the two of them and held up his hands to stop them both. There was a sudden flash of bright light and Jonderill jumped back in shock whilst Gellidan’s swords went spinning from his hands and across the marble floor with a loud clatter.
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded the taller of the two grey robes who had left Jonderill standing outside the temple earlier. He hurried down the marble steps and immediately both Tissian and Gellidan fell to one knee and bowed their heads.
“You,” he said glaring at Jonderill, “were told to stand there and wait to be summoned by the High Master, not to start fights between two acolytes.” He turned to the two kneeling men. “This is not what is expected from two acolytes who aspire to be protectors. You will both return to the chapter house and you, Tissian, will wait on the pleasure of the Master of Penance. Gellidan, collect your swords and beg the goddess’s forgiveness for defiling them and you, boy, take back your cloak.”
They both stood, but whilst Gellidan went to collect his fallen weapons Tissian stood his ground and looked rebelliously at the grey robe. Before he could protest and make matters worse Jonderill slipped the cloak from his shoulders and handed it back to him.
“Thank you for the loan of your cloak; it’s the only kindness I have been shown since I arrived here and I won’t forget it.”
Tissian took the cloak and gave Jonderill a deep bow and the grey robe a cursory nod before turning and following Gellidan along the pathway away from the temple building. The grey robe went to say something to Jonderill but changed his mind. Instead, he walked back to the temple building and beckoned Jonderill to follow him. Jonderill walked quickly behind him, up the marble steps and through the small door expecting the inside of the temple building to be dark and gloomy.
Instead, hundreds of oil lamps lit up a large hallway with passageways leading off it. In between the entrances to the passageways were a number of doors and men in grey robes or grey tunics were busy going in and out with rolls of parchment or leather bound books. The walls were the same grey stone as the outside of the temple, but instead of marble, the floor was made of polished wood which shone a deep red from the light which filtered in from the dome above.
Jonderill stopped to look around him for a moment, staring at the huge dome which curved overhead without any visible sign of support. The grey robe ignored him and hurried towards the largest set of doors which were firmly closed at the other side of the hallway. When he reached them he turned back and impatiently beckoned Jonderill over to where he stood. Jonderill reluctantly obeyed feeling even more out of place inside the building than he had outside.
Two guards in blue and gold uniforms stood to attention beside the door, armed with sheathed swords and halberds. One of them eyed Jonderill suspiciously and the other hid a smirk making him wish he still had Tissian’s cloak to cover him instead of standing there in his small clothes. The grey robe spoke to one of the guards, knocked on the door and opened it indicating that Jonderill should enter. As he walked forward into the room he had to hold back a sigh of relief as itswarmthenveloped him and his feet sank into a deep piled carpet. The door closed behind him leaving him alone with the crimson robed man who sat behind a large weiswald desk. In the centre of the desk lay Jonderill’s old grey robe and Maladran’s golden torc.
“Welcome to Federa’s Enclave, Jonderill. Allowyn tells me that you’ve had a difficult journey and that the goddess’s protector only just arrived in time to save you from further harm.”
The man stood and walked from behind his desk appraising Jonderill as he circled him, stopping for a moment to inspect the welts on his back and the other abrasions he’d gathered on his travels. Jonderill remained silent, uncomfortable with being inspected like a prized horse and unsure of what he was supposed to do. The old man returned to his desk and fingered the grey robe before turning back to Jonderill and giving him a brief but insincere smile.
“You must forgive us for our less than warm welcome; I was busy and the masters can sometimes be over zealous in their work.” He picked up the grey robe and held it out to Jonderill. “I’m sure you will feel more comfortable with some clothes on and something warm inside of you, and then we can talk about your future here and how we, who serve the goddess, can help you.”
Jonderill made no move to take the robe but just looked at the man in front of him. He was as tall as Jonderill but with a heavier build and had the look of someone who used to be fit and active but had gone to seed. The man’s face, framed by medium length hair the colour of squeaker fur, had deep frown lines across his forehead and downturned creases around his eyes and mouth as if he was very dissatisfied with his life.
“Where are my other clothes and my swords?”
“Tch! Such rudeness! Still standing in the cold half naked for most of the day would make one a little tetchy. However, rudeness or disobedience are not tolerated from the acolytes so I will give you one warning; if you wish to remain here you will address me as High Master Razarin and you will do as I or any other master tells you. Now take the robe and put it on and then I will answer your questions.”
Jonderill thought about refusing but there seemed to be little point so he took the robe and pulled it over his head. The cloth felt soft and warm against his cold skin as it slipped easily over his shoulders and back and hung in gentle folds to mid calf. He flexed his shoulders slightly and the robe adjusted the way it hung until it felt comfortable and more natural to wear than it had ever done before.
“There, that’s better isn’t it? You will find some slippers beside that chair that will fit you and when we have finished our little talk and you have settled into your rooms, your clothes, boots and weapons will be returned to you. Now please sit.
“And what if I don’t want to stay?”
The High Master ignored his question and indicated a padded chair to one side of his desk. Jonderill hesitated, waiting for an answer, but when it didn’t come he reluctantly sat and pulled on the soft slippers that were on the far side of the chair. They were warm and comfortable and reminded him of the slippers Plantagenet and Animus had given him to wear when he had lived in their tower. He had a sudden desire to be back in the safety of their rooms and looked around Razarin’s room searching for something familiar.
The room was large and well lit by oil lamps which hung on chains from the ceiling. A number of chairs were placed around the weiswald desk as if the High Master had numerous visitors all at once. Some of the chairs, like the one he sat in, were soft and padded and had a side table beside them whilst others, mostly the ones directly in front of the desk, were hard and upright. Shelves lined all the walls except the one where the door stood. They were laden with books neatly placed in straight lines and scrolls stacked in pyramids three high.
Next to the door was a long dresser with an assortment of mugs and plates. There was also a small silver kettle which the High Master was using to make tea. Jonderill could smell the herbs releasing their scent as he poured the hot water over them. The room felt very familiar but it lacked Plantagenet’s untidy heaps of books open on every available surface and Animus’s half forgotten experiments cluttering the floor.
The High Master handed Jonderill a mug of herb tea and placed a plate of small pastries on his side table before taking his place back behind his weiswald desk. Jonderill sipped his tea gratefully feeling its warmth flow through his body. “Now, young man, I have some questions for you and then, perhaps, some explanations. Firstly, where did you come by that robe?”
Jonderill fingered the soft fabric and wondered what Dozo had done to it. It felt so different from the rough grey cloth he was used to. “Callabris gave it to me on my apprentice day six summers ago.”
“Did he now? Callabris had no right to do that without you being tested to see what form your gift would take. Only I, as the goddess’s voice, can confer such an honour. It would seem that I will have to have serious words with Callabris should he return to the Enclave. And what about this?” He picked up the torc and held it gingerly with his fingertips as if the thing would burn him.
“That belonged to Maladran. It came to me when Maladran died.”
“When Maladran died?” The High Master asked in astonishment.
Jonderill nodded and the High Master stared at him in disbelief and waited for him to say more. When Jonderill remained silent, Razarin replaced the torc carefully on his desk and pulled a piece of black cloth from a draw to cover it, blocking out the glow from the engraved dragon’s two ruby eyes. “Do you know what this is or what it does?” He pointed at the covered torc.
Jonderill shook his head. “No, High Master.”
“Do you know what you may have unleashed by taking this from Maladran?”
“No, High Master.”
“Do you know anything about magic?” he asked in exasperation.
Jonderill didn’t bother answering but just shook his head again. The High Master slipped the torc and its black covering into a drawer in his desk and locked it with a key which hung on a long chain around his neck. He stood and walked to where Jonderill sat and took a seat nearby, leaning forward until he was almost touching him.
“I blame Callabris for your ignorance; he should have never left you with those two doddering old fools to find your own way. If he thought you had magic, which he must have done to give you that robe, he should have brought you here; it was his duty. Still, what is done cannot be undone.” He paused for a moment and sat back in the chair tucking his hands into his long sleeves. “If you are to stay here you must understand about the balance and how what we do with Federa’s precious gifts affects all those who wield the power she has given them.
“You see the six kingdoms are very special; they are the only lands that exist which have been blessed by Federa’s gift. Fear of magic keeps other nations from invading and attempting to conquer our small kingdoms one by one although the barbarians from across the Northern Sea seem to lack the imagination to fear even that. However, to prevent any one of the six kingdoms becoming too powerful and overthrowing the others, magic has to be balanced so that each kingdom controls an equal amount of magic.
There also has to be the right mix of magic so that there is both passive magic for peace and prosperity and aggressive magic for battle and defense. Federa in her wisdom gave her gift to four of the white to care for her lands and to bring justice to her people. Her gift was given to one of the black so they could use their powers against an aggressor and her final gift was given to the crimson so that he could hear her words and maintain the balance.”
Jonderill looked up from his herb tea and frowned. “But I thought Callabris was the only white magician?”
“Just so,” Razarin answered irritably. “It’s unfortunate that one of the kingdoms became deaf to the wisdom of Federa and turned their hearts towards Talis, an evil and vengeful god. When Coberin was slain the balance was disrupted and the black grew in power. It became necessary to control those of the black to prevent the power turning them to madness and that was why the torc you have brought here was created by the goddess.
“I was as concerned for Maladran’s sanity as I was for Yarrin’s before him so I told Sarrat what must be done and when Sarrat became king he placed the torc around Maladran’s throat and the power of his black magician was contained. Or at least it was until Sarrat foolishly thought he could use madness to punish Maladran and removed the torc. It appears that Maladran found a way to thwart his king even though it cost him his life.
“With Maladran’s death the balance has once again been disrupted and I have been commanded by the goddess to restore her order to the six kingdoms. For that reason I must keep the torc safe. It is also the reason why you have been brought here.”
Jonderill looked confused, “Do you think I am some sort of magician then?” he asked hesitantly.
“Callabris clearly thought so and the goddess has taken an interest in you.”
Jonderill gave a cynical bark of laughter and shook his head. “I think you have the wrong person, High Master. I can barely produce elemental fire. Maladran tested me and could find no power within me and in eight summers Plantagenet and Animus failed to teach me one bit of magic. If the goddess has taken an interest in me, it must be for some other reason. Perhaps she wishes me to be a protector or even one of your armsmen; I am quite handy with a sword.”
“Perhaps, but those of the white do tend to come into their powers late.”
Jonderill shook his head. “I’m sorry to disappoint you but you’ve got it wrong. There is no way I could be a white magician; they can’t take another’s life but I already have the blood of another on my hands. Now if you wouldn’t mind, High Master Razarin, I would like to have my clothes and weapons back and see to my horse so that I can leave this place in the morning.”
He stood to leave and the crimson magician followed him to the door with a deep frown on his face. Razarin put a restraining hand on Jonderill’s shoulder. “Jonderill, please wait. I know that this all seems strange to you but Federa is never wrong, although I do sometimes misinterpret her words. If you leave now without even trying to release the power within you, you will never know if the goddess was right or not. Stay in the Enclave with us and even if the goddess is mistaken, we will teach you enough magic to protect yourself and then you can decide if you want to leave or not.”
Jonderill shook his head but didn’t move to open the door. “Allowyn was sent to find you by the goddess herself and he went to a lot of trouble to bring you here; he would be very disappointed if you left without even trying to touch your power.”
Jonderill sighed and gave a half smile. “You’re right, it would be ungrateful of me to leave without trying, I owe Allowyn that much. I will stay for one moon cycle and learn what I can.”
“Good. I will arrange for rooms and fresh clothing to be provided for you and you will train with the Master of Magic himself. When you are rested and more settled we will talk again about your future.”
He opened the door and beckoned to one of the acolytes giving him instructions for Jonderill’s care and then watched them leave the temple together. Razarin turned back to his room and closed the door before crossing to his desk and taking his seat.
“You can come in now, Master Tressing.”
One set of shelves moved silently forward allowing the tall master in his long dark grey robes to enter the room. He pushed the shelves back into position behind him.
“Well? What of the testing? Is he what the goddess says?”
Tressing bowed and sat in one of the upright chairs opposite the weiswald desk folding his hands in front of him. “The boy is a fool. He has no idea of the power he has inside him or how to use it. Standing in the shadow of the temple for the best part of a day would have most people on their knees but he was barely shivering. What’s more he used his power to disarm Gellidan without even knowing he did it. And then there’s the robe. He wears it as if it had been given to him by the goddess herself.”
The High Master sighed in frustration. “If only we could be certain of who his father was we would know what the boy was capable of. I have spoken to Allowyn who reports that the boy didn’t show any signs of recognition when he talked about his brother Jonderill’s death, and when I mentioned Coberin the name seemed unfamiliar to him. It could be just a coincidence that the boy has taken the protector’s name and Callabris’s interest in him could be misplaced.”
“It would explain why Callabris failed to bring him here when he first found him but it doesn’t explain what happened outside.”
“Perhaps he has just enough power to be a protector; apparently he’s already taken a life and he says he’s good with a sword.”
“We don’t need another unpaired protector, High Master. I have acolytes turning on each other because they have no one to pair with. If we announce that we are going to train yet another there will be jealousies and someone will be killed. If that someone should be Gellidan, then Vorgret will want vengeance for his cousin’s death.”
The High Master sighed in frustration. “You’re right, Tressing, we cannot afford to bring the king’s wrath down on us but neither can we afford to pass up the power or the advantage that a new white robe would give us. With personal tuition from the Master of Magic we will only need one cycle of the moon to discover exactly what he is.”
“Will he stay that long?”
“Oh yes, he will stay. I have arranged for him to have the king’s suite of rooms and the finest clothes, food and wine. In fact everything which a peasant such as he could ever dream of having.”
“Do you want him guarded in case he changes his mind?”
“No, because he won’t, but tell Gellidan he is to befriend him, and if he turns out to be what we hope, then the king’s cousin will achieve his ambition to become a protector.
“And if he doesn’t turn out to be what we are hoping for?”
“Then you will tell Gellidan that the boy is an imposter and that he has made a fool of him, and with a little encouragement, Gellidan will use his tame pack of lordlings to remove our problem so that no blame could ever fall on him or us.”
Tressing smiled and stood giving a brief bow. “It will be done High Master.”
“Oh, and Tressing, send word to Vorgret and Borman informing them that we have a new white robe and that I would be pleased to accept their emissaries.”
“Isn’t that a little premature?”
The High Master shrugged. “Yes, a little, but it takes time to sell a magician to the highest bidder.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Opening MovesCHAPTER SIX
“Stand still, Your Majesty. I cannot make you look like a queen if you squirm around like a girl preparing for her first dancing lesson.”
