About Me

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I am a writer, editor, reviewer and dance teacher based in Perth, Western Australia. You might enjoy my books - The Dagger of Dresnia, the first book of the Talismans Trilogy, is available at all good online book shops as is Book two, The Cloak of Challiver. Book three, The Seer of Syland, is in preparation. I trained in piano and singing at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. I also trained in dance (Scully-Borovansky, WAAPA) and drama (NIDA). Since 1987 I have been writing reviews of performances in all genres for a variety of publications, including Music Maker, ArtsWest, Dance Australia, The Australian and others. Now semi-retired, I still write occasionally for the ArtsHub website, and I still teach dance at Trinity School for Seniors, an outreach program of the Uniting Church in Perth.

My books

The first two books of my trilogy, The Dagger of Dresnia, and book two, The Cloak of Challiver The Talismans, are available in e-book format from Smashwords, Amazon and other online sellers. I also have a short story, 'La Belle Dame', in print - see Mythic Resonance below as well as well as a few poems in various places. Book three of the trilogy, The Seer of Syland, is in preparation. The best way to contact me is via Facebook!

Buy The Talismans

The first two books of The Talismans trilogy were published by Satalyte Publications, which, sadly, has gone out of business. However, The Dagger of Dresnia and The Cloak of Challiver are available as ebooks on the usual book-selling websites, and book three, The Seer of Syland, is in preparation. The easiest way to contact me is via Facebook.

The Dagger of Dresnia

The Dagger of Dresnia
Want a copy? Contact me at satimafn(at)gmail.com

The Cloak of Challiver, Book two of The Talismans

The Cloak of Challiver, Book two of The Talismans
Available as an e-book on Amazon etc!

Mythic Resonance

Buy Mythic Resonance

Mythic Resonance is an excellent anthology that includes my short story 'La Belle Dame', together with great stories from Alan Baxter, Donna Maree Hanson, Sue Burstynski, Nike Sulway and nine more fantastic authors! Just $US3.99 from Amazon. Got a Kindle? Check out Mythic Resonance.

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Places I've lived: Manchester, UK

Places I've lived: Manchester, UK

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Places I've lived: Lynton, Devon, UK

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Places I've lived: Braemar, Scotland

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Places I've lived: Barre, MA, USA

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Wednesday, 29 August 2018

The Cloak of Challiver, Chapter Four



Chapter 4 ( I hope you're all still following!)

* * *

Lyrien yawned as she squinted into the morning light. Her harness jingled with her pony’s trot and on her left, Ullavir’s tack played a deeper counterpoint. Behind them, two or three of her ladies were singing. Strange, it was, the way the fine weather made people want to sing. Lady be thanked, the weather was holding fine for their journey. In two days she would be home. It was quite an honour, really, that her father sent her on courtesy calls to his eldermen. It showed he thought her mature enough to discuss matters of state with discretion and confidence. But this expedition to the elderman in Chitterven, minor though her task was, had proved long and tedious, and she would be glad to be home. They were nearing the Midlands border. Tonight would see them at Midlands Castle, and tomorrow they would continue on to Rannerven.

She turned to the old trouper at her side. ‘Is it far to Kettering, Ullavir?’

‘Just round this bend, your highness. If we take no more than an hour to break our fast, we’ll make Gellatherak by dinner time and Midlands Castle by sunset.’

‘That’s good. I’m hungry. Oh look, you’re right!’ They had rounded the bend and suddenly, the highway, which had taken a steep downhill turn, had become the beginnings of Kettering’s main street. ‘Where’s the inn?’

‘The one your father always stops at is on the other side of the township, madam. Have patience: it’s less than half a mile now, and the men we sent ahead will have ordered a meal and cleared the taproom.’

Lyrien grimaced. ‘I feel uncomfortable, ordering other travellers to make way for our party.’
‘There won’t be many people on the road this time of year, madam, and those that are won’t be put out for long.’

Ullavir was right, but his words did nothing to lessen Lyrien’s discomfort. Sometimes she wished she’d been born common so she wouldn’t have to inconvenience anyone or feel self-conscious because of the fine clothes she wore and the high-stepping palfrey she rode. That was one of the worst things about being a royal. People had to give way to royals, even sick people, and old ones, and mothers about to give birth. Still, at least it meant she always had enough to eat, and right now she was hungry! Ullavir had insisted that they leave Chitterven at dawn with nothing in their stomachs but a bite of bread and a beaker of warm, weak, ale.

‘There we are, your highness. I told you it wasn’t far.’ Ullavir pointed to a half-timbered building fifty yards down on the left. Considerably more substantial than the wattle and daub of nearby cottages, the place looked clean and well cared for, with its brightly painted sign depicting a sheaf of grain blazoning forth a welcome. As they approached, grooms hurried to take their mounts and the landlord himself stood on the step, bowing, his hair slicked back and a fresh white apron girthing his bulk.

Ullavir dismounted and was about to hand over his horse to one of the men when, all at once, the orderly welcome was turned on its ear. A stray goat, its keeper hard on its heels, charged in front of Lyrien. Her horse shied and whinnied and someone on her right grabbed her reins.

‘Whoa there, girl, it’s all right.’

Lyrien was about to retort that thank you very much, she could handle her mount herself and would whoever it was please let go, when she looked down. Her voice promptly deserted her, for she was staring into the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. The beautiful orbs were set in the handsomest face, which was topped by wavy golden hair that put the primroses to shame. The hand that held her reins was lean and strong-looking, with clean, trimmed nails. Its owner, clad in mail topped by a surcoat that bore an unfamiliar device, was no groom.