Tarraquin glared at the little man with his shears in one hand and pins stuck to a pad on the other like the back of a prickle pig. “Don’t call me that. Until I sit on the throne with the crown of Leersland on my head I’m just Tarraquin, pretender heir to my father’s kingdom and wanted outlaw.”
“Just so,” muttered the tailor, lifting the breast support slightly and inserting another pin to keep it in place. “But if you don’t want to look like a peasant you need to keep still whilst I raise your breasts enough so that the royal seal nestles in your cleavage just right and proclaims your right to the title of, Your Majesty.” He pushed the right breast upwards, secured the support with another pin and stepped back to admire the effect.
“Damn, that looks good,” announced Malingar. “Nobody will miss the royal seal displayed on that neck.”
“Not unless someone severs it,” muttered Jarrul under his breath.
It was true though: he’d never seen a scion of the royal house look so regal, and if the people of Leersland could be persuaded by looks alone, his Tarraquin would be queen by this time tomorrow. But that wasn’t the way things worked and he knew it, even if she didn’t. Those faithful to the long dead King Malute would support her, but those with the real power, especially those who owed their position to Sarrat, would denounce her as soon as they stepped into the throne room. If there was anything he could do to stop this and save her life he would, but things had gone too far.
“You look stunning, Your Highness,” commented Malingar giving her a warm smile. Tomorrow, when the people enter the throne room and see you crowned, there won’t be a lord, councillor or guildmaster who won’t acclaim you as the rightful queen.”
He pushed himself away from the wall of the tailor shop and offered his hand to Tarraquin as she stepped down from the platform. Sometime in the last seven day he’d changed from his previous dark garb of a mercenary into the rich clothing of a court advisor. The only things that remained were his long sword, his serrated side knife and confident smile. Jarrul hated him.
“Is everything in place?” Tarraquin looked at each of her two advisors. “If we don’t get this right first time and Sarrat gets back into the fortress, all our heads will be on pikes in front of the city gate by this time tomorrow.”
Malingar took her hand and smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry, my men are in place and as long as Jarrul has done his part there will be no problems.” He looked hard at Jarrul, waiting for a response.
“Jarrul will do his part; he’s never let me down before.”
Tarraquin smiled at him and his heart lifted slightly from the black pit in which it had lain since they had agreed on this plan. “We’ve done all we could to turn the people against Sarrat and to declare for Malute’s heir, but the people are afraid.”
She took Jarrul’s arm and patted his mangled hand fondly. “I have faith in you,” she whispered. “If anyone can move the people it will be you.” She smiled at him and turned to the rest of the room. “That’s enough. Master tailor here needs to disrobe me and provide more support to the bosom which must display the royal seal, and if you don’t mind I would rather disrobe in private than in front of an audience.” There was a general mutter of approval as the courtiers filed out.
Once outside the tailor’s shop, Malingar’s charming smile, the one he kept just for Tarraquin, disappeared and he reverted to the hard features of the soldier he was. He turned sharp left trapping Jarrul between him and the wall and glared at him.
“We have just one chance at this and if things go wrong tomorrow it will be because she will have placed her faith in you and you’ll have let her down. I don’t care if the people are afraid, I don’t even care if they want Sarrat to be their king. All I care about is that tomorrow the people who matter put Tarraquin on the throne and the crown on her head.” He stepped closer to Jarrul and pushed him hard against the wall. “You will make sure that happens or I will kill you myself.”
He gave Jarrul a final shove and stormed off leaving Jarrul shaking and breathing hard. When he’d composed himself he straightened his jacket and turned in the other direction hobbling slowly up the street towards the inn which had been the rebel’s headquarters for the last moon cycle. As he passed the street corner where the city guard had one of their watch stations, he took note of the two men leaning casually against the wall.
Jarrul knew them to be Malingar’s men by the way they wore their swords and hoped that nobody else would reach the conclusion that they were potential trouble. He looked across the square and noticed two more sitting on a low wall by the cross roads. Malingar had told them that he’d already posted men at all the critical places in the city just in case, which was fine, but he hadn’t said in case of what.
It occurred to Jarrul that, if Malingar wanted to, he could probably take the city for himself at any time he chose. Getting the people to accept him would be more difficult, but with the map to the fortress’s hidden entrance in his possession and five hundred armed men to support him, there wasn’t much to stop him declaring himself king. Jarrul put the thought to the back of his mind and turned into the inn.
At this time of the day the inn was usually busy with merchants who had finished their day’s trading and wealthy carters who could afford to employ a foreman to supervise the loading of their wagons whilst they relaxed and had a drink or two. Today was no exception, but instead of the usual noise of people enjoying an end of day drink together, the common room was hushed, and people sat in small huddled groups keeping their conversations between themselves. When he entered, everyone stopped talking and looked at him, before returning to their muted discussions.
He went to the bar and nodded to the innkeeper who poured him a small goblet of wine. It was unusual for him to drink wine so early in the day but he needed to take stock of who was in the room and with whom they were meeting. Apart from that, Malingar’s threats had unsettled him and he needed a drink to steady his nerves. He looked at the wine and wished it was grain spirit. Across the room one of the counting house masters looked up and gave him a brief nod. Jonderill ignored it but felt slightly more optimistic. The man was influential amongst those who controlled the finances of the kingdom, and the others at his table sharing a flagon of Vinmore’s best red, owned most of the counting houses in the city. It was he who had been charged with ensuring that those who held the purse strings were well represented at tomorrow’s coronation and he seemed to be doing a good job of it.
Jarrul studied the other groups, but no one else looked up, which wasn’t quite so encouraging. He already knew that the cloth merchants would be there along with representatives from the metal smiths, horse traders and those who imported spirits into the kingdoms, but what he really needed was the carters who employed large groups of men, both inside the city and across Leersland. With their support the message that the rightful heir had taken the throne would spread quicker than even a whole company of mounted couriers could carry it.
The sound of raised voices stopped the conversation in the room, and everyone turned to look at the group of five men in the far corner. It was clear from their richly embroidered coats and the colourful feathers in their decorative hats that these were not coin lenders, wine merchants or horse traders, but the nobility of Leersland. One of them stood and brandished a small cane at the man who sat opposite, whilst the person next to him held onto his arm and tried to pull him down into his seat.
It did no good though, the man, a minor lord with an estate just outside of Tarmin, brought his cane down hard on the table, making the goblets rattle, and glared at the person next to him until he released his arm. With a last harsh word he stormed across the room and out of the door. Tordray and another of Malingar’s men, who had been sitting at the table by the door, stood and followed him out. Jarrul looked anxiously at the group of nobles as one of them gave him a small shrug and turned away. It was always going to be a problem getting the nobility on their side; they were the ones with most to lose if it all went horribly wrong.
There was also the problem of one of them betraying the rebels during the recruitment process. Malingar’s men had been posted at the inn’s doors to manage such an occurrence, and he hoped they would follow their orders and just restrain the young lord instead of killing him, but he didn’t hold out much hope. There was a sudden movement around the table and the other lords stood and shook hands. Three of them left together whilst the young man who had given Jarrul the shrug sauntered across to the other side of the common room and climbed the stairs. Jarrul gave him a few moments and then followed him up.
When he opened the door of the large room at the end of the upstairs corridor, the young noble was not alone. Jarrul closed the door behind him and crossed the room, holding his hand out in greeting. “Lord Istan, it’s good to see you.” Istan took Jarrul’s hand and shook it carefully.
Jarrul glanced at the other man in the room and his spirits lifted slightly. He knew the master of the carters’ guild by sight as did most of the city’s inhabitants. He was a very large man and next to him the slight and youthful Istan looked insignificant. Jarrul knew that the lord’s appearance was deceptive; with his curly blond hair, blue eyes and permanent smile, he looked like one of the frivolous minor nobility who filled the better class inns every night, but to the rebellion, he was one of the key players. It was Istan’s role to ensure that enough of the nobility were present at Tarraquin’s coronation to legitimise her ascension to the throne. He wondered if the guildmaster was aware of the influence Istan wielded amongst the sons and daughters of the nobility who, one day, could be his customers.
“Jarrul, it is good to see that you are still alive. Let me introduce you to Guildmaster Jobes, master of the carters’ guild.”
Jarrul gave a brief bow and reluctantly held out his mangled hand desperately hoping that the man’s grip would not be as strong as he looked. Fortunately the big man kept his hands in his pockets and looked Jarrul up and down. “Thank you for agreeing to talk to me, Guildmaster. I assume that Lord Istan has explained the situation to you?”
“Oh aye, his nibs has told me that a bunch of traitors led by a cripple and some slip of a girl, who claims to be Malute’s heir, is going to take the throne from King Sarrat. I suppose you’re the cripple?”
“I am Master Jarrul, Princess Tarraquin’s first advisor, and yes, our intention is to put the rightful heir onto the throne of Leersland. Her Highness, who really is the daughter of the murdered King Malute, would like to call on the loyalty of the carters’ guild and their guildmaster both in taking the throne and when that is done, in spreading the good news across the kingdom.”
The Guildmaster gave a bellowing laugh. “And why would I be daft enough to get involved in a harebrained rebellion which will see all your heads on pikes outside the city gates when Sarrat returns?”
“The answer to that is simple. Sarrat is isolating Leersland from the other kingdoms and closing down trade with them. What little trade remains he is sharing amongst his cronies. Very soon there will be no work for Leersland’s carters and then what use would there be for a guildmaster? When Princess Tarraquin is queen she will reopen trade and the carters’ guild will be more powerful than ever.”
Jobes thought about it for a moment. “You have a point but what’s in it for me?”
“You mean apart from being one of the most important guildmasters in Leersland and being able to look down on the metal smiths and brewers guilds?”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean.”
Jarrul hesitated for a moment and Lord Istan stepped in. “How about a place on the Queen’s council?”
The Guildmaster raised an eyebrow. “You mean sit in the same room as the Queen and tell her what to do?”
“Something like that,” said Jarrul rather vaguely and giving Istan a hard look. “That and having a front row seat at the Queen’s coronation.”
“And all I have to do is provide transport for you and your gang?”
“Yes, and keep it quiet until we tell you and then carry the good news to the rest of the kingdom.”
“Seems easy to me but if things go wrong me and my guildsmen will swear we had nowt to do with you, the girl or the lordling here.”
“That’s understood,” put in Istan angrily, “but if you fuck up, me, or one of my lordling mates, will make sure you never fuck anything again. Do you understand?”
The Guildmaster swallowed hard. “Yes, My Lord.”
“Now go. You have much to do if your guildsmen are going to be ready for tonight’s activities.”
Jobes bowed briefly and left the room somewhat sullenly.
“Can he be trusted?” asked Jarrul taking a seat at the table.
“He can be trusted as much as anyone else can be in this dangerous enterprise, except you, me and the Princess of course. He’s big and loud but it’s all bluster. He won’t pass up the chance of sitting in the same room as the Queen and the high and mighty masters of the metal smiths and brewers guilds.”
Jarrul smiled and poured two pots of ale from the jug on the table. He took a long draft from the flat, slightly warm ale, grimaced and looked serious again. “How is recruiting going?”
Istan shrugged. “It is better than I’d hoped for. So far I have only had two refusals. Great Lord Pollerin is under guard in his town house and you saw the other lord who refused to join us leave the inn with Malingar’s men following him. You don’t think they will kill him do you?”
“Tarraquin has ordered that there should be no bloodshed unless Sarrat starts it, but I can’t vouch for how good Malingar’s men are at following orders.”
“Let’s hope they are disciplined. It would cause a lot of resentment if any of the nobility were harmed.”
“What about the other Great Lords?”
“As far as I can find out they are both on their estates and quiet. With luck the first thing they will know about the change in management will be their summons to the palace and the sight of Sarrat’s mounted head as they ride through the city gates. What about you, Master Jarrul? How do things fare with you?”
“Everything is prepared as far as it can be. The master of the metal smiths’ guild has done a fine job with the fake crown and seal, but I wish we’d been able to get the Lord Keeper of the Keys on our side. It won’t help matters if he turns up at the crucial moment with the real things in his hand. Apart from that it’s just a case of waiting for the time to move and hope that nobody talks out of turn. Then it’s all down to the princess.”
“Yes, you’re right. In the end it will all be down to Tarraquin.”
The last of the wagons drew to a halt in the lee of the city wall and Guildmaster Jobes, who insisted on driving the last wagon himself, climbed down from the driving bench, dropped the rear boards and drew back the waxed linen flaps. Six armed men stood at the rear of the wagon with swords drawn and looking for trouble. Their belligerent demeanour made the Guildmaster take a hasty step back. They leapt down and one of them sheathed his sword and helped the tailor and two maids out of the wagon. Jarrul followed and behind him came Tarraquin looking determined but shaking slightly.
He helped her down giving her cold hands a gentle squeeze of encouragement. A large boulder beside the wagon marked the hidden entrance to the city and Malingar eased himself out from behind the narrow space between the overlapping city walls. He held his finger to his lips and waved them forward. Once they had all passed sideways through the narrow entrance and were out of sight, the Guildmaster climbed back onto the driver’s bench and steered the draught horses back up the incline and towards the distant road.
Moving people in and out of the city without them being noticed was always going to be a problem. The sudden exit of an unusual number of people just before dark would have aroused suspicion, whilst an even larger number of armed men coming into the city would have definitely raised an alarm. Fortunately the guards on duty at the city gate were used to the comings and goings of the carters in the candle length before the gates were closed for the night
They only stopped the one wagon, the rear of which was stacked full to the top of the waxed linen roof with crates of greens, carrots and onions ready for the next day’s market. The guards had taken a quick look, helped themselves to a small supply of carrots and onions for their evening stew pot, and had allowed the wagon to proceed. Behind the market produce. the fifty men quietly returned their swords to their scabbards and waited for the wagon to reach its dropping off point in a deserted warehouse.
The six guards who had been assigned to protect the future queen were the last to squeeze into the small space between the overlapping city walls. They had been chosen for their slight build but even so it was a tight fit and their array of weapons scraped noisily against the rough stone. At the front of the small procession, Malingar frowned irritably as the noise echoed along the narrow passageway. He held the only lantern, half shuttered as the light was not yet needed. The passageway was so narrow, with walls pressing on either side, that the only way to move was sideways.
Behind him Tarraquin fixed her eyes on his retreating back and tried to ignore the feeling of stone pressing in on her. Jarrul followed behind wishing that the two whispering maids who followed him would be quiet. They weren’t really maids but a couple of whores from a house of pleasure near the inn where the rebels met who had volunteered for the role, in the hope of escaping their life of bound servitude. He supposed that the thought of losing your head wasn’t too frightening when you were forced to lead the sort of life they did. They both said they were not afraid of the dark, but both showed their fear of being trapped in the narrow passageway.
Behind the maids came the small tailor who had no option but to follow with one of the six guards occasionally prodding him in the back with his dagger. After walking a quarter of the length of the city wall, the stone passageway opened out and Malingar stopped to fully open the shutter on the lantern. Tarraquin moved up to stand next to the captain with Jarrul at her side and looked questioningly at him.
The open space was formed by a junction of passageways. To the left, the city wall continued on its way, and the opening to the passageway looked narrow and dark. On the right, two new passageways had been formed by the corner of a building, and where the wall angled sharply there was a table and chair with an empty wash bowl and water jug. A comb and a mirror lay on the table and some clothes pegs had been hammered into the wall. An old black cloak, covered in dust and cobwebs, hung forgotten on the furthest peg. Malingar smiled down at Tarraquin and pointed to the right.
The small procession set off again along a wider corridor lit with the occasional lantern. After a short while it turned sharply right and then stopped at a solid brick wall. Malingar held the lantern high and then dropped the shutter plunging them all into darkness. The tailor gave a little squawk of surprise followed by a shuffle of feet and a stifled grunt as the guard placed a firm hand over his mouth.
Tarraquin blinked in the darkness trying to clear the bright spots from her eyes, but then realised that it wasn’t the afterglow from the lantern at all, but pin pricks of light seeping in through a number of small holes in the wall beside her. She stood on tip toe to reach the nearest hole and gasped in surprise as she looked out at the dimly lit throne room from somewhere just behind the throne. Malingar opened the shutter again and pressed his hand to the top right hand corner of the wall in front of him.
With a tiny click the wall moved and swung open with only the slightest grinding of metal wheels on stone, and two guards with drawn swords stepped forward to challenge him. The captain hissed something at them and they stepped smartly back to allow the party to enter the small, enclosed area. The corridor continued further, but where they stood, the wall to the side appeared to be less solid. Malingar pressed forward slightly into the wall, stepped sideways and disappeared from view. With some trepidation Tarraquin followed and then stopped in amazement at the scene in front of her.
The last time she’d been in the throne room was the night that Sarrat had murdered her father and, with the aid of his magician, had taken the throne. She’d been a small child and had only the vaguest memories of her father and none at all of this room where her life had been so dramatically changed. Whilst she might not have been able to remember the room, she felt as if she knew every inch of it. Lord Istan had drawn a plan of it and described the room and its contents in detail.
He had helped her to memorise the position of every pillar, guard station, platform and floor marker, and had taught her who had the right to walk and stand where. She left the others standing in front of the tapestry that concealed the secret entrance, behind and to one side of the throne, and walked to the foot of the dais on which the throne stood. Slowly she walked up the marble steps and looked down at the ugly, uncomfortable chair that tomorrow, if the goddess willed it, would be hers.
Malingar came up behind her. “Try it; see how it feels to be the Queen.”
Tarraquin shook her head. “I’m not the Queen yet. When I am, it will be mine, and I will sit in it then by right of succession.”
Malingar shrugged. “As you wish, My Lady.” He gestured around the room. “What do you think?”
Tarraquin looked around her at the ordered chaos which had no place in any throne room. Over a hundred men in the dark garb of mercenaries sat or lay on bedrolls eating cold rations or sharpening weapons. Behind them lines had been stretched between the pillars and bright red uniforms with gold braiding hung like so many ghosts. A small area at the far end had been cordoned off as a latrine and she could already smell it from where she stood.
More lines had been stretched between the pillars on the other side of the chamber and these were hung with thick blankets to provide small private enclosures. Boxes were stacked around them and already the tailor and the two maids were unpacking their contents. The large oak table used by the court scribes had been moved from its normal position behind the throne to a space in front of the screened off enclosures. It was set with plates and platters of cold food and three chairs had been pulled up around it.
“I hope it looks better than this tomorrow,” commented Tarraquin.
“Don’t worry, it will. Everything we need is here; it’s only a matter of putting it together in the right order and in the right place and hiding the packaging.”
Jarrul shook his head. “What about the noise, won’t that attract someone’s attention? Or what if someone comes in?”
“With Lord Istan’s assistance I have substituted some of my own men for the palace guard assigned to patrol this area; that’s how I managed to get so many of my men in here. In any case with Sarrat away from home, nobody has a reason to come here, but if they do, we’ll deal with them.”
“I said no bloodshed,” snapped Tarraquin.
The Captain bowed to her slightly. “Unfortunately, My Lady, sometimes there is no alternative. Now come, let’s eat and then you must sleep. Every man’s life in this room will depend on you being bright, alert and beautiful tomorrow.”
Malingar’s words might have been right but they didn’t help to unravel the knot in Tarraquin’s stomach which had stolen her appetite. She picked at her food, pushing the different cold meats from one side of her plate to the other. She nibbled at the edge of her small loaf and then picked at it so the crumbs scattered over and around her plate. The cheese and creamed eggs remained untouched and only the freshly picked wine berries tempted her. Jarrul managed no better.
When Malingar had eaten his fill and had enough of them picking at their food, he sent them off to their separate screened sleeping enclosures, Tarraquin by herself and Jarrul to share with the tailor. Sleep came surprisingly fast to Jarrul, but Tarraquin remained awake on her thin mattress for a long while listening to the sounds of the men settling down for the night and wondering if her long dead father would approve of what she was going to do.
She wished she could remember something about him, but all she knew about the dead king was what others had told her. They said that he was kind and generous but firm and determined when he needed to be. She had also been told that he cared for his people and believed in justice and honour. Tarraquin hoped that she could be like him and with that thought she fell asleep.
One of her maids, the tall one with dark hair, woke her, gently shaking her shoulder. The other maid, small and blond with bright blue eyes, lit a lantern and poured a small amount of water into a wash bowl. The maid who had woken her helped her up from her mattress and started to undress her whilst the other one stood ready to wash her with a damp cloth and perfumed soap.
Tarraquin had been a small child when she last had a maid and the thought of these two strangers washing and dressing her was not one she felt comfortable with. She pushed the hands of the tall maid away and when she tried to undress her, she took off the shirt she had worn to sleep in by herself. Taking the hint, the second maid curtsied, handed her the damp cloth and scented soap and then turned away whilst Tarraquin washed herself all over. When she had done, they handed her new delicately embroidered small clothes, and a long silk shift.
The taller of the two guided her to a seat at a small table and began to brush her long auburn hair whilst the other laid out an array of cosmetics, and then went to fetch a mug of herb tea and a small loaf for her breakfast. As they worked away painting her face and piling her hair into twists and curls on the top of her head, she realised that she knew nothing about them except that they were whores. She’d only met them the day before and then they had been dressed in low cut tunics which exposed the colouring around their nipples and were made so short that a man could easily press himself into them without having the bother of moving any clothing out of the way.
Then they had both worn heavy makeup with deep red lips and had brightly dyed hair, and for a moment, she wondered what she was going to look like by the time they had finished with her. She looked up at the maid applying the makeup and noticed that today she wore very little lip colouring and no dark kohl and that her fair hair, which yesterday had been bright orange, was neatly platted. Tarraquin turned to look at the other maid who was arranging her hair and was relieved to find that she too looked fairly normal. Both had changed into long plain dresses with high collars.
“Hold still, My Lady; I nearly painted an eyebrow on your nose.”
“Sorry. Perhaps it would be easier for all of us if you were to tell me your names?”
“I’m Sheevar Twenty Two and she’s Sheevar Fourteen.”
Tarraquin looked puzzled. “Sheevar is a pretty name. Are you related?”
Both of the maids laughed loudly. “No, My Lady. Sheevar is the name they give all the kingsward whores who are like us. It means we’ve been bought and bound to a pleasure ‘ouse an’ anyone can ‘ave us if they ‘ave the coin. Our number tells us apart.”
“Oh,” said Tarraquin, embarrassed by her own question but still curious. “Does that mean you have a different man every night?”
“Depends,” said Sheevar Twenty Two. “If yer lucky one man will want yer all night but most of the time its three or four different ones in which case yer bound to know at least one of ‘em.
“Oh,” said Tarraquin, wishing she hadn’t asked. She tried to clear her mind and concentrate on what was to come but the more she tried the more nervous she felt.
“You really should try to eat, My Lady. You’re shaking like a leaf.”
She knew she was and tried desperately to think of something which would take her mind off what she had to do. “Tell me about yourselves; it will take my mind off things.”
“There aint much to tell, My Lady. My dad was ‘ung for theft and I became kingsward. When I’d seen nine summers I was bound to the whore ‘ouse as a servant an’ when I’d ‘ad me first bleedin’ I became a whore. Sheevar Twenty Two ‘ere was sold to the whore ‘ouse by ‘er dad when she ‘ad seen twelve summers and started whoring straight off as ‘er mam ‘ad done. It’s in yer blood yer see.”
“That’s awful,” said Tarraquin, truly shocked.
“It could be worse, at least at the pleasure ‘ouse we get a decent kind of client. Now Lord Istan, he’s one of our favourites, none of us mind bein’ laid by ‘im.” Sheevar Fourteen nodded in agreement.
“I’ve never been with a man,” said Tarraquin coyly. “What’s it like?”
“Gawd! We aint the best ones to ask are we. We don’t do it for pleasure or love like you will.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“When you’ve got a kingsward number burnt onto yer arm yer don’t ‘ave any option do yer? And it’s better than runnin’ an’ being on the streets with no roof over yer ‘ead. Yer learn early on that its better ter spread yer legs willingly and be groped fer a couple of gelstart than to be raped and brutalised fer nowt. It’s a bit of wisdom yer should remember, not that it’s ever likely to ‘appen to a lady like you.”
“I hope not but I will remember it just the same, as I will remember what you have told me about your life. When I’m queen I’ll make things better for you, I promise.”
“You already have, we’re lady’s maids now.”
“And as lady’s maids you should have proper names not numbers. What would you like to be called?”
They both giggled. “My mother named me Birrit and it would be nice to be called that again,” said Sheevar Fourteen.
“Don’t rightly know,” said the other. “Never thought ‘bout it so I’ll stick with Sheevar but without the number.”
“You’ll have to choose another name when you become my ladies in waiting, Sheevar. Even without a number Sheevar wouldn’t be appropriate.”
They both laughed again. “Hellden’s balls lady, we aint no ladies in waiting. What would yer court ladies say if they saw us with yer? No, we’ll just be ‘appy to be maids if you’ll ‘ave us.”
“I would be honoured.”
“There,” said Birrit, putting the makeup away in a small box. “All you need now is the dress, crown and jewels and you’ll be a real queen.”
She pushed the screening blanket to one side and slipped out, returning moments later with an armful of starched petticoats and the nervous tailor carrying the heavily embroidered overdress. Birrit and Sheevar helped her into the layers of petticoats and then eased the dress over the piled coils of hair letting it fall gracefully around her. The tailor went to fasten the buttons at the back but was shaking so much with nerves that he couldn’t hold the buttons so Sheevar had to take his place.
He stood back to admire his work and tutted loudly. “The breasts are not high enough; they need to be more prominent.”
The tailor stretched his hand forward to lift the left breast higher and had his hand slapped out of the way by Sheevar. “Leave ‘er tits be, yer dressing a queen, not a whore. Go an’ get the crown an’ the jewels so we can finish the job.”
Complaining loudly the little man hurried away and quickly returned with two boxes. He opened the first and brought out a slim pendant flared at the end like a bell and engraved with the royal crest. Birrit took it from his shaking hand and adjusted the length of the chain until the royal seal nestled perfectly in Tarraquin’s cleavage. The tailor opened the second box and lifted the crown out earning a gasp of surprise and awe from the three women who hadn’t seen it before.
“Hellden’s balls, it’s beautiful,” muttered Sheevar. “Is it real?”
“Of course not, the real one is locked away and only Sarrat and the Lord Keeper of the Keys can get to it.” The tailor turned the gold and silver crown around in his hands so that the light made the imitation jewels sparkle. “However, apart from them the only people who know it is not the real thing is the guildmaster of the metal smiths guild and those in this room.” He placed the crown on Tarraquin’s head and gave a small titter of amusement. “I’ve never crowned a queen before.”
Tarraquin reached up and adjusted the crown with her finger tips. She had practiced walking and sitting with a wooden ring on her head made from a bowl that had its bottom cut out but hadn’t expected the crown to be so heavy. She hoped she wouldn’t have to wear it for too long otherwise she was going to have a stiff neck. Birrit came forward with a hand mirror and Tarraquin looked at her reflection. Gone was the inexperienced woman and in her place was a regal and serious queen. If it hadn’t been for her eyes she wouldn’t have recognised herself.
“Are you ready, Your Majesty?”
Tarraquin nodded and then wished she hadn’t as the crown slipped forward slightly and had to be repositioned.
“Yes, if everything is prepared you may remove the screen.”
She turned towards the blanket wall and her two maids scuttled behind her to make sure her dress was hanging perfectly. The tailor slipped outside and in a moment the blanket which had screened off her private enclosure was removed.
Malingar stood to one side, his blood red uniform edged with gold braid complimenting his dark features. An ornamental helmet with a thick red plume was tucked under one arm and his gloved hand rested on an ornamental sword hilt studded with gems. Jarrul stood on the other side in a plain dark jacket and breaches with his dark hair tied back making his pale skin look whiter than ever. His only ornamentation was a band of pale blue silk which ran from one shoulder, across his back and chest and met at his waist. The royal crest of her father’s house was embroidered on the front at heart height.
They both bowed and stepped forward and Tarraquin gave them each a brief nod and a warm smile as she stepped past them, ignoring the supporting arm they both offered. She walked out of the shaded colonnade and into the early morning sunlight which flooded through the high windows above the throne room floor. As if she had been a queen all her life she gracefully mounted the dais and with the assistance of her maids who adjusted her dress around her, Tarraquin sat regally on Leersland’s throne.
She looked around the room and smiled in satisfaction. The chaos of the previous night had gone and instead of bedrolls and empty uniforms both sides of the throne room were lined with guards in bright red livery, ceremonial helmets and black knee length boots which shone like silk. Each man held a highly polished halberd and a small shield emblazoned with the royal crest, both of which would be useless in a fight. At their sides though, each wore their own mercenary sword, the only non standard items amongst them. Tarraquin wondered where so many new uniforms had been found in such a short space of time but decided it must have been a much easier task than producing the replica crown and seal which she now wore.