‘Wretched animal,’ the mail-clad vision said with a smile that showed off two rows of perfect white teeth. ‘Here, my lady, let me help you down.’ And before Lyrien could gainsay him, those fine strong hands were encircling her waist and she found herself lifted to the ground.

She was unable to step back, for the stranger knight had her trapped between himself and her horse. He did not take his hands from her waist at once and his eyes were brimming with admiration. Lyrien blushed.

‘Excuse me, sir. I thank you for your assistance, but I must join my ladies.’

The hands removed themselves at once and the golden hair moved back a pace. ‘I crave pardon, my lady. I was overwhelmed by your beauty. Pray forgive me.’ He looked around. ‘Your party is already entering the inn. Shall we join them?’ He offered his arm and it was the easiest thing in the world to take it and let him lead her to where the landlord was waiting and her guards and ladies were crowding through the door.

‘Your highness!’ The landlord bowed lower than ever. ‘Permit me to welcome you to The Oatsheaf. Rooms have been prepared for you and your party to refresh yourselves before breakfast.’ He turned to the golden-haired vision of knighthood at her side. ‘Sir Pirstad! I did not realise you were waiting for her highness. Come in, come in.’

Lyrien could not find it in her heart to protest that she had no idea who her companion was. After all, it wasn’t really improper, was it? He had done what knights are supposed to do in looking out for her welfare. And he was so handsome…

When they reached the door of the chamber where her women were waiting, the heroic vision squeezed her hand. ‘I’ll see you at breakfast, your highness,’ he whispered.

‘Of course, Sir Pirstad.’ Lyrien’s heart was beating faster than if she’d run all the way down the spiral staircase that led from her bower to the Great Hall at home. What a beautiful, beautiful man!’

Her ladies fussed over her hair and gossiped as they always did, but strangely, no one mentioned Sir Pirstad or the runaway goat. But when they made their way down to the taproom, and Sir Pirstad was waiting for her by the door the ladies-in-waiting were all blushes and coy smiles. A delightful shiver ran up Lyrien’s arm when he took her hand. As he led her to the head of the long table, Lyrien was sure she was glowing more brightly than the sunshine that reflected from the polished table tops. He handed her to her place at the head of the table and took the seat to her right just as Ullavir strode in.

The old guardsman stopped short at the sight of the strange knight, but only for a heartbeat. He marched over to Lyrien and confronted Sir Pirstad, hand on his sword. ‘Who are you, Sir Knight? I had no orders that we were to meet anyone here.’

Lyrien felt sorry for Ullavir. His job was to protect her from harm, and a stranger attaching himself to a royal entourage had to be challenged. But how to challenge a man who already seemed familiar with his charge? Poor Ullavir was obviously nonplussed.

‘It’s all right, Ullavir,’ she began, but Pirstad interrupted by rising to his feet.

‘Sir Pirstad Stormshore at your service, Sir Ullavir. I took the liberty of assisting her highness in a most unfortunate incident with a runaway goat and she was kind enough to invite me to dine with your party.’

‘Yes, where were you, Ullavir?’ Lyrien joined in the game with glee. ‘A goat spooked my horse and I could have been thrown.’ She regarded Ullavir reproachfully. ‘It’s fortunate Sir Pirstad was there to help.’

Ullavir faltered. ‘Pardon, your highness. I… I did not see the animal. It must have been while I was giving orders to the grooms. And I thank you, Sir Pirstad, for your timely intervention.’

Sir Pirstad inclined his head graciously. ‘I am honoured to have been able to help.’ He made room for Ullavir to sit beside him and quickly engaged him in conversation. It wasn’t long before Ullavir was also under Pirstad’s spell and the meal proceeded with much merriment. Over a pint of ale at the end, Pirstad led them all in singing The Flowers of Sproutingmonth, casting admiring looks at Lyrien whenever the chorus rolled around.
If all the flowers of Sproutingmonth
Were growing by my door
There’s only one that I would pick
And keep forevermore.
Every time they sang the line ‘There’s only one that I would pick’ Sir Pirstad smiled at Lyrien and she blushed pinker and pinker with every passing verse.
There was no question but that Sir Pirstad should ride with them as far as Gellatherak, where, he said, he was to visit a friend’s manor. He rode at Lyrien’s left all the way. They chatted about music, and Lyrien was delighted to find they had similar tastes.

‘I really like the work of that Aristandian troubadour, Goffray de Mardell,’ Lyrien confided. ‘His Dream of the Golden Valley is my favourite song!’

Sir Pirstad agreed. ‘A lovely piece indeed, although I’m also fond of his Love in an Autumn Forest. Have you heard it, your highness?’

Lyrien hadn’t, so he sang it for her. After that he went back to The Flowers of Sproutingmonth, and Lyrien blushed more than ever.

When the town of Gellatherak loomed into view Lyrien’s heart sank. Her hero was leaving! But as the party reined in to bid him farewell, he took Lyrien’s hand and kissed it.

‘I shall see you again your highness,’ he whispered. ‘Very soon, I promise.’

* * *

Lyrien awoke the next morning to the dawn sounds of a country estate. Cows lowed as they were driven in to be milked; doors banged and voices shouted instructions, all over a chorus of birdsong. Her first thought was of Pirstad. Smiling sleepily, she turned towards the window and resumed her fantasy of the night before. Even though he wasn’t a prince, maybe her father would look favourably on Pirstad if he was of good family and repute and would make an elderman…

Lyrien got up and began to dress. It was still early. No sign of her ladies yet. That was good. Having people fuss over her was another of the trials of being royal. Being an elderman’s wife would be much less constraining.

But what if Pirstad really didn’t like her that much? The thought was too alarming to countenance. Of course he liked her. And hadn’t he said he would see her again, very soon?

Dressed in a simple stuff gown for another day in the saddle, and her hair neatly plaited, Lyrien made her way downstairs. Uncle Dristed’s talk was all of hopes for a better harvest this year than last, and the relative prices of oats and barley. Boring! Lyrien continued to daydream of Pirstad’s blue eyes and the feel of his hands at her waist.

Perhaps they would meet Pirstad along the way. They would have to stop somewhere for dinner, after all. She giggled behind her goblet. Maybe there will be another stray goat…

* * *

After three or four hours on the road, Lyrien was just getting hungry again and starting to think about dinner. It was wild, forested country and they had not passed a village or even a farm for some time.
‘Ullavir, where will we stop for―’ She was interrupted by shouting from behind, followed immediately by the clash of steel. Before she could turn to see what was happening, a similar fracas assaulted her ears from the front of the column. Lyrien’s heart lurched and she broke out in prickly sweat. Swords drawn, the men in front were engaging fighters on the ground. Just behind her, ladies were screaming.

Whinnies from the horses quickly became shrieks of fear. Her mount wheeled one way then the other, pulling at the reins. It was as much as she could do to hold her seat. Glimpses of fighting behind and before told her both ends of the column were being attacked, but her eyes refused to believe what they saw. Men, dozens of them. But were they men? They were man-shaped, but short, less than her own height. What they lacked in height they made up for in girth. Dark shaggy hair hung to their naked shoulders and what looked like wolf pelts covered their hips and upper legs. Some were firing slingshots from among the trees while others at close quarters were laying about them with swords.
Dwarves. Surely not! Dwarves belonged in stories. They didn’t just appear out of nowhere, firing slingshots...

The guards fought desperately, but they were hopelessly outnumbered. Several were felled by stones from slingers in the trees, their comrades were unhorsed, their mounts slain by dwarves on the ground. The harsh tang of blood filled the air and Lyrien’s horse panicked. Desperately, she clung to the reins as the animal bolted back down the road the way they had come. A dwarf grabbed at the bridle as she passed but the horse reared and he backed off. Another tried, and was trampled for his pains. Lyrien closed her eyes and hung on, screaming.

Then all at once there was calm. Her mount stood still, head down, its breath heaving. Someone had hold of her bridle, murmuring words of endearment.

‘It’s all right, Lyrien, my little princess. It’s all right. Come now, come with me.’ She opened her eyes to find Sir Pirstad lifting her from her own saddle and onto his mount, where she clung to him, sobbing. He turned his horse’s head towards a gap in the trees where a narrow path opened before them. The noise of the fighting receded as they made their way into the forest.

‘Where are we going?’

‘Somewhere safe,’ said Pirstad. ‘Just relax and let me take care of you.’

‘What about the others? What about Ullavir?’

‘Ullavir can take care of himself. It’s what he does for a living, remember. Just be glad you are safe. You aren’t hurt, are you?’

‘No. At least, I don’t think so.’

‘That’s good.’ A gentle kiss brushed her brow. ‘I wouldn’t have you hurt for the world.’ Pirstad’s left arm tightened around her waist and she snuggled against his broad chest. How strong he was, and how kind. 

‘I was lucky that you happened along at just the right time, Sir Pirstad.’

‘I told you I would see you again, didn’t I? Rest now. It’s not far.’

Lyrien lost track of time and distance. The motion of the horse, the jingle of the harness and the crunch of leaves under the horse’s hooves were calming. She found herself dozing. At one point, her dress must have caught on a branch. She heard the tearing sound and what sounded like a muttered curse from Pirstad, but he pulled the fabric free and pushed his mount through the encroaching undergrowth.

‘Look, here we are, safe and sound.’

Lyrien lifted her head and looked around. They were entering an enormous clearing, in the centre of which stood a sturdy timber building. Lyrien guessed it was a hunting lodge. Her father owned several similar ones in various parts of the country.

‘Whose is it?’ she asked.

Again the fluttering kiss to her forehead. ‘Ours, for now. Hold on while I dismount. It’s a long way to the ground.’

It was indeed a long way, but Pirstad lifted her, light as a feather, and carried her the rest of the way, up to the door of the lodge. It wasn’t locked.

Once inside, Pirstad set her on her feet. They were in a cosy hall with a dining table and several comfy-looking padded chairs. The only window was set high in the wall over the door, clerestory-style. An inner door opened off to one side, while opposite, an archway led to another part of the house.

It was as if they were expected. A fire glowed in the hearth and there was food on the table: cheese and fruit and nuts and pastries as fine as anything she’d had at any castle in the Islands.

‘Sit down, my princess,’ said Pirstad with a gallant bow. ‘Shall I pour us some wine?’

Lyrien realised she was terribly, terribly thirsty, and she drank the wine Pirstad poured almost in one draught.

Pirstad pushed a plate of pastries toward her. ‘Here, eat something, your highness. It’s not good to drink so much wine on an empty stomach.’

Lyrien took a pastry and bit into it. It tasted delicious, and she took a second bite. Something was niggling at the back of her mind, something about Ullavir and the rest of her party, but it all seemed a long way away and so unimportant…

She finished the pastry but realised she was more tired than hungry. So tired, all she wanted to do was close her eyes…

‘I’m sorry. You’ve had a bad experience, and you’re weary.’ Pirstad pushed himself from the table and held out his hand. Come, I’ll show you where you can rest.’

Obedient as if she was six years old and her nurse was calling her for bed, Lyrien stood up with a sleepy smile and, clasping the proffered hand, she allowed Pirstad to lead her through the inner door.