When Malingar and Jarrul had taken their places to each side and slightly behind her she eased back into the uncomfortable throne trying to ignore the heavy carving which dug into her back and legs. The room was absolutely silent and the only movement came from shimmering dust motes which floated downwards in the beams of light from above. Then in the distance there was the sound of raised voices and the pounding of feet, quiet at first and then louder as the commotion came closer.
Now she could hear someone shouting above the noise of arguing voices and her heart beat faster in anticipation of what was to come. From outside there was a sudden clash of weapons and the huge doors at the far end of the throne room were pushed open. A tall man in long, dark robes with a large silver key hanging on a chain around his neck strode into the room. He stopped abruptly after a dozen strides, took a quick look around the room and pointed an accusing finger at the seated figure on the throne.
“Traitor!” he screamed. “Seize that woman!”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Despite the fact that she’d been expecting this or something very like it and had rehearsed what would happen next, the Lord Keeper of the Key’s challenge came as a shock. She raised her hand to give the signal to proceed with their plan and felt it shake so she dropped it quickly back onto the arm of the throne before anyone could see just how afraid she was. From behind her Malingar took two steps forward and gave a single command. The two lines of soldiers moved smartly into their allocated positions and before the Lord Keeper of the Keys had a chance to say another word he was surrounded by a small phalanx of armed guards.
Another section of the guard had formed a formidable barrier in front of the throne room doors blocking the entrance and keeping the crowd at bay. Despite the ceremonial appearance of their weapons none of those outside the throne room felt inclined to press forward into the shiny, sharp tips of the polished blades so they milled around outside instead. The remainder of the guards had left the throne room at a run with their swords drawn, bypassing those trying to get into the chamber and engaging the surprised and unprepared palace guard. They had been summoned by the Lord Keeper of the Keys when over two hundred lords and worthy citizens had unexpectedly turned up at his door demanding immediate access to the throne room.
This was the tricky part. If the palace guard was at full strength then Malingar’s men would be overwhelmed and the few that were now left guarding the entrance to the throne room would be insufficient to hold the palace guard back; then the game would be over. If, however, the men who had been smuggled into the city the previous evening had been successful in disabling the off duty guards and those on patrol in the city the whole thing might just work.
Tarraquin sat and listened intently for the clash of steel and shouts of battle but all she could hear was the cacophony of voices of those waiting to gain admission to the throne room. If there was a fight going on, it was happening some distance away; not that that was any consolation. The plan had been to wait for word that the palace guard had been subdued before making the next move, but it seemed to Tarraquin that it was taking far too long and they were in danger of losing control of the situation. Without looking at him, Tarraquin raised her hand again and Jarrul stepped forward from his position at the rear of the throne.
“Lord Keeper of the Keys, you may step forward and address Her Majesty.”
The guards at the front of the phalanx stepped smartly to one side and then flanked the Lord Keeper of the Keys as he strode the length of the throne room to the foot of the dais where the queen sat. He was a tall and imposing man and the sound of his heavy boots and metal tipped cane hitting the floor echoed around the open chamber. When he came to a halt in front of the throne he ground his cane down hard into the polished marble and glared at Tarraquin.
“What is the meaning of this charade? How dare you invade His Majesty’s palace and sit on his throne. He will have all your heads for this insult.”
“Lord Keeper of the Keys, it is customary to bow before your monarch,” interrupted Jarrul sternly.
The Lord glared at Jarrul and then back at Tarraquin. “King Sarrat is the ruler of Leersland, not this girl. I will only bow to the rightful monarch.”
Malingar stepped forward from the other side of the throne to respond but Tarraquin held out a restraining hand. “My Lord Keeper of the Keys.” she said quietly. “I understand how difficult this must be for you, and that I’ve placed you in an awkward position. For many summers you have been a loyal servant to Sarrat, believing him to be the rightful king and now, it must be upsetting for you to find that you have been serving the wrong person all that time. Sarrat murdered King Malute, my father, and took the throne by force. As the true heir I am now taking back what is rightfully mine. I would ask you to see reason and to serve me as well as I am sure you served the usurper. Will you do that for me? Will you be my Lord Keeper of the Keys and share the keys of the kingdom with me?”
The Lord thought for a moment and then took a pace forward and showing his disrespect rested one leg on the first step of the dais. “Madam, King Sarrat is the crowned ruler of this kingdom and I will only serve the rightful king. He has charged me with keeping the kingdom’s keys, crown and seals and that is what I will do until he returns to reclaim them.” He removed his foot from the step and gave a mocking laugh. “You and your claim to the throne are as counterfeit as that crown on your head and the seal around your neck. Once the people of Leersland realise that you are a fraud they will have your head and I hope that I’m there on that day to lead you to the headsman’s axe.”
Tarraquin sighed in disappointment. “I’m sorry you feel this way, I would have preferred to have you at my side rather than beneath my feet. Captain Malingar, you may have him taken away but treat him gently until dawn tomorrow. That will to give him the chance to reconsider his decision. If, after that time, he has not changed his mind, your questioners may do whatever is necessary to make him reveal where he keeps his keys and the location of the crown and seal.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“You cannot do this to me!” shouted the Lord Keeper in protest but Malingar had already signalled to the guards surrounding the Lord and they once again closed around him marching him from the room still protesting. Tarraquin watched them go and then waved her two advisors to her.
“We use the backup plan and get Lord Istan to declare you queen, after which you take oaths of loyalty from those who have gathered.”
Tarraquin turned to Malingar. “Have we any news of the fighting?”
“No, but I am sure we will have soon.”
“Yes, I’m sure too, one way or another.” She frowned slightly as she considered the situation. “Then we proceed and hope for the best.”
They both nodded in agreement and Malingar gave the curt command to the row of men who guarded the entrance to the throne room. Slowly they pulled back and the guards on each side of the retreating line fell out and took up their previous positions along the sides of the room until only a single guard remained. He turned and bowed to the queen and then took up his own position at the side of the dais.
From the throne room doors, the crowd of supporters filed into the room led by Lord Istan and slightly behind him the huge figure of Guildmaster Jobes of the carter’s guild. When all of the supporters had entered the throne room, Tordray and two other guards followed them in. Tordray stood framed in the doorway until he caught Malingar’s eye and then bowed briefly. He turned and walked out of the throne room again leaving the two guards to close the door behind him.
Malingar gave a smile of satisfaction and leaned down close to Tarraquin’s ear. “The fortress is ours, my lady.”
Tarraquin nodded distractedly as she watched the crowd move forward and spread out to fill the throne room to about a third of its length. “And the city?” she whispered back.
Malingar just shrugged as the supporters milled about muttering amongst themselves. Most of those present hadn’t been into the throne room before or even into the palace for that matter, and they stared around in wonder at the rich carvings, portraits and tapestries which decorated the walls. The few lords who had been part of Sarrat’s court waited impatiently for their fellow conspirators to stop whispering and pointing out things to others who stood with their mouths open, gaping around them.
Once everyone had settled and there was silence, Lord Istan stepped forward, his dark tailored coat and blue sash with the royal emblem embroidered on it matching the one that Jarrul wore and making him look older than his twenty five summers. He approached the throne and bowed deeply to Tarraquin before turning and facing the silent crowd.
“My lords, guildmasters and worthy gentlemen, I present to you Queen Tarraquin, King Malute’s only child and rightful heir to the throne of Leersland.”
He turned back to the queen and knelt on one knee with his head bowed. Behind him there was absolute silence and no movement. Tarraquin looked out at the faces before her, some confused, some blank, one or two angry and a very few smiling. She kept her eyes fixed on the crowd as the guards at the edge of the room shifted nervously, waiting for a command from their captain.
“Your Majesty,” grunted Jobes as he went heavily to one knee almost pushing the man next to him out of the way as he made space for himself.
Around and behind him others fell to their knees naming Tarraquin queen until the entire crowd were on their knees with their heads bowed. Jarrul gave Tarraquin an encouraging nod and she stood with a small, relieved smile on her face.
“My lords, guildmasters, worthy gentlemen, the honour you have shown me is gracefully accepted. You may rise.”
She retook her seat on the throne as the crowd regained their feet, the older ones with stiff joints being aided by their younger neighbours. When everyone was standing and there was silence again, Istan turned back to the queen.
“Your Majesty, may I present the lords of the realm, masters of the principal guilds and worthy gentlemen of trade, accounting and law who have gathered here today to witness your accession to the throne and to give you their vows of loyalty and allegiance.”
“Thank you, Lord Istan, for your introduction. I am pleased to accept the vows of loyalty and allegiance of those present. However, if there are any amongst you who cannot make their vow in truth and honesty they may leave now without any loss of honour or fear of reprisals.”
For a long moment there was absolute silence and nobody moved. Then the great door of the throne room opened and Tordray ran in followed closely behind by a cloaked man in dusty mercenary garb. Everyone turned to watch, muttering amongst themselves at the unexpected interruption, as the two soldiers marched swiftly along the length of the throne room until they reached the dais, where they bowed deeply to the queen.
“Your Majesty, Captain Malingar,” began Tordray breathlessly. “There’s an army approaching the city.” Behind him there was instant uproar as those who only moments before had been ready to swear their allegiance started to panic and demand to know what was happening. Tarraquin felt her heart drop and the little bit of confidence that she had started to feel that things might work out after all evaporated like mist in the sunshine. She looked to Jarrul for support but he too looked white and shaken so she turned back to Malingar with a questioning look.
“With your permission, Your Majesty, I think we need to listen to this news in private.” Tarraquin nodded numbly. “Silence!” yelled Malingar, instantly hushing the voice of the crowd and attracting their attention. “Her Majesty needs to consider this man’s report and decide what should be done about it. Whilst Her Majesty is doing so, you will wait here and when a decision has been made you will do as your queen orders. Guards! Close the doors and secure the room!”
Before the babble of voices could restart the guards rapidly dispersed to all the doors, closing them and dropping the locking bars into place. They lowered their halberds to prevent anyone trying to leave. Malingar led the way to a small door behind the throne which he’d discovered the night before and Tarraquin and the others followed. At the bottom of the dais, Jarrul waved Lord Istan over to join them, and as they stepped through the doorway into the small receiving room, Jobes followed him in. Jarrul went to protest but the look on the Guildmaster’s face stopped him dead. Instead he just shrugged and closed the door behind them all.
“Report!” commanded Malingar.
“There’s an army approaching the city. It is less than half a day behind me and should be here just past noon.”
“Did you recognise them?”
“No, My Lord, I didn’t get that close and in any case I’m not familiar with Leersland’s nobility or officers.”
“It must be Sarrat,” said Jarrul numbly.
“Unfortunately, yes. I had hoped for some time to organise our defences before he returned but now we’ll have to think of something else.” Malingar rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “How many men does he have with him?”
“I think there are around three or four hundred men. There is also a small line of wagons and spare mounts. There’s no siege equipment though.”
“That’s a small number,” said Jarrul with a frown. “I heard that he’d left for the south with nearly two thousand men.”
“Perhaps he had heavy losses when he fought the southern nomads or maybe he’s left his wounded behind.”
“Perhaps,” said Malingar carefully. “But if he has then he’s played into our hands. Tordray, what is the situation in the city?”
“We hold the city gates and all the main crossroads and squares. The palace guard and most of the city guard are being held in the warehouse district, but there is unrest on the streets. The people know that something is going on and once news gets out that Sarrat is bringing an army into the city to retake his throne there is going to be panic and riots. We don’t have enough men to deal with that, man the walls and keep Tarmin’s guards under lock and key.”
“What if we don’t have to quell any riots but have the people on our side. What are our chances then?” asked Tarraquin.
“Our forces will be about equal in number but our men are fresh whilst Sarrat’s have just fought a war and have been travelling for a moon cycle.” Malingar gave Tarraquin the smile he kept just for her. “What are you thinking, My Lady?”
“It seems to me that we have most of the city leaders waiting in the next room. If they could be persuaded to talk to the people and keep them calm, or even to get them to help, your men could be freed to counter the threat. What do you say, Master Carter? Do you think the great and the good next door could be persuaded to bring the people to our cause in time?”
“Aye, if you scared them enough but you need to do it now or there won’t be enough time left to do anything.”
“Thank you, Guildmaster, for your advice and support. Now is your chance to set an example for the others to follow. Captain Malingar, go with the Guildmaster and replace your men on guard duty with the Guildmaster’s carters. I will leave what other preparations are needed to defeat this army to you. Jarrul, Lord Istan, you will come with me.”
Tarraquin turned and strode to the door, opening it wide and returned to the throne room and her hushed supporters. She gave them a brief look, noticing that they had all gathered into small groups depending on their livelihoods, and mounted the dais. Jarrul and Istan followed her up the steps and stood behind her whilst Malingar led his small group quickly out of the room. She waited until they had closed the door behind them before she moved to the edge of the platform.
“My lords, guildmasters, gentlemen,” she paused whilst the room became quiet and she had everyone’s attention. “Gentlemen, I regret that the morning’s entertainment and the planned celebrations must be postponed for a short while due to the arrival of uninvited and unwanted guests.” There were one or two titters of amusement and a couple of nods of approval.
“Once the gatecrashers have been dealt with we will finish our oath taking and rejoicing. Until then I’ve a need to call on your services. The people of our city are unsettled and afraid and are in danger of causing more damage to your livelihoods and homes than the army which approaches the city. Unfortunately, due to Sarrat’s poor timing, it isn’t possible to defend Tarmin from the danger both from without and within these walls. I therefore call upon the city’s leaders, gathered here in this room, to bring their people together, tell them the joyous news that King Malute’s daughter is now their rightful queen, and to persuade them to resist Sarrat’s return. If they are unable to do that, you must persuade them to return to their own homes and protect their families once the fighting starts.”
There was a general muttering in the room as each of the small groups conferred with their members and then one man stepped forward and bowed. Lord Istan leant forward and whispered the man’s details into Tarraquin’s ear.
“Master of counting house Zott, you have a question?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. It is the same question which we all wish to ask. Why should we risk our lives and everything we have to support your claim when the crowned king returns with his army?”
“A good question indeed, Master Zott, and I will give you three good reasons. Firstly I am the true queen of Leersland and Sarrat is a murderer and usurper. Secondly I will rule fairly and justly as my father did, whilst Sarrat will take what he wants and leave you to starve. And thirdly, if Sarrat returns to this city, every man in this room will lose their heads along with their wives, sons, daughters and any other family members who live in Leersland. If, Master Zott, you wish to see your new baby daughter impaled on the swords of Sarrat’s thugs then do nothing and let him take his throne back.”
Arguments instantly broke out and the volume increased as the groups discussed the truth of the matter. Tarraquin let it run on for a short while and then gave Istan a brief nod. He stepped forwards and raised his hands. “Gentlemen, the time for talking is over. We either support the queen or accept the consequences.”