* * *

Restlessness assailed Ellyria. Perhaps she’d stayed in Syland too long. As they always did when this mood came upon her, her thoughts turned to the Dark Spirit. She was no closer to finding out its true name. And what of Fiersten and Norduria? They had also vanished. Apart from Jedderin’s brief sighting, no one among either elves or ordinary mortals had heard news of them in years.

She briefly considered scrying for them but dismissed the idea. What was the point? They were gone, hidden by Norduria’s filthy magic somewhere in the wilds of Challiver, and Ellyria told herself that she didn’t care where they were.

But I do care. I should care. Where they are, there lie the Dark Spirit’s plans.

Maybe she should try again…

Sighing, she set up her scrying bowl, knowing she would be no more successful than before. The water lay obdurately clear, showing only the smooth bronze of the bowl’s inner surface. She was about to give up when suddenly, the surface clouded.

But when the milkiness cleared, it did not show Fiersten and Norduria. It showed Ullavir, beside a forest-lined roadway, battling a dwarvish raider.

Lyrien

Ellyria gabbled the spell, and the space-shifting vortex seized her up and carried her away.
She opened her eyes to a scene of carnage. Horses reared and screamed and somewhere behind her, women were screaming too. A dead man lay at her feet, his head half severed. He wore the livery of Beverak’s guard. Barely an arm’s length before her, Ullavir ran his sword through his opponent’s belly. The dwarvishman screamed and fell to the ground.

Ullavir stepped over the dying dwarf. ‘Your majesty, he panted hoarsely. ‘You should not be here.’

Ellyria did not reply. She was busy creating the biggest binding spell she’d ever had to cast. And where was Lyrien? There was no hope of finding her, dead or alive, amid this mayhem.

Ullavir turned to face another dwarvish fighter just as Ellyria’s spell took effect on those closest to her. She could not possibly stop the battle all at once. She had to tackle it little by little, starting with the individual fights close at hand and gradually widening the spell’s net.

And little by little, it worked. Dwarves froze in full fight or flight, while Ullavir’s men lowered their swords in amazement.

Ullavir looked around at her handiwork and then gazed at her, awe-struck. ‘You’ve frozen them, your majesty. Are they dead?’

‘No, Ullavir. At nightfall they will move again. May the gods grant they return to their underground caverns and not come back to harm anyone even one more time.’

Ullavir, however, was not listening. He was turning this way and that, looking for something. Or someone. ‘The princess — where is she?

Ellyria’s eyes already sought the familiar tawny hair and rosy cheeks of her granddaughter, but there was no sign of her. One of the women limped up, weeping. ‘Where is your mistress?’ Ellyria demanded. ‘Where’s Princess Lyrien?’

‘Her h-horse bolted, madam, quite early in the attack. Last I saw it was tearing back up the road towards Midlands Manor.’

‘She could have been thrown!’ Not waiting for a response, Ellyria began to run in the direction the weeping woman had indicated. Ullavir was hard on her heels, but she managed to lose him by dodging through a group of frozen dwarvishmen at the first bend in the road. She took refuge in a thicket as Ullavir thundered past. Then she took starling form and flew.

Half a mile down the road, a riderless mount grazed the verge. With her starling’s eyes, Ellyria glanced past the horse to an overgrown path. It had obviously seen little use: branches overhung from both sides and the path itself sported grasses high enough to mow for hay.

But someone had gone up there recently. Snapped twigs hung from the branches and the grass beneath was slightly flattened, as if a by a single horse.

There was magic about. Strong magic: she could almost smell it. Someone wearing a glamour…

The trail was easy enough to follow. Away from the edge of the wood, hoof prints in the sandy track led ever onwards and upwards. Some distance up the path, something hanging on a bush that overhung the path caught her eye. It was a piece of brown stuff. Along one edge fragments of floral embroidery still clung.

Alighting on the path, Ellyria resumed her own form and retrieved the scrap of fabric. She held it up to the dim light. It could be from Lyrien’s brown riding dress.

Heartened, she hastened along the path, even though it was growing steeper by the stride and thorny twigs grabbed her at every step. Two bends later, she pushed her way into a large clearing with a substantial building in its centre. From within came the sound of sobbing.

Ellyria mounted the steps in two bounds and tried the door, without success. It took several repetitions of an unlocking spell to gain entry. She raced across the hall, calling her granddaughter’s name, and flung open the inner door.

Lyrien, naked, lay hunched atop an elaborately carved bed. She raised her head and stared at Ellyria with terrified, unseeing eyes. Ellyria sat beside her and tried to take her in her arms, but Lyrien screamed and pushed her away.

‘Lyrien, my dear child, can you hear me? Lyrien, look at me!

The sobbing became great gasping breaths punctuated by whimpers. ‘Grandmamma?’ Oh Grandmamma, he hurt me.’

Ellyria put an arm around the shaking white shoulders and this time she was not repulsed. Lyrien turned and collapsed into the embrace, sobbing again, more quietly this time. There was a smear of blood on her thigh. ‘Lyrien, who did this to you?’

‘A m-man, Grandmamma. A knight.’

Half releasing the shivering Lyrien, Ellyria pulled the bedcovers up. ‘Did you know him?’

Lyrien shook her head. ‘Not really. I met him only yesterday. He seemed so nice… but he planned this, Grandmamma. He told me, even as he…’ Lyrien bit her lips and screwed up her eyes.

Ellyria squeezed her shoulder. ‘Go on.’

‘He said to tell you that he can also play the horse breeder, that there are already plenty of little cuckoos. And that Nor-Nordelia? A strange name…’

‘Norduria?’

‘Yes, that’s it. Norduria.’

Ellyria folded Lyrien in her arms as she began to cry again, soft, despairing sobs that told a tale of heartbreaking disillusionment and loss. ‘Did this man tell you his name?’

Lyrien’s whisper was so soft even Ellyria could barely hear it. ‘He said he was Sir Pirstad 
Stormshore.’

Pirstad. Pierstan. Fiersten. Back on form, now the Dark Spirit is back… Ellyria stood up and retrieved Lyrien’s clothing. Some pieces lay on the bed, some on the floor, all in disarray. The hem of the riding habit was torn, matching the piece Ellyria had found on the bush, but the bodice was ripped to the waist, as was the undershirt.

A little magic mended them. If only broken lives could be as easily rendered whole. Ellyria’s jaw clenched. ‘He will pay for this, Lyrien. And have no fear; there will be no cuckoo in this nest. I shall see to that.’

She stroked Lyrien’s belly in a downward motion, seven times, murmuring a spell as she did so. ‘Come along, my darling. Let’s get you back where you belong.’

It was a long walk back to the road. Ellyria was tempted to space-shift at once to take Lyrien directly back to Rannerven, but that would cause complications. Ullavir and his men, to say nothing of Lyrien’s women, must be hunting for her high and low.

‘Lyrien, my dear, it’s probably best if your party returns to Midlands Manor. I’ll come with you if there’s a spare mount.’ Ellyria bit her lip. Of course there would be a spare: several of Beverak’s men were dead. ‘It might be wise to tell Ullavir and the others that you hid in the forest to avoid the dwarves, without mentioning Sir Pirstad.’

Lyrien just nodded. Her crying had given way to a sad silence that was almost worse, but all Ellyria could do was walk beside her, sending waves of compassion and reassurance and hoping that was enough.

Halfway down the path, they met Ullavir. The relief on his face as he caught sight of them was palpable. ‘Madam, you’ve found her. Praised be all the gods! Your highness, are you hurt?’

Lyrien shook her head. ‘Thank you, no, Ullavir. When my horse finally calmed down I thought it best to shelter in the forest for a while, and Queen Ellyria just happened to be passing. I am quite unhurt, as you can see. We must return to Midlands Castle. Prince Dristed should hear of this attack as soon as possible.’ She turned to Ellyria. ‘Will you accompany us, Grandmamma? I take it your servants have returned to your manor.’

Ellyria regarded her granddaughter with admiration. Where had the weeping, terrified girl gone? This was a different Lyrien, one who had very quickly grown in strength and dignity. ‘Indeed I will, granddaughter, if Ullavir can find me a mount.’

By the time they reached the scene of the battle, the dead and wounded were tied to their horses and Ullavir’s sergeant was readying the party to move off. Ellyria rode with them back to Midlands Castle, where she left Lyrien and her party in the care of Dristed. Then she space-shifted to Rannerven, to explain to Beverak and Tammi that their daughter had been raped.

* * *

‘Who was it?’ Beverak snarled as he stood up on hearing the news. ‘I’ll hunt him down and have him strung up by the balls.’

Tammi took his hand. ‘My love, whoever it was, there is nothing we can do without ruining Lyrien’s chances of marriage. We must keep this quiet. Surely you can see that?’

Ellyria stayed silent. She could not bear to tell Beverak the same elvishman that had seduced Polivana all those years ago had also raped Lyrien. Beverak still occasionally showed long-harboured feelings of fear and suspicion of her people, and knowing that his daughter had been forcibly deflowered by one of them could well be the last straw. Perhaps he would even turn her out, his own mother… The possibility of never seeing Beverak and Tammi or their children again was unbearable. 

She held her peace while Beverak ranted and Tammi soothed, then quietly excused herself, went to her room and wept.

She fell into a restless slumber, only to be awakened by the feeling that someone — or something — was in the room with her. She opened her eyes to see a familiar shape flickering in the firelight. She sat bolt upright. ‘You! This was your doing, wasn’t it?’

The Dark Spirit smiled its lazy, supercilious smile. ‘Of course. Surely you aren’t surprised, little queen. You must have known I was back.’

Ellyria hugged her knees and stared back into the spirit’s unfathomable eyes. ‘Of course I did. I saw my spell undone in front of my very eyes. I’m surprised it took you so long to surface.’

The Spirit yawned. ‘Oh, I’ve been around, my dear. Laying plans, finding my minions and making them a few promises. Hence the sad business with your granddaughter. Fiersten is easily pleased: just wave a pretty piece of flesh in front of him and he is happy. But Norduria — now, she’s a cut from different cloth. Power is what she’s after, and that makes the game so much more interesting.’

‘What about Nustofer?’

The Spirit shrugged. ‘He wants power, too, but he’s easily diverted by smaller rewards for the time being. But really, my dear, you can’t expect me to share my plans with you. I may be clever, but I cannot read your mind — to me, the fun of this game lies in guessing what you will do next and foiling your plans. Sometimes I have to distract you with side issues, and that might often tie in nicely with the small rewards I give my minions.’

Bile rose in Ellyria’s throat. How could this creature be so evil, so conscienceless? ‘Why didn’t you just take Lyrien as your second payment, and have done with it?’

‘I like to prolong the game, little queen. I might indeed take her another time, but I must congratulate you. Your trinkets are doing their job well, and so far I have been unable to take either of your granddaughters. Fear not: your spells are strong, and providing me with much sport as I try to break them. For break them I shall, you know. It’s only a matter of time.’ And with that the Dark Spirit faded from view.

* * *

Beverak pushed aside the pile of papers that required his attention. One of them was a tentative offer of the hand of a Kyrisian princess as a wife for Linvar.