“Lord Istan, Your Majesty. It would seem that we have very little choice in the matter.” Zott turned to the gathered crowd which reluctantly nodded in agreement. “By your leave, Your Majesty.”
Master Zott bowed briefly and turned to lead the masters of the city’s counting houses out of the throne room. There was some muttering amongst the other groups but in the end they followed behind. Tarraquin watched them go from her position at the edge of the dais and when the last one had left and the doors were firmly closed behind them, she took two staggering steps back and collapsed into the throne oblivious to its hardness or its protruding carvings.
The sun had just passed its zenith when Great Lord Andron crested the last ridge before the pleasant vale in which Tarmin nestled. Even with the clouds scudding overhead sending dark shadows racing across the open land before the city, Tarmin was an impressive sight. The grey, granite walls barely contained the sprawl of dwellings, trades and warehouses.
From his vantage point, Andron could see the remains of earlier city walls in concentric rings within the city where they had been overwhelmed by the growth in the population and new walls had been built. In the centre of the city, but slightly to one side so that its protective wall just touched the city wall, stood the ugly grey fortress which was the heart of Leersland’s power and his destination.
His Guardcaptain rode up next to him and his old, heavy horse came to a halt with an irritable grunt. Andron gave them a cursory glance and came to the decision that when he was king he would find himself a new Guardcaptain who was young and fit instead of old, fat and bald headed. Someone like Lozin, who sat on his other side, good with weapons instead of with a harp. He glanced at Lozin and gave him an encouraging smile and the young man returned a pained smile and tried to lean further away from the smell coming from the small pannier attached to the other side of his saddle.
Andron turned his attention back to the city wondering if the guards on the city’s walls had spotted him and his army yet. They would, of course, assume it was King Sarrat returning from the southern border. As soon as they saw the royal standards, which flapped noisily behind him, they would alert the Lord Keeper of the Keys and then there would be hasty preparations for his return. He hoped the preparations would not be too grand, after all, his entrance into the city should be solemn and the people should mourn their dead king. The grand celebrations could happen once he had been crowned.
He turned in the saddle to look at the army which followed him and hoped he didn’t have to use them. Four hundred good soldiers, some of which had experience of border skirmishes but none of them had been tried in a full battle. He could have brought more but they were just recruits and boys and they would have been more trouble than they were worth. In any case, with most of the fighting men of Leersland still in the south, it should be easy to ride into Tarmin and take the throne which, as the senior Great Lord, was rightly his.
He’d only brought his army to create an impression of power. Lozin leant across and touched him on his arm to attract his attention and then pointed towards the city. Andron squinted into the distance and then gave a satisfied smile. Yes, his army had been spotted, there was definitely more activity along the walls and at the main gate. He raised his hand and signalled the advance.
Tarraquin watched the army pour over the hill and enter the large area of clear land in front of the city with some trepidation. She was no military expert, but from what she could see, the approaching army looked to be in good order, and if the speed of their approach was anything to go by, they were fit and fresh. Below her position on the battlements, by the main gate, Malingar gathered his men, a ragged bunch in a mixture of mercenary black and ceremonial red with a smattering of those in civilian clothing amongst them.
Horses appeared to be a problem as most of the mercenary army had been smuggled into the city and had left their horses hidden some distance away. Animals of various breeds and sizes had been hastily requisitioned but they didn’t add to the army’s appearance as a cohesive fighting force. For the first time, her faith in Malingar waivered.
“This is going to be a close run thing,” whispered Jarrul next to her. “I really do think you should return to the safety of the fortress.”
Tarraquin shook her head but said nothing. She’d already had that discussion with him back in the throne room whilst sipping the herb tea that Birrit had made for her and recovering from the stress of the morning. If she were to be Queen of Leersland, then she needed to be seen defending her people, even if that only meant standing on the battlements and cheering on those who fought for her. Neither Jarrul nor Istan approved, but once they understood that she would not change her mind, they organised her coach and horses and a small royal escort to clear the crowds who thronged the road from the fortress to the city gate, having heard that their new queen would be passing by.
Malingar, who had changed from his blood red and gold uniform into his usual black, hadn’t noticed her arrival in the general confusion. Now he was mounted at the head of his troops and she watched as he led them out of the city gates and formed them up into squads as they waited for the opposing army to arrive.
Tarraquin shivered as the gusting wind tugged at the cloak she wore over her coronation dress and tried to pull it tighter around her. Behind her Birrit and Sheevar, who had insisted on accompanying her, clutched blankets around their shoulders and Jarrul guarded the wooden box in which lay the fake crown and seal. Next to her Lord Istan leant over the parapet intently studying the leader of the opposing army. He stood up straight with a puzzled look on his face.
“Your Majesty, there is definitely something wrong here.”
“I know, it’s an army,” muttered Tarraquin in annoyance without looking at the young lord.
“No, Your Majesty, I mean that something is not right. That’s not Sarrat who is leading the army.”
Tarraquin turned to him in surprise. “It’s not? Then who is it?”
Istan turned back and had another look. “I think it is Great Lord Andron, although what he’s doing here I have no idea.”
Tarraquin turned back and peered over the battlements. She’d never seen Sarrat but she had met Andron on a number of occasions when he’d visited the High Lord. Although a few years had passed since then she remembered him as being surly and sly and propositioning her brother.
“I think you’re right. Does Malingar know who he is?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so, Your Majesty, but as the Captain and his mercenaries fought alongside the king they will know that the man isn’t Sarrat.”
Jarrul stepped forward to peer over the battlements. “That means if Malingar engages this army and loses a large part of his force, Sarrat could come along behind them and finish us all off.”
“You’re right,” said Tarraquin thoughtfully. “We need to do something about this and fast otherwise Captain Malingar is going to place us in a very difficult situation without knowing it.”
Great Lord Andron pulled his horse to a halt and stared in disbelief at the sight in front of him. He’d expected the Lord Keeper of the Keys with an honour guard to greet him and wouldn’t have been too surprised if the city guard had been turned out to welcome him as well, but this was neither. In actual fact he wasn’t sure what it was. It looked like a rabble at a horse fair except that the mounted men were in orderly lines and appeared to be heavily armed.
“I don’t like the look of this,” said Guardcaptain Sharman, riding up beside him. “I’ve had a quick count and I reckon we’re evenly matched in numbers.”
“Who in hellden’s name are they? Sarrat’s man said the remains of the army were in the south awaiting orders to return. Surely it can’t be them?”
“I don’t think so, My Lord, they don’t look like regular troops for all their straight lines. They could be mercenaries.”
“Scum!” Andron spat over his side leaving a grey streak down Sharman’s boot. “Bloody mercenaries, they’re all gamblers, beggars and thieves. Sound the charge; we’ll wipe them out.”
“I don’t think we should do that.” Guardcaptain Sharman took a swig of wine from his water skin. “If we take that lot on it will be a blood bath.”
“Are you a coward, Sharman?” demanded Andron angrily, his face going red.
“No, My Lord, I’m just nearing retirement. Anyway, it looks like we might not have to fight, they want to parley.”
The Great Lord turned his attention back to the small army which blocked the gates to the city and watched as the centre column parted and a small group of riders moved through the ranks to the front where the commander waited. From where he sat on his horse, one of the riders appeared to be a woman in fancy dress, but as that was unlikely he turned his attention to the rider at her side and the long pennant he held. A gust of wind caught it, unfurling its length and displaying the royal crest of the long dead King Malute. Andron cursed and gripped at his sword in anger.
Having pushed her way through the mercenaries Tarraquin’s patience was being sorely tried by Malingar’s intransigence. She took a deep, calming breath and changed tactics. “Captain Malingar, have you forgotten that I am your queen and you have given me an oath of loyalty and obedience? I have given you an order and you will obey it.”
Malingar went to argue again, looked at Tarraquin’s determined face and gave in. His orders had been to try and keep her from harm but if she insisted on doing something stupid then there wasn’t a lot he could do about it. He turned to Tordray and gave a quick command and then turned back to the queen who, he’d thought, he’d left safely in the throne room with her two advisors and her maids to wait on her. Whilst he’d been gathering his men and preparing for the inevitable battle she had been causing chaos.
How in hellden she had managed to completely change the situation in such a short time was beyond him. It had taken him less than a candle length to complete his preparations and have his men in formation outside of the city gates. However, in that time she had left the safety of the fortress, found a horse, white flag and royal standard and now sat in front of him looking every bit the queen and in command of the situation.
She was impressive too, sitting on her horse without a saddle looking as if she had been born there, which was more than could be said for either Jarrul or Istan who she had persuaded to go along with her dangerous plan. They looked like they would slide off the broad backs of their requisitioned coach horses at any moment, whilst she looked magnificent with her long dress flowing down the sides of her horse and her cloak draped gracefully over its quarters.
From the moment she had ridden up to him with her two lackeys in tow, he’d tried to persuade her against her plan, but she wouldn’t be moved. He cursed under his breath at her interference. It was typical of a woman to want to resolve a situation like this peacefully when what was needed was bloodshed. The man next to her unfurled the white flag he’d been given and Jarrul handed her the crown which she placed on her head, pushing it down as hard as it would go to stop it falling off. Tarraquin gave Malingar a brief smile which he didn’t return and together they trotted into the space between the two armies with their small party behind them.
Andron waited until he was certain how many people the enemy commander was bringing with him and then set off with two more guards for good luck. As he drew closer he could see the crown on the head of the woman and cursed under his breath at her audacity, but he would wipe that smile of her face once he showed her what Lozin carried in his pannier. He pulled his horse to a stop and Lozin and his Guardcaptain rode up beside him whilst his four guards fanned out behind.
Tarraquin rode a few paces forward of the rest to meet him. “Great Lord Andron, welcome to Tarmin. It’s always a pleasure to see you although it might have been better if you’d left your friends behind.”
“Madam, you have me at a temporary disadvantage. Who in hellden are you and what are you doing with that bloody thing on your head?”
Malingar rode up beside her and went to pull his sword at the insult but Tarraquin gently restrained him. “That’s no way to address your queen,” he said instead.
“Queen! What fucking queen?”
“Lord Andron,” interrupted Istan riding up next to Tarraquin. “May I present the daughter of King Malute and rightful heir to the throne of Leersland.”
Andron let out a bellow of laughter. “Malute’s been dead for over ten summers, boy; don’t you know your legal constitution? If there’s no successful claim of succession within ten summers then the one who holds the crown becomes the legitimate ruler. It’s the law in all the six kingdoms.”
“That’s true,” conceded Istan, “but if the claimant can prove the ruler murdered the king and then prevented the rightful heir from making a claim, then the ten summers rule doesn’t apply.”
“Unless the ruler is dead and cannot be taken to account for his crimes in which case his heir or the senior lord of the realm becomes the legitimate ruler,” concluded the Great Lord with a satisfied smirk.
Andron leant from his saddle and reached into the pannier carried by the horse next to him and pulled out the decaying remains of Sarrat’s head. “Sarrat’s dead.”
They stared in horror at the blackening, slightly bloated lump hanging by its hair from Andron’s hand with its swollen tongue protruding from the side of its mouth and one eye hanging lose from its socket. Tarraquin turned aside and vomited as the wind wafted the stench of decay her way and Andron threw the lump onto the ground between them with a wet thud.
“You killed him?” asked Jarrul in a shocked voice.
“Of course I didn’t kill him, his magician did that, but Sarrat is dead right enough and without leaving any legitimate heirs, which leaves me the highest ranking noble in Leersland, so that makes me king.”
“I think not,” responded Istan. “Malute’s daughter was anointed on her first summer’s day. She outranks you so that makes her queen.”
“Besides which,” put in Jarrul, “She has received the oaths of loyalty from Leersland’s leaders, the public acclaim of her people and she wears the crown. I really do think that makes her queen.”
“Not in my eyes it doesn’t,” snapped Andron. “And I will fight anyone for what is rightly mine.”
“That would not be a good idea, Great Lord,” said Tarraquin quietly. “If you fight a great many men will die and even if you win the battle, the palace guard will not let you into the city. It would be far better if you were to return to your estates and reconsider your position and when you have seen the sense of what I have said, we can talk about a suitable role for you in the government of Leersland.”
The Great Lord dropped his hand angrily to his sword and went to draw the weapon but Sharman leaned across, pressed the hilt of his master’s sword back into its scabbard and whispered something urgent in his ear. Andron glared at him but removed his hand from his weapon. He turned back to Tarraquin and gave her a look of pure hatred.
“You win this round girl but you won’t always have that bunch of paid thugs at your back. There are plenty of fighting men in this kingdom including the remains of Sarrat’s army who will follow me and then there are those outside of Leersland who will want to see a strong king on the throne, not some slip of a girl. Enjoy your time playing at being queen. It won’t last long.”
He turned away and Tarraquin watched him go wondering if it wouldn’t have been better fighting him after all.
“How could you not know that Sarrat was dead?” demanded Tarraquin angrily.
“How could we know?” replied Jarrul tiredly. He sat on a hard backed chair in the corner of the chamber Tarraquin had taken as her working room, nursing a mug of herb tea which Birrit had made for him. “Even now we don’t know the details except that he died some time ago by Maladran’s hand and that Andron found the body.”
The queen shook her head in disbelief. “If only we had known we could have marched into Tarmin and taken the throne openly instead of going through all that cloak and dagger nonsense.”
Tarraquin sat back in the padded chair by the fire and fought off the temptation to close her eyes and go to sleep. She felt as if she had been awake for a moon cycle and yet only a day and a night had passed since she had slept on the throne room floor waiting to face her people. In that time she had been crowned, prevented a war, formed a council and overseen the execution of the Lord Keeper of the Keys.
Of all the things that she had done to take the crown, that was the one she regretted. The man had held out longer than expected under the ministrations of Malingar’s questioners before he divulged the whereabouts of the keys, crown and seal. Considering the state of his mutilated body, his quick execution had really been a mercy, but she still felt guilty. She looked at the crown sitting on the desk and decided she preferred the fake one; it wasn’t nearly such a burden.
“More importantly,” said Malingar breaking into her thoughts, “We could have captured the loyalty of the remnants of Sarrat’s army in the south. I fear that we may be too late and that Andron has already given them his own version of Sarrat’s death and his rightful claim to the throne.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” said Istan. He’d propped himself up by the window and despite the early hour, he was sipping at a goblet of wine. His only concession to the time of day was that the wine was a delicate white and not the red he usually drank. “I also think we should not dismiss his other threats. If he goes to the other kingdoms with stories of a murdered king, mercenary armies and a usurper on the throne of Leersland then he is bound to get some support.”