He stretched to ease his aching back. It still troubled him, but not as much as the nagging awareness that the succession would not be assured until Linvar had a son. Better yet, two or three sons. Not all children, even pampered royal ones, would reach adulthood.

But he did not want to marry Linvar to a foreign princess. Oh, he’d been lucky himself in that regard — Tammi was the very best wife he could have had, and there was no likelihood that any of her kinsmen would try to take the throne of Dresnia. All the same, a good local girl would be a safer bet for Linvar, preferably one who had no brothers…

There was a knock at the door and Beverak cursed under his breath. Hadn’t he told them a hundred times to leave him alone when he was working? ‘Who is it?’

It was Lyrien. A pang of sorrow pierced Beverak as he watched her cross the room. She held her head high, but she’d been looking sad and withdrawn for days, ever since that cursed attack in the forest and her suffering at the hands of some stray knight. The worst part was that he couldn’t even seek the bastard out and have him die under the knife that a butcher would take to his balls. Hell, he’d wield the knife himself, given the chance. But Tammi was right. If word got about that Lyrien had been raped, it would ruin her chances of marriage and cast disrepute on the family. It was high time she had a husband. Just as soon as Linvar is safely wed…

Lyrien stood in front of him, hands clasped. That was strange; normally she would take a stool and sit at his feet. He’d never stood on ceremony with his children, and they were always at ease with him. 

He regarded Lyrien seriously. ‘What is it, child?

Lyrien swallowed. ‘Father, I want to be a nun.’

‘You want what?’ Beverak almost fell from his chair in surprise. ‘Lyrien, is your brain addled? You are my only daughter. You can’t become a nun. And what sort of life do those women have anyway? Most of them are girls from families too poor to give them a decent dowry, or else they’re sick or deformed and can’t find husbands. We can do better for you than that. A lot better. Why, only last week the Falrouvian ambassador hinted that the king’s uncle was looking for a second wife. Once we’ve found a wife for Linvar——’

Lyrien broke in angrily. ‘Father, it will be obvious to anyone I marry that I’m not a virgin. Have you thought of that?’

‘Don’t be silly, Lyrien. Any old wise woman knows how to fake virginity. A bit of chicken’s blood in the right place and the man will be none the wiser, unless you tell him.’

‘I will tell anyone who comes to court me,’ Lyrien replied. ‘And if he persists, I shall spit in his face. I will never marry. Never. You might as well let me go to the godhouse right away.’

Bile rose in Beverak’s throat and his hands started to shake. He thumped the desk and roared at Lyrien. ‘You just listen to me, daughter! You have been pampered and given advantages all your life, because you are my child and thus a bargaining chip in trade. Your dowry is sufficient for any prince on the continent, or indeed, any in the world. This is what you’ve been bred for and you’ll marry where I tell you!’

‘Is that all I am to you, Father? A bargaining chip?’

Beverak’s anger evaporated as quickly as it had arisen. He put his head in his hands, elbows on the desk, and took a deep breath. ‘Of course not, my pet.’ He paused and looked up again. ‘But princes and princesses have certain duties. Why else have you been cosseted and given every advantage? We have to pay for these things in our duty to the country. And one of those duties is making useful alliances with other lands. Surely you’ve always known that.’

Lyrien turned away and looked out of the window. ‘I did not seek those advantages, Father. In fact, I despise them. Why should I ride while others walk? Why should I always take the best feather bed at any inn in the country while poor people sleep on straw or worse? And have you considered, Father, that if you marry me off to some foreign prince, my sons might one day seek to take the throne of Dresnia?’

Beverak felt himself blanch. This was, indeed, the very thing he feared when it came to foreign alliances. The dagger of Dresnia was long lost and his mother had intimated that the Dark Spirit was back. Her words of two decades ago rose to mind as clearly as if she’d only just now spoken them: there will be illness, famine and war within and without the kingdoms…

‘Are you threatening me, daughter?’

‘No, Father, just stating a simple fact. Until Linvar has sons enough to ensure the succession, it might not be prudent to have nephews on foreign soil.’

Beverak stared at his daughter. Suddenly, she seemed years older. Indeed, she was old enough to know what she wanted. And should he ever decide that it was politic for her to marry, dispensations from vows were not hard to buy…

‘Have you mentioned this idea to your mother, Lyrien?’

‘I have, Father, and she has no objection as long as you give consent. She said she would rather have me close by in Rannerven than over the seas and far away.’

Her father sighed. ‘Very well, daughter, I will consider your request. Now be off with you and leave me to my work.’

Lyrien closed her father’s door behind her and leaned against it, breathing a sigh of relief. It might take another talk or two, but she’d already won. Lady be thanked, she would never have to lie with a man again.

* * *

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

The Cloak of Challiver, Chapter 3


So here we go with chapter three. Comments welcome.

Chapter 3

* * *

Artwork by Marieke Ormsby
‘Good Girl, Vanrel,’ said Ven Istrovar, rolling up the scroll they had been studying. ‘Now, before you go, see if you can remember the names and attributes — in order, mind — of the Sky Wanderers.’

Vanrel rested her elbows on the edge of Ven Istrovar’s huge desk, closed her eyes and counted on her fingers. ‘Mirthrev, the Messenger; Vernstrith, the Beautiful; Mordestan, the Warrior; Javnor, the Beneficent; Styrak, the Limiter…’ She screwed up her eyes in concentration.

‘And what about the two guardians of the Lady’s journeying?’

‘Kedris, the Guide, and Kurdilis, the Challenger.’ Vanrel opened her eyes and smiled in delight. ‘I got them all, didn’t I?’