“But it wasn’t like that.”
“No, it wasn’t, Your Majesty, but that’s what he will say.”
“Then we must do something about it.” She thought for a moment resting her aching head in her hand.
“What we need are more soldiers to defend Tarmin and Leersland from attack,” said Malingar with conviction.
Jarrul shook his head. “No, fighting is not the answer. What we need to do is tell our version of the story before Andron does.”
Malingar jumped up and turned on Jarrul ready to defend his point, but Tarraquin held up her hand to stop them. “Gentlemen, you are both right. What we need is help from those who know that I am the rightful queen and I don’t think we are going to get that by sitting around here arguing amongst ourselves.”
“What we need are envoys,” put in Lord Istan. “They used to come to Sarrat’s court from time to time and he was obliged to listen to them. He even agreed to their proposals on rare occasions and he always treated them with the utmost respect to their face, if not behind their back.”
The queen nodded in approval. “That’s a good idea. We could put our case and ask each of the kingdoms to provide a small force against any insurrection until I have secured my throne. That way no one kingdom would be tempted to invade for fear of upsetting the others and Andron could easily be contained. What do you think?”
The others nodded cautious ascent. “Who will you send?” asked Jarrul.
“Why, you of course, along with Lord Istan.” She smiled at Malingar. “You have connections in Northshield, don’t you?”
“Yes, My Lady. I would be pleased to present your request to King Borman.”
“And you, Lord Istan?”
“My house and the royal house of Essenland have had close ties for generations and Prince Pellum and I have hunted together on a number of occasions. I would be happy to go there and then on to Vinmore.”
“Jarrul, can you manage Tarbis?”
“I’m no diplomat, My Lady, and besides which, if we all go who will be here to advise you.”
“I have faith in you, Jarrul, and don’t worry about advice. Haven’t I just appointed a council, including Guildmaster Jobes?” She looked at Istan accusingly and gave a small laugh. “That’s settled then. With the exception of Sandstrone, which I don’t think would be pleased to see any of you; my three special envoys will seek support from the six kingdoms. Good luck my friends.”
“I think we are going to need it,” muttered Jarrul to himself.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~CHAPTER EIGHT
“No! No! No! Haven’t you learnt anything in the twenty summers you have lived in this land of magic?”
The Master of Magic, a small round man with the face of a cherub flicked Jonderill around the ear with his thin, whippy wand making a sound like the snapping of a twig and making Jonderill jump. The brief strike didn’t hurt, or at least the first one hadn’t but after half a dozen such assaults, his ear was starting to feel tender and the irritable flick felt like the sting of a buzzing insect. That wasn’t what hurt though; it was the humiliation of being an utter failure.
After a complete moon cycle of instruction, cajoling and threats he still hadn’t been able to move a single wine berry on the table in front of him at all, let alone from one side of the table to the other. Now his humiliation was complete as the wavering ball of elemental fire at the end of his fingers spluttered and went out leaving the candle, he was trying to ignite, unlit. Behind him he could hear the small group of acolytes whisper amongst themselves and snigger at his failure. This time the master didn’t bother to silence them but just stood with his hands on his hips and glared at Jonderill.
“I don’t know why I’m wasting my time on you, boy. Even these fools can control elemental fire and move small objects around and they are just ungifted boys. Why the High Master believes you to be anything more than an ignorant peasant beats me. Now try again. Use what little bit of a brain the goddess has given you and concentrate on rolling that wine berry across that table.”
Jonderill took a deep breath and stared at the wine berry but the wine berry remained where it was. He raised his wand and pointed at the wine berry and concentrated on its roundness and how easy it would be for it to roll across the table, but still it wouldn’t move. Feeling completely foolish he leant forward and put the tip of his wand a fraction from the smooth red skin and muttered the words he’d been taught under his breath but still nothing happened.
“Louder!” commanded the Master of Magic; flicking his wand once more into the side of Jonderill’s ear.
“Damn it!” shouted Jonderill bringing his wand down on top of the wine berry, splitting the skin and squashing it messily into the table top. “I’ve had enough of this and enough of you too.”
He threw the wand on the floor and barged past the surprised master almost knocking him to the ground. The others watched in stunned silence as Jonderill threw open the door of the instruction room and slammed it shut behind him. For a moment there was silence and then the small group of acolytes burst out into excited conversation.
“Silence!” commanded the Master of Magic as he straightened his robes that Jonderill had knocked askew. “You will leave now and you will say nothing of this disgraceful exhibition to anyone, do you understand?”
The acolytes nodded and meekly trouped out of the room under the stern eye of the master without saying a word.
“There’s not much hope that they’ll keep that incident to themselves, is there?” said a voice from behind the master.
He jumped in surprise and turned and bowed. “I regret not, High Master. You saw what happened?”
“Only the last few moments, but I assume that the rest of the time he has spent with you has been equally unproductive?”
“The boy’s an idiot. I’ve spent a moon cycle trying to teach him the basics of magic but he lacks concentration, his enunciation is peasant and his movements are as coarse as a muck digger. He’s only fit to be a servant and a lowly one at that.”
High Master Razarin wandered slowly around the room thoughtfully touching the array of objects that the Master of Magic used in his lessons. “And yet the blessed goddess favours him?”
“Perhaps the goddess is mistaken.”
“Perhaps, but Callabris too saw something in the boy.”
The master shrugged. “Since the death of his brother, Callabris searches for a replacement. The boy has green eyes but that is where the similarity ends. Believe me, Jonderill is definitely not another Coberin.”
“You may be right but I don’t think we should give up on Jonderill just yet.” He smiled at the Master of Magic as he studied a wooden bowl full of squashed red fruit. “I think you need to buy yourself some more wine berries.” He pushed the bowl into the hands of the astonished master and left by the same hidden door which he’d used to enter the room a short time before.
Jonderill had marched out of the House of Learning slamming every door behind him and stamped across the carefully manicured lawns until he reached the main roadway through the city. From there he turned away from the goddess’s temple and the buildings where the acolytes lived and followed a lesser road. It brought him to Smith’s Square where he took the second exit under an archway, turned around the corner of a building and stomped loudly up the wooden stairway which led to the collection of small rooms above the Armsmaster’s Inn.
As usual, the outside door was unlocked and the inside hallway was unlit, so he slipped inside and in the dark, counted down four doors until he found his room. He retrieved the iron key from the pouch at his belt, let himself in and locked the door behind him. Breathing heavily he stood in the dark room with his eyes closed. When his breathing had slowed and he’d stopped shaking with anger and frustration he opened his eyes, held out his hand in front of him and produced a steady flame at the end of his fingers which he used to light the small oil lamp at the side of his bed.
Slowly and with deliberate care, he pulled his grey robe over his head, rolled it into a tight ball and dropped it into the empty slop bucket in the corner. Equally as carefully he picked up the oil lamp and dropped it on top of his robe taking a hasty step back as the glass shattered and the flame caught. The spilt oil from the broken lamp flared up and lit the room with a lurid red glow. He sat on the edge of his bed in his small clothes and watched the conflagration until the flames had died down.
Yesterday he’d tried to rip the robe apart with his knife and had even hacked at it with his sword, but apart from it being a bit crumpled around the sleeves, the robe was undamaged. The day before that, he’d thrown it out of the window into the pathway of a passing squad of armsmen. The squad leader had returned it to him, apologising that it was slightly dusty but one good shake had removed any trace of boot marks. He looked at the bucket and decided he didn’t want to see what effect the oil and the flames had on the thing.
A knock on the door made him look up but he decided to do nothing about it; after his complete and utter failure to produce any trace of magic and his display of temper he really didn’t want to be lectured by some pompous master or goaded by a gloating acolyte. It was their mocking which had driven him out of his luxurious suite of rooms on his first day at the Enclave. He’d found the small inn hidden down an alleyway in the craftsmens’ quarter by accident after stumbling around the city in the dark for several candle lengths.
After he’d drunk a second tankard of ale, he had realized that he had left his coin pouch behind, but fortunately the innkeeper had believed him when he said he could pay for his drink, room and food but had left his belongings elsewhere. Just to make sure though the innkeeper had provided him with the pot boy to help him find his way back to the acolyte’s quarters so he could collect the few things he owned. His new room was small and cramped and the single window opened onto a steaming middin heap but it was his, or at least it was until his coins ran out.
The knock came at the door, louder and more insistent this time but he continued to ignore it. He’d promised High Master Razarin that he would stay for a moon cycle which should have been a long enough time for him to learn how to defend himself on the road, but so far all he had done was pretend to be a magician so others could laugh at him. His attempts at moving things had been a waste of time and his efforts at opening locked doors had all ended in failure. He’d tried enhancing his senses and constructing simple enchantments to refill empty goblets but nothing worked.
The only thing which had been vaguely successful was when he had tried to command others without speaking and then Sansun had arrived outside the House of Learning, hot and lathered having almost demolished the stall in which he’d been stabled. For a moment the knocking at his door increased in intensity and then abruptly stopped. He listened to the shuffle of feet outside the door of his room and then the sounds of footsteps walking away and finally being silenced as his visitor let himself out the outside door.
Jonderill gave a sigh of relief and produced a bright ball of light which he placed in the air just above his shoulder. He’d given the High Master and the others the moon cycle which he’d promised them. In that time he’d tried his best to be what they wanted him to be, but it hadn’t worked out so now, as far as he was concerned, he was free to leave. With his decision made he felt better, almost as if a weight had been lifted from him. He also felt hungry and realised that he hadn’t eaten since the night before.
Leaving the ball of light floating above in the air he rummaged in the chest at the foot of his bed for suitable clothing. He ignored the fine shirts and tunics which the master’s had provided and instead pulled out the shirt, breeches and boots which Allowyn had given him. They were a bit crumpled and the shirt had a small hole in it and a blood stain at waist height, but that didn’t matter, at least he would look normal for a change. He strapped on the fine leather belt and went to attach the sword and scabbard but stopped before he picked the sword up. Somehow it didn’t seem right to wear a sword to a peaceful inn when all you were going to do was eat a bowl of stew and down a few pots of ale. He left the sword where it was, snapped his fingers to extinguish the light and made his way down the stairs and around the corner to the door of the inn.
When he went inside the inn the common room was crowded and noisy, and the table in the corner, where he’d sat last night and the night before, was taken by four craft workers with the bulging arms of smiths or arms makers. The tables by the rear wall where you could prop yourself up and watch what was going on in the common room were also taken, leaving just those by the hearth or a few in the centre of the room. He’d tried the ones by the hearth on the first night and had almost roasted as the inn became more crowded and he was pushed closer to the fire. On the other hand he didn’t fancy the ones in the centre of the room either where people jostled and pushed past you to get to the other tables.
He sighed and went to return to his room when the boy who had helped him move into the inn grabbed his sleeve and tugged urgently on it. “Hey! Mister! Me master says ‘e’s got a space over ‘ere fer yer if yer aint bovered ter share the doss wiv some toffs later like.”
The pot boy pulled Jonderill in the direction of an empty table to one side of the bar. “’e says ‘e’s got stew an’ bread if yer want it, an’ some nice Vinmore red which ‘as jus’ come in today.” The boy shoved Jonderill the last few steps to the table and pulled him into a seat. “Now yer stays dossin’ an’ I’lls get yer grub an’ plonk an’ I’lls be back in a tick.”
He sat at the table feeling slightly bemused at being hassled by a slip of a boy but he was right; it was a good spot. The table was round with six chairs surrounding it and a large reserved sign sitting in the middle of it. He shuffled into the chair that was protected by the angle of the wall and the bar, but it gave a clear view of the rest of the room except the furthest most corner. Despite craning his neck around he couldn’t quite make out who was sitting at the corner table and whether they were likely to leave soon so he could move into it.
Clearly the table where he sat was being held back for someone with influence but with any luck he could eat his meal and disappear back to his room with the remains of the wine before whoever it was found him sitting at their table. As if he had read his mind, the boy arrived with a large bowl of steaming stew in one hand and a half flagon of wine in the other. He put them on the table along with a small loaf of bread from under his arm and a clay goblet and wooden spoon from the pocket of his grubby, grey shorts. He gave a gap-toothed grin, a quick salute and scurried back into the crowd.
Jonderill smiled to himself and wiped the spoon and the rim of the goblet on the sleeve of his shirt before attacking the meal. The stew was thick and rich and just spicy enough to make his tongue tingle and his throat burn; he was glad he wasn’t sitting near the fire. He broke open the loaf which was still steaming slightly inside and dipped it into the dark gravy washing it down with the soft, warm wine. For the first time that day he felt that life really was worth living.
“Well, what have we here then? I do believe it’s the Enclave’s new white wizard.” The speaker gave a cynical laugh and dropped his sword belt loudly on to the table in front of Jonderill, who didn’t bother to look up.
“Nah, Dowin, that’s no wizard, from what I heard, the Master of Magic said he was a peasant or a muck digger who’s no better than a low servant.” The second speaker leant across the table and picked up the remaining half of Jonderill’s bread, breaking off a chunk and passing the rest onto his four friends. Jonderill ignored them and concentrated on finishing the rest of his stew as fast as he could. Around him the five young men pulled out the chairs and sat around the table.
“From what I heard Master Tressing say he isn’t even a peasant, but an escaped slave from Leersland.”
Dowin picked up his sheathed sword from the table and prodded Jonderill in the shoulder with it. “Hey, peasant, is it true what they say, that no goods like you get branded in Leersland like some kind of animal?”
Jonderill did his best to ignore them but the second speaker, who had sat down next to him, kicked him sharply in the shin under the table. “Hey, peasant, my friend here is talking to you.”
He looked up and recognised three of the young men as the acolytes who had been in the room of instruction with him earlier in the day. The others were younger but clearly of the same mould. He looked from face to face and decided it was time to leave. Jonderill went to stand but the two acolytes on either side of him pulled him down and pressed his forearms firmly to the table. Dowin pulled a thin knife and laid it on the table close to Jonderill’s left hand. He tried to push back his chair but realized now that his choice of seat had been a poor one and he was trapped in the corner.
“Now peasant, is it true what they say, are you a branded slave?”
Jonderill said nothing but when Dowin gave a slight nod the two acolytes who held his arms pulled back his sleeve revealing the faded kingsward scar.
“Well, well, well, so the rumours are true. Now what is the High Master up to trying to teach a dog like you magic tricks?”
“Perhaps we could get the dog to do some tricks for us,” suggested the acolyte sitting next to him. “How about getting him to beg?”
“Leave me alone,” growled Jonderill as he tried to pull away but the two acolytes either side of him held him fast. They looked to their leader with expectant grins.
“Why not? Come on, peasant; let’s see you on your knees begging for us to leave you alone.” Jonderill said nothing. “Chaslin, see if your knife can teach this dog to obey his betters.”
Chaslin, who picked up the knife, gave a wolfish grin and leaned over the table. With a laugh he carved the letter ‘D’ into Jonderill’s forearm with the tip of his knife. Jonderill gritted his teeth and blood dripped from his arm onto the table. Dowin nodded again and Chaslin pressed the tip of his knife into Jonderill’s arm once more.
“What in hellden’s name is going on here!” bellowed the innkeeper. Chaslin slipped the knife underneath the table and passed it to the youth sitting next to him as the others released Jonderill’s arms.
“Nothing. It’s just a little game,” said Dowin, giving the angry innkeeper a warm, confident smile. “We were just initiating our friend here into the acolyte brotherhood, weren’t we Jonderill?”
Beneath the table Jonderill could feel the knife tip prod him in the ribs encouraging him to nod in agreement.
“Well you’re not doing any of your magic stuff in my inn, so out, the lot of you and don’t come back, ever.”
The innkeeper stood with his arms folded scowling at the five acolytes with his pot boy hovering behind him. He waited until they had gathered their swords and cloaks and watched them weave their way through the crowd and out of the inn before turning his attention back to Jonderill. The pot boy had already given Jonderill a clean cloth to press against his cut arm and was wiping up the spots of blood with a well used rag.
“Not all the acolytes who study at the Enclave are like that, but they are an unpleasant bunch. If I had known that Gellidan had reserved the table for their use I would never have let them in. It used to be that only those dedicated to the goddess were allowed into the Enclave, but lately anyone can come if their father’s got enough coin or a title. That lot are all youngest sons of one lord or another and you would be well advised to keep clear of them, particularly if what they were saying about you is true. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got a full inn tonight and I need that table, so if you could drink up and leave I would be much obliged.”
The innkeeper returned to the bar and Jonderill watched as the pot boy cleared away his half eaten meal and disappear back into the crowd. If he had any doubts about leaving the Enclave his mind was now firmly made up. Carefully he lifted the cloth and looked at the cut on his arm which had stopped bleeding. It was a shallow cut and with any luck it wouldn’t scar. He poured the rest of his wine into his goblet and drank it slowly, watching the other customers eating and drinking with their friends. It occurred to him that they were all craft workers, mainly from the smithies but with a few weavers as well. He couldn’t see any armsmen amongst them which was a bit odd considering the name of the inn. There were definitely no other acolytes in the room and he wondered why his five tormentors had picked this inn for their evening’s entertainment.
When his goblet was empty he made his way slowly to the door but before he reached it he felt an urgent tug on his shirt sleeve. He looked down to where the pot boy stood behind him holding an old, cracked scabbard with a simple, iron cross-hilted sword sticking out of the top of it. “Me master says ter gives yer this ter show them toffs that you knows how ter stick ‘em if yer ‘ave ter. ‘e says ter bring it back when yer done wiv it.”
The boy thrust the sword into Jonderill’s hand and disappeared back into the crowd. He watched the boy go before stepping out into the night and closing the door behind him. After the brightness of the inn the unlit pathway seemed extra dark; even the light from the torch lit square barely reached the door of the inn. He turned to the left and followed the wall along and then turned again to reach the stairs to his room.
“Hello peasant,” said a deep voice out of the darkness. Two small balls of elemental fire lit up the darkness and Jonderill’s heart dropped as he recognised the five acolytes from earlier. “We have some unfinished business. My friend here wants to see you do some tricks and Chaslin has some carving to finish.”
Dowin and his friend, Jeb drew their swords and Chaslin unsheathed his knife and held it out in front of him whilst the two younger acolytes, who held the elemental fire, stepped back to give their friends more room.
“Why don’t you just go away and leave me alone. I don’t have anything you want and I don’t want to fight you.”
“Well, that’s where you’re wrong. Jeb here wants to see you beg on your knees, Chaslin wants more of your blood on his knife and I want you back in Leersland and chained up or whatever they do with slaves there.”
Jonderill sighed in resignation and pulled the old sword from its battered scabbard. It felt heavy and cumbersome and awkward in his hand. He had never held a cross-hilted sword before and, as he struggled to grip it, he wished that he had his own sword in his hand instead of which he’d foolishly left it upstairs.
Jeb attacked first with a cross body slice which Jonderill parried but the impact sent a shock through his wrist and arm making the heavy sword twist in his grip. He had barely regained his hold on the weapon when a reverse cut came back at him knocking his sword to the other side. He retook his stance and tried to remember all the things that the Cadetmaster had taught him. When Jeb advanced again with a number of chest height thrusts he was ready for them and was able to push them aside. Jeb repeated his cross body slice which Jonderill caught on his blade and held it there, hilt to hilt until Jeb retired with a grin on his face and Dowin stepped forward making practice swings through the air with the ease of a well practiced swordsman.
Jonderill parried his first two moves but the third thrust slipped past his guard and pierced his shoulder by a finger’s width. The Acolyte stepped back and saluted whilst drops of blood appeared on Jonderill’s shirt. Jeb took Dowin’s place and with little style bludgeoned at Jonderill’s sword until he lost his grip and the weapon spun from his hand. Jeb stepped back and Dowin moved in again piercing Jonderill’s other shoulder. This strike was slightly deeper and blood immediately blossomed on the front of his shirt.
“You can make this easy by getting down on to your knees and begging for mercy in which case Chaslin will just finish his carving or you can pick that sword up and we’ll teach you a lesson and then Chaslin will still carve you up. So, what’s it to be, slave dog?”
Jonderill looked down at the sword, took a deep breath and knowing it was the wrong thing to do he picked it up. It felt heavier than ever and the wound in his shoulder made his arm ache. He took up a defensive stand and backed up against the wall of the inn with the tip of the sword wavering unsteadily in front of him. Jeb came at him from one side and Dowin from the other. He parried Jeb’s high cut which would have taken his arm off at the shoulder but could do nothing about Dowin’s thrust which pierced him in the side. Jonderill gasped as he felt the steel blade being withdrawn from his body and dropped the sword to grip the bleeding wound.
“Painful but not fatal,” said Dowin. “Now get down on your knees, slave dog.”
Jonderill stood defiantly with his back to the wall and blood dripping through his fingers. He’d lasted this far so he wasn’t going to give in now. Dowin gave an irritated sigh and thrust his sword towards Jonderill’s thigh but the hit never landed as his sword was deflected downwards; its tip scoring a line in the dirt by Jonderill’s feet. Dowin stepped back and raised his sword to attack the newcomer but before he could do so his attacker had scored two thin cuts down the length of one forearm. As he looked in astonishment at the blood marking the torn edges of his sleeve his opponent’s second sword flicked his wrist sending Dowin’s sword spinning from his hand.
Jeb charged forward swinging his weapon in a vicious head slice and from the shadows Chaslin threw his knife at the new attacker. The swordsman caught Jeb’s downward slice and deflected it to the side, trapping it with his sword hilt whilst his other sword knocked the knife from the air sending it bouncing harmlessly against the wall. In a fluid motion he turned the blade broadside and smacked it against Jeb’s ribs. Jeb gave a scream of pain, dropped his sword and stumbled after his retreating friends leaving the alleyway in darkness.
“If you can manage it a little bit of light would be helpful.” said Jonderill’s rescuer from the darkness.
Jonderill moved his hand away from the wound in his side and produced a weak ball of elemental fire that waved unsteadily at the end of his blood covered fingers. Opposite him, with a sword held in either hand stood the young man who had given him his cloak when he had first arrived at the Enclave.
“They’ve gone and I don’t think they will be back.” He sheathed his swords in the crossed scabbards on his back and stepped forward to drape Jonderill’s arm over his shoulder supporting his uninjured side. “Let’s get you up to your room and then I’ll go and get you some help.”
Taking most of Jonderill’s weight he helped Jonderill up the stairs and into his unlit room sitting him in the room’s only chair. He looked around the small chamber but couldn’t find what he was looking for. “Where’s your lamp?” Jonderill pointed in the direction of the slop bucket and his rescuer glanced inside at the crumpled robe and broken lamp. “Oh. You stay here then and don’t move. Dozo was in the inn when I left and he’s bound to have his kit with him.”
Tissian left and Jonderill closed his eyes and let his elemental fire fade away. The wounds in his side and shoulder were still bleeding and he was starting to feel light headed. Now that the shock of the attack had passed and the adrenaline was fading, he was feeling cold and was starting to shake. He needed something to keep himself warm, but didn’t want to get blood on his blankets so he pulled the slop bucket towards him, shook out the broken glass from the robe and wrapped it around his shoulders. The thing didn’t even smell of lamp oil let alone burnt fibers or soot. It was surprisingly warm though so he closed his eyes for a moment and drifted into sleep.
He jumped slightly when the key rattled in the lock and Dozo came into the room clutching a small bag followed by the young protector carrying one of the inn’s oil lamps and a bottle of grain spirit. Together they helped Jonderill remove his shirt and Tissian waited anxiously whilst Dozo cleaned the wounds with the grain spirit. Ignoring Jonderill’s protests at the sting of the strong spirit, he smothered the cleaned wounds with a white paste, which smelled of herbs, and bound them with clean linen from his bag. When he’d finished they helped Jonderill onto his bed and Dozo left, promising to return to change the dressings in the morning. Tissian poured the rest of the grain spirit into two pots and handed one to Jonderill. He shook out the robe and laid it over the clothes chest and removed his two swords before sitting in the chair.
“Thank you,” said Jonderill sipping at his drink and feeling the grain spirit warm him through. “That’s the second time you’ve come to my rescue.”
“Think nothing of it, it’s what I do, I’m a protector.”
Jonderill smiled. “How did you know I needed protecting?”
Tissian looked a bit sheepish and stared into his pot of grain spirit. “I heard Gellidan and the others talking about what the Master of Magic had called you this afternoon, so I thought you might be feeling a bit low and in need of some company. I came around earlier but there was no answer so I hung around for a bit.” He looked up and gave Jonderill a quick smile. “I’ve been doing penance all day with Allowyn and his armsmen and had persuaded Dozo and some of the others to meet me here for an ale or two. We were sitting around the corner from you and I’d asked the pot boy to let me know when you left the inn so I could follow you out and talk to you.”
“I’m really glad you did.”
“You’d have been okay. I don’t think Dowin and his bunch wanted to kill you, just rough you up a bit. Give yourself a few more days to get the hang of how your magic works and then they’ll be too afraid to touch you.”
“I’m not going to be here in a few more days, I am leaving in the morning.”
“You can’t do that! What about your magic?”
“I don’t have any magic. You heard what the Master of Magic said and it’s true, I don’t even have enough elemental fire to light a candle and I could stare at a wine berry until I was a grey beard and it still wouldn’t roll across a table. No, I‘m leaving tomorrow and going south. I’ve always planned to see the Great Southern Ocean and now seems as good a time as any.”
“You can’t!” Jonderill shook his head in denial. “I mean that you can’t go without learning to hold a sword properly and to protect yourself. If those three could best you tonight how long do you think you would last on the road?” Jonderill continued shaking his head. “Look, I’ve got penance again tomorrow, another day of practice and devotions with Allowyn. Why don’t you come along and talk to him? If nothing else he can give you some tips on staying alive.”
Jonderill sighed in resignation. “Okay but just one candle length and then I’m gone.
“Good.” Tissian swallowed the last of his grain spirit and moved to the door. “I’ll be here at first bell.” He gave Jonderill a boyish smile and left.
When the first bell of the day rang across the Enclave and the pale rays of the sun were just appearing above the steep sides of the valley, Jonderill was packed and ready to leave. All but one of the fine linen shirts that he had been given were folded neatly on his bed along with the tunics, breeches and cloaks which had also been given to him. The innkeeper’s old sword and a small pile of coins lay next to them. It was too early in the day to say goodbye to the innkeeper but he would send a message later, before he left the Enclave for good. He hoped that the coin would be enough to cover the cost of his board and food for the moon cycle he’d been there.
The only thing he was taking with him which was not his own was the shirt he was wearing. He wouldn’t have taken this one but his own shirt now had three holes in it and several blood stains. It badly needed washing and mending. It was rolled up inside his grey robe along with his few other possessions. Plantagenet’s old iron blade and his finely crafted sword lay on the table next to his bundle as he waited for Tissian to arrive.
In the city the second bell had almost finished pealing before he heard Tissian’s hurried footsteps on the stairs. He opened the door before Tissian knocked and was going to ask him where he had been, but he looked slightly crumpled and bedraggled and a little bit desperate. His hair was damp and had been roughly finger combed and his clothes, which were the same as he had worn the previous night, looked like he had slept in them. Despite that his eyes still sparkled and he gave Jonderill a big grin.
“Good morning, Lord. I see that you’re ready, which is a very good thing as I’m running a bit late and Allowyn will have me doing double devotions if I don’t arrive on time and keep him waiting.” He picked up Jonderill’s bundle and the iron blade and passed him the sword. Jonderill took it and clipped the scabbard to his belt, wincing as the weight of the weapon pulled at the wound in his side.
“How are the wounds this morning?” Tissian asked as he quickly led the way out of the room and down the stairs two at a time. “Dozo said he would come by the practice ground later and said you shouldn’t do anything strenuous until he’s had a chance to look you over and change the dressings.”
Without waiting for an answer he hurried onwards leading Jonderill through small side streets where there were less people about. It was a part of the Enclave which Jonderill hadn’t seen before with straight rows of small dwellings, each with its own brightly painted front door and two windows. Some of the windows were open and the smell of hot bread and frying rashers made Jonderill wish they could stop to eat. They hurried across the city away from the temple and the House of Learning and Jonderill felt his spirits rise the further they moved away from their looming presence.
“I hope you don’t mind, Lord, but I took the liberty of having your horse prepared; Allowyn has chosen a place for my penance today which is some way out of the city and it would be too far to walk.” He turned down another side street which opened into a small square at the centre of which stood an armsman holding the reins of Sansun and two other horses. Sansun neighed a greeting and Jonderill stroked his nose and whispered a greeting back. He took his bundle of possessions from Tissian and tied them behind his saddle, pushing the iron blade carefully through the centre of the rolled blanket before mounting and quickly following Tissian through a small gate in the city wall.
Once outside the city the three riders broke into a steady trot on the hard packed roadway that led from the Enclave along the valley floor and the armsman dropped behind to act as a rear guard. When the sun finally climbed above the sides of the valley and warmed the morning air they slowed to a walk and Tissian handed Jonderill a small bundle containing fresh bread and hard, spicy sausage.