‘You did indeed, child. If your mother can spare you, you can come back later and read a little on your own. You can start learning the characteristics of persons born under each of the Wanderers.’

‘Thank you Ven Istrovar.’ She started for the door then turned back hesitantly. ‘There is something I don’t quite understand, sir. May I ask a question?’

‘Of course, child, but make it quick. His majesty often sends for me about this time.’

‘Are the Wanderers and Guardians really gods, or are they more like angels? Is it right to pray to them?’

Ven Istrovar sighed and put aside the scroll. ‘That’s a question, Vanrel, that sages and theologians argue over. You know they are sometimes called the Seven Lesser Gods, and that’s the way most people think of them. Some find them more approachable than the Lord and Lady, and certainly prayers to one’s own ruler, based on one’s hour of birth, are often efficacious. So perhaps regarding them as minor deities is quite acceptable. On the other hand——’

Vanrel was not to hear the other side of the argument that day, for at that moment the Venerable 
Tandrian, the chamberlain, put his head in the door, requesting Ven Istrovar’s immediate attendance on the king. The portly chaplain heaved himself to his feet, hastily collected a set of scrolls from the shelf above his desk and bustled off to the king’s tower, leaving Vanrel to turn over the argument for the existence of minor gods in her mind as she made her way back towards the quarters she shared with her parents above the mews.

She took a detour, however, deciding to stroll through the kitchen gardens. Other people’s work often looked much more interesting than her own. Not that she minded the prospect of being a fletcher, but there were so many other things to learn about, too. How lucky she was that Princess Lyrien had persuaded the king that the castle children ought to be taught their letters! The scrolls she studied with Ven Istrovar had opened up a whole new world.

She smiled as she thought of Princess Lyrien and her kindness, and of her brother, Prince Linvar. Many a time, they had both romped with the artisans’ children in the fields around the castle and on the sandy shore that lay below it on the seaward side. Even now Princess Lyrien would read stories to the younger children, and sometimes she would hand Vanrel the book and ask her to read for a while.

On impulse, Vanrel took another detour, this time through a corridor of ancient rosemary bushes towards that same arbour where Princess Lyrien would sit to read. She had not gone far, however, when she was pulled up by shouting from behind. Turning, she was almost bowled over by her younger brother Vedran, leading a tribe of noisy children. Only a year or two earlier she would have been running with them, barefoot and wild, answering to no one unless her parents caught her and gave her errands to run. Now and then, of course, Ven Tandrian, the chamberlain, would admonish the young vagabonds, and they had all learnt early to dodge his heavy hand.

Nowadays, Vanrel was more sedate. After all, she was fifteen, wasn’t she? Another couple of years and she’d be well and truly marriageable. Not that she wanted to marry — it seemed to Vanrel that women had the lesser portion when it came to marriage — but what else could she do? She could work as a fletcher under her father, of course, and if she married a fletcher, as her father hoped she would, her labour would be valued, but unwed, she was unlikely to be given respectable employment in her own right. Apart from household service, usually for a relative and unpaid, only two paths in life were open to unmarried women: harlot and nun. Vanrel did not want to be either.

‘Where’re you off to, Sis?’ Vedran demanded, letting the younger children run ahead. ‘Father was looking for you earlier.’

‘I was studying with Ven Istrovar.’

‘What are you, some kind of teacher’s pet?’ Vedran scoffed. ‘You’re too old for schooling. I wish I was. I’ve already got more than enough learning for folk of our kind.’

‘Ven Istrovar is giving me private tuition in Geography and Astrology. He says I’m too clever for a girl and it’s a pity I’m not a boy, then I could be a clerk.’

‘As if that’ll help you fletch arrows and feed babies! Girls can’t be clerks, everyone knows that.’

‘So what? I like having lessons with Ven Istrovar. Listen, I know the names of all the Wanderers and Guardians.’ And counting on her fingers as she had for her teacher, Vanrel again rattled off the seven names.

‘Everyone knows those. They’re just the days of the week, only a bit different.’

‘They’re more than ‘a bit different’. They’re in a different order, for a start, and besides, I have to learn all about the qualities of people born under each Wanderer.’

‘I’d rather listen to stories than read them. Or play hide and seek in the herb garden.’ And indeed, the younger children were already chasing one another around the circular paths that surrounded a little arbour, the one where Princess Lyrien sometimes read to them. Throughout the spring it had been a scented hideaway as the herbs, one after the other, came into their season of bloom. Lavender had come in early this year. Its purple spikes rose proudly above the low-growing plants that bordered the plots, so there were plenty of hiding places. The children would be safe, Vanrel knew, unless Ven Tandrian caught them and sent them packing.

She rounded a corner to find the children crowding around Princess Lyrien, who was laughing. ‘I came out for a quiet read in the garden and find I have to tell a story instead. Which one do you want to hear?’ The princess had set her book aside and was leaning forward. The children shuffled and shoved for places at her feet.

‘Tell us the one about the Siege of Sarutha, your highness,’ demanded one ragamuffin lad.

‘Please, your highness, tell us the one about how Lord Melkavar tamed the Divine Eagle,’ a small girl pleaded.

‘I know what story I’ll tell you!’ Princess Lyrien said. ‘Would you like to hear how the Three Kingdoms came into being?’

‘Are there any battles in it?’ Vedran asked.

‘Oh, yes indeed,’ replied the princess. ‘There was a mighty battle when the three kings united to drive away the wicked elvishman, Fiersten, and their equally wicked cousin, Prince Nidvar.’