“I’m sorry it’s not better fare, Lord, but it was all that the inn keeper’s boy could find for me this morning.”
Jonderill frowned at him. “Please don’t call me lord. As the Master of Magic so rightly pointed out, I am definitely not a lord, my name is Jonderill”
“I’m sorry L…” He laughed and shook his head. “Jonderill. I will do my best to remember but it is difficult for a protector to call a white robe by their name. It’s part of our training to show respect and to honour those who have the gift of magic. It’s why I was walking penance on the day when we first met; I failed to bow low enough to Master Tressing.”
“Well, as I don’t have any magic you’re safe from doing any penance because of me.” Jonderill raised himself slightly in the stirrups and pointed to where smoke rose a short way in the distance. “Is that Allowyn’s camp?”
Tissian nodded but didn’t say anything. Instead he tried to smooth down his crumpled clothing and finger combed his hair again, finally checking that all his weapons were in place. Jonderill smiled to himself at the young man’s obvious nervousness. “What is this penance you have to do?”
“Three days of practice and devotions with a master for speaking out of turn, but I’m lucky, Allowyn agreed to be my penance master. Yesterday was blade work but I think today’s penance will be much harder and I’m not as fresh as I was.”
“Would it help if I had a word with Allowyn? Saving my life last night must be worth something.”
“Oh no! It’s a great honour to train with someone like Allowyn. It’s just that he’s so strict about being on time and appearances and doing the goddess the utmost honour in your devotions.”
Jonderill laughed. “Yes, I’ve seen him honouring the goddess in his devotions; it made me exhausted just to watch!” They both laughed as they turned into the large field where Allowyn had made his camp.
As they brought their horses to a halt, Allowyn left the armsmen he’d been talking to and walked to where they were. From the dampness of his hair and the slightly laboured breathing it was clear that he had already completed his morning devotions. He smiled at Jonderill but looked sternly at Tissian who hurriedly slipped from his saddle and went to one knee bowing his head.
“You’re late and improperly dressed. Before you start today’s work you will run ten circuits of this field in full armour.” Tissian bowed lower before scuttling away. “Jonderill, this is an unexpected surprise. I thought you were at the House of Learning. Come and have some breakfast and herb tea, it’s freshly made.”
Jonderill dismounted giving Sansun’s reins to the armsman who had ridden with them from the city and followed Allowyn to the small fire. Another armsman handed him a bowl of hot oats and a pot of herb tea which he gratefully took and joined Allowyn at a log to one side of the fire. The oats were hot and soft with bits of crunchy apple chopped into it and despite having already eaten he cleaned out the bowl. When he looked up, Tissian in full armour and carrying a halberd in one hand and a bolt bow in the other was starting on his second circuit of the field.
“Don’t be too hard on Tissian, he saved my life last night and it’s my fault he’s late this morning.”
“I know. I also know that he slept at the foot of the inn’s stairs last night just in case there was any further trouble.” Jonderill looked at him in surprise. “Dozo came by early this morning and told me what had happened.”
“In that case can’t you be a little easier on him?”
“No. One day, if the goddess wishes it, the boy will be a protector and his master’s life will depend on his skill and stamina. When that day comes they will both be grateful for the discipline and pain he’ll face today. And now, my friend, what are you doing here instead of at the House of Learning?”
“I’m leaving. In fact I would already be gone if it wasn’t for Tissian persuading me that I should talk to you first.”
Allowyn frowned in concern. “Why are you leaving so soon, Jonderill? You have only been in the Enclave for a moon cycle. It seems to me that one turning of the moon is a very short time to learn to be a magician.”
“I think if I had been here for the passing of three summers I still wouldn’t learn to be a magician, it just isn’t in me.”
“My master thought it was and the goddess herself has called for you. Do you think they are both wrong?”
Jonderill shook his head in confusion. “They must be. If I had what it takes to be a magician I’d be able to do more than produce the occasional bit of elemental fire.”
Allowyn didn’t answer but watched in silence as Tissian completed his fifth circuit of the field, stumbling slightly as his halberd dipped and caught in the grass.
“Did you see Tissian fight last night?” Jonderill nodded. “Do you think that Tissian would have been able to fight like that by just practicing for a moon cycle?”
“No, but that’s different. Tissian wants to be a protector; he looks and acts the part.”
“And you don’t?” Jonderill stared into his empty pot and then watched as Tissian completed his final circuit. “To be the best you have to want it very much and not give in when things are tough.” He beckoned Tissian over to join them. Sweat ran down his face and his breath came in short gasps. “Tissian, I have no patience to work with boys who put no effort into their training. You may return to the Enclave.”
No master!” said Tissian in shock. “Please don’t dismiss me, I’ll try harder.”
“Then do the ten circuits again and at speed this time, not a slovenly jog.” The boy bowed briefly and ran off to do the circuits again. “That’s what wanting something means, doing things again and again until you get them right and not taking the easy way out.”
He stood and watched a small group of armsmen ride into camp and waved one of them over. “I must return to my duties so I will leave you in Dozo’s hands but think about what I have said, Jonderill and decide what it is you really want to be. When you have reached your decision we will talk again.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Words of the Goddess
Jonderill sat in the common room of the Armsmaster Inn and stared thoughtfully into his half empty pot. As usual the inn was busy although not as busy as the previous night and the pot boy had been able to find him a small table by the back wall where he wouldn’t be disturbed. The remains of his evening meal sat on the table, picked over but barely eaten and next to it stood the two ale pots he had already emptied. He frowned as he once again turned Allowyn’s words over in his mind. What did he want to be and was he prepared to work hard to be it.
The problem was that he didn’t know the answer to the first half of the question, and the more he thought about it, the further away the right decision slipped. Even his decision to stay another day at the Enclave felt wrong; it was as if something was calling to him to leave, but at the same time, something was holding him there. He’d returned to the inn from Allowyn’s camp with a small escort of guards after Dozo had redressed his wounds and had instructed him not to practice with a sword or exercise for at least two more days.
It had been his intention to stay at the practice field longer but Allowyn and Tissian had left to do their devotions in private so there hadn’t been much point in staying. Apart from that he’d left his room at the inn with all the appearance of it being abandoned and he needed to get back there before the innkeeper let it to someone else. The thought of having to spend a night in the rooms given to him by the High Master was not a pleasant one.
When he reached the inn he’d been relieved to find that nobody had been into his room and the pile of clothes and coins lay untouched on his bed where he’d left them. The task of putting things back where they belonged had taken only moments and then he’d sat and stared at the two objects on his bed for a long time hoping that one of them would call to him but neither did. The grey robe looked as it always did; smooth and clean despite his efforts to burn it. The blood from his wounds of the previous night were nowhere in sight, and having been rolled up and tied behind his saddle for half a day seemed to have had no effect on it at all. His sword too looked like it always did; long, bright and sharp although it had felt heavy and cumbersome when he’d laid it on the bed. He put that down to the ache in his shoulder and side from the wounds he’d taken.
After a while he grew tired of staring at them and left them there whilst he set off for the House of Learning. The least he could do was apologise to the master for his failure to attend his instruction. He knew he should have taken his sword with him for protection, but he couldn’t bring himself to pick it up, so he was quite relieved when he noticed that one of Allowyn’s armsmen was following him at a discrete distance. When he reached the House of Learning the Master of Magic wasn’t there, so he spent the rest of the afternoon wandering aimlessly around the city and eventually ended back at the inn. He’d only just returned when the pot boy dragged him through the door, found him a table and thrust a pot of the inn’s best ale into his hand.
He was still staring into the half empty pot when the spare chair at his table was pulled backwards, its legs scraping noisily on the rough stone floor. Jonderill looked up in annoyance, straight into the bright blue eyes of Tissian who gave him a broad grin. “I hoped I might find you here. When Allowyn and I returned to his camp I thought you might have changed your mind and left the Enclave, but Allowyn was certain you wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.” Jonderill gave him a half smile but said nothing, making Tissian a little less certain. “May I join you? I’m rather in need of a large ale.”
Jonderill thought of refusing but that would have been churlish and besides Tissian really did look like he needed to sit down. His hair was wet again and its darkness contrasted against his very pale skin. Whilst he’d changed his clothes from the ones he’d worn to penance, there were sweat marks on his dark shirt. A large bruise was starting to blossom on his left cheek, and his hands, which looked like they were propping him up at the table’s edge shook slightly.
“I think you’d better sit down before you fall down,” said Jonderill as he waved to the pot boy for more ale. “You look awful. Was it very bad?”
Tissian sat, wincing slightly at having to bend his legs and then sighing in relief as he stretched them out in front of him. The pot boy arrived with two pots of dark, brown ale and Tissian emptied one without stopping. Jonderill pushed the second one in his direction and Tissian took two large gulps before putting the pot back on the table with a look of satisfaction.
“Allowyn is a hard task master and has worked me all day without a rest. I think if he’d made me run around that field one more time I would have dropped at his feet and would never have got up again.” He took another gulp of ale.
“What about the bruise?”
“Oh, that.” He touched the side of his face gingerly. “That’s nothing; you should see the ones on my ribs.” He gave a small laugh and looked a bit sheepish. “We fought for a candle length without weapons and I was foolish enough to make a comment about losing speed and agility when you are past twenty summers. Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough or agile enough to move out of the path of Allowyn’s right fist.”
“And the ribs?”
“Too slow defending myself with the pike-staff.”
Jonderill shook his head. “Why do you do it? There must be easier ways of earning a living.”
“There are but none that I want to do.” Jonderill shook his head again. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do; to be a protector. From the first day I came here at six summers old and the goddess spoke to me I’ve wanted to be just like Allowyn. He gave me my first sword and Callabris spoke up for me when the masters wanted to apprentice me to a weaver. I’ve trained every day since. Even when I have walked penance all day or I have been on guard duty I train and one day, if the goddess allows, I’ll be paired with a white robe and become his protector.”
“It must be amazing to know with such certainty what it is you want to be.”
“It is but I wouldn’t have known if the goddess hadn’t spoken to me.”
“I wish she would speak to me then,” said Jonderill despondently as he drank down the last of his flat ale. “I might then have a clue about what I am going to be.”
“Have you not heard the voice of the goddess?” asked Tissian in surprise. “I know that she hardly ever speaks to acolytes, not even someone like Gellidan who will be the next protector, but I thought that all those with magic would hear her words otherwise how would they know what their calling was?”
“That could be my problem.” He waved to the pot boy who hurried over with another two pots of ale and a bowl of fish stew for Tissian.
“Perhaps it is,” mused Tissian thoughtfully as he ladled the hot stew into his mouth. The pot boy returned with a small loaf of bread which Tissian used to mop up the sauce and clean the inside of the bowl. When he’d finished he sat back with a look of mischief on his face and gave Jonderill a big grin.
“I think you need to hear what the goddess has to say to you and as the High Master has not arranged for you to enter the goddess’s sanctuary to speak with Federa then I think the task will have to fall to me.”
“I’m not sure about that.” said Jonderill doubtfully. “Won’t you get into trouble?”
“I’ll only get into trouble if someone finds out.” He gave an excited laugh “Come on Jonderill, I think we should do it tonight, right now. What do you say? Shall we go and find out what the goddess has planned for you? At least then you will know if you should stay or not.”
Jonderill thought about it for a moment and then nodded. “Let’s do it then, but how do we get into the temple, it must be guarded or something?”
“Well, that’s where you come in. You’ll have to use your magic to open the doors.”
“If I could do that I wouldn’t need to go into the temple, would I?” He thought about it for a moment and then grinned. “I might not be able to open doors but I have something in my room which can.” He pushed his chair back swaying slightly from the effect of the strong ale. “Come on!”
Jonderill led the way out of the inn and up the stairs to his room where he took Plantagenet’s old iron blade from under the bed where he kept it. It felt strangely heavy and awkward in his hand and he felt a little dizzy as he held it at arm’s length. Tissian looked at him curiously but said nothing. Instead he led the way back down the stairs, past the front of the inn and into Smith’s Square.
The square was lit by flickering torches which gave people enough light to find their way along the pathway but sent long shadows dancing up walls and filled the corners with darkness. Fortunately it was a moonless night and was still, quiet and late enough for most people to be home or eating at an inn. Tissian led the way around the edge of the square keeping to the shadows. Half way around Jonderill stopped him so he could turn back to see if he was being followed, but the armsman that Allowyn had sent to watch over him had gone off somewhere else. They took one of the turnings off the square almost opposite the pathway which lead to the inn and keeping to the side streets and shadows they made their way across the city until they reached the wide area of marble paving which surrounded the temple.
Jonderill hadn’t been back to the temple since the day he had arrived at the Enclave and, in the darkness, the looming building looked even more forbidding than it had in the long afternoon he’d stood outside its walls watching people passing by. Tissian led them to a place about a quarter of the way around the building where the marble pathway was quite narrow and they couldn’t be seen from the front entrance with its massive doors and the night time guards.
“One of the advantages of having spent so many days walking penance around the temple,” whispered Tissian, “is that you get to study every block of stone and every mortared joint in detail.”
He grinned at Jonderill, took a quick look around to make sure that there was nobody about, and scuttled across the marble pathway until he was pressed tightly against the temple inside one of the small alcoves carved into the wall. Jonderill followed him in, cursing under his breath as the old iron blade clattered against the stone. They froze but nobody came to investigate the noise.
“I think this is a hidden door,” whispered Tissian. “The jointing is a shade lighter than the rest of the wall and when you touch it the stone is warm.” Jonderill felt the stone and nodded in agreement. “Can you open it?”
Jonderill shrugged and turned to face the wall. If it was a door there was no sign of a handle or hinges and when he ran his hand across the surface he couldn’t feel any cracks where the door might meet the wall. He pulled the old iron blade from beneath his jerkin and held it firmly in his hand. Plantagenet had assured him that there was no magic in the blade and that it was just an old, disused iron sword, but he knew that it had opened all the doors in Maladran’s tower when he had needed it to. He muttered a quick prayer for the goddesses help and pressed his hand which held the blade against the stone wall. With a small click the door swung open.
As before he was so surprised at what had happened that he nearly fell over, but Tissian grabbed him by the shoulder and pushed him firmly through the doorway. Once they were on the other side the door closed gently behind them with barely a sound. If they had thought it was dark outside it was nothing compared to the total blackness of where they stood inside the temple. Hesitantly, not being sure that it would work, Jonderill gathered his focus and a small ball of white light appeared in the palm of his out stretched hand and lit up a long corridor.
“Where do we go now?”
“The only entrance to Federa’s sanctuary that I know of is through the High Master’s room, it was the way I was taken when I went there. Do you think you can open the door, it might be warded?”