‘Once upon a time,’ she began, ‘the kingdoms of Dresnia, Challiver and Syland were one, and a blessed land it was, until there came to the throne a king whose three sons squabbled bitterly over the inheritance. The boys were of an age, born at one birthing, and who could tell which came first? They were as alike as acorns on a branch or eggs in a nest. The queen did not know, or if she knew she would not tell, and the midwife swore that she had marked the firstborn with a raddle, but could not find the mark again when her work was done and all the babes were safely in their cradles. Indeed, she had to find two extra cradles, since who might have suspected that the queen would have triplets?

‘As the young princes grew, they became as alike in their rivalry as in their appearances. Their suspicion and jealousy of each other even led to open fighting. One was a master with the lance, and he could always best his brothers at jousting. The king ordered the heralds to make sure the lances he used were blunt, so that the other princes’ armour would not be pierced.

‘Another was the finest swordsman in the kingdom, and when he took part in tournaments the king would not allow the other two princes to compete, lest they be slain by their sibling.’

‘Did he kill anybody, madam?’

‘They say he killed a great giant once, but that’s another story.’

‘Tell us that tale, your highness!’

‘Maybe tomorrow. Let’s finish this one today. Which prince were we up to?’
‘The third, madam!’ chorused the children.

‘Ah, yes. The third prince was a fine bowman, and the king had to confiscate his weapon more than once, fearing he would lie in ambush for his brothers.’

‘My eldest brother is a bowman,’ reported one little girl importantly. ‘He went all the way to Kyrisia to join their army.’

‘Yes, lots of our people join the army in Kyrisia,’ responded Lyrien. ‘Prince Ruthvard was a military surgeon there when he was a young man. But let’s get back to the story. The king and queen were so distressed by their sons’ constant quarrels that in the end, the king divided his land in three, and at his death, each son was to take one part. To the north lay lovely Challiver, land of plains and mountains, and in the south lay Dresnia, full of barley fields and bees. And over the sea from both of them, by just a few hours’ sailing, lay wet and windy Syland with its rivers, lakes and trees. The old king ensured there was a fine castle in each thirding, so that all three sons would have equal rank and dignity. He found for each of them a good and beautiful wife of noble birth, and he died believing that the Three Kingdoms would flourish.’

‘What did he die of?’ demanded Vedran.

‘A nasty wasting disease. He was only forty-four.’

‘My grandfather died last year,’ said another child. ‘Ven Istrovar says he’s gone to live in heaven with the Lord and Lady.’

‘My father says that’s rubbish,’ responded Vedran. ‘There’s no such place as heaven, is there, your highness?’

Princess Lyrien smiled at the boy. ‘Maybe there is. It would be nice to think of people living on in a happier place, wouldn’t it?’

‘What about the three princes?’ Someone at the back was obviously impatient for the story to continue.

‘Well,’ Lyrien went on, ‘they would have continued to fight, but their mother, Queen Ellyria, came of elvish stock, and she made for each of her sons a magic talisman. To Volran, King of Challiver, she gave a cloak of her own weaving. “As long as your descendants wear this cloak,” she told him, 
“Peace will prevail in your land.”

‘To Melrad, King of Syland, she gave a mirror of her own making. “As long as your descendants look in this mirror daily,” she told him, “Peace will prevail in your land.”

‘To Beverak, King of Dresnia, she gave a dagger of her own forging. And what do you think she told him? “As long as your descendants carry this dagger …”’

‘Peace will prevail in your land!’ chanted the children.

‘Yes! And it came to pass as the queen had foretold. Her three fine sons swore to remain friends forever, and each still rules his allotted country well.’ With that, the princess stood up. ‘We’ll have to leave the final battle for another day. I must go now, as I have to make a journey tomorrow for my father, the King. But I’ll read to you all again when I get back.’

Vanrel curtsied as the princess departed. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to listen to stories all day long? 

But that could never be. Sighing, she turned her feet for home.

Her father’s workshop nestled beneath their living quarters in the heart of Castle Beverak. The room was wide open to the elements to let in plenty of light, and Vanrel stood at the entrance, watching her father fit arrowheads to shafts. Her mother sat hunched over the bench beside him, applying neat pieces of fletching to her husband’s handiwork.

‘What did you learn today, lass?’ Mother asked. ‘Was that a writing class you were having?’

‘Yes. Ven Istrovar is letting us try illuminating.’

‘Illuminating? Whatever’s that, under the Lady’s Moon?

‘Making the first letter of a story stand out and look special by adding decorations. It’s a trade in its own right, Ven Istrovar says. Some clerks spend years mastering the skill, so all we can do is play around with it, really. It’s beautiful. I wish I could do it for a living.’

‘Well, you know there’s no chance of that,’ her father remonstrated, ‘and look, your mother is nearly out of goose feathers. Why don’t you run down to the town and ask if Master Ostraner can spare me some? Tell him I’ll replace them when the next lot of birds is slaughtered.

‘And here…’ He fished in the purse at his belt. ‘Here’s a copper to buy yourself a sweetmeat or a ribbon. Hurry back.’

A treat! Vanrel ran across the outer ward to the gatehouse. What should she buy? They’d had some pretty red ribbons last time she’d looked in the haberdashers. If they were not too dear, maybe she could get one for Mother as well.

As she hurried down the road that led to town, excited anticipation occupied her mind until she was distracted by something that kept flashing in and out of her field of vision to the right of the path. At first she thought it was a pair of rabbits, but the sun was still high in the sky and rabbits, Vanrel knew, were only seen along the roadside at dawn and dusk. Was it ground-nesting birds of some kind? Hardly: it was far too late in the season for that. Only a week or two to Autumfest! Once again, excitement filled her mind as she thought of the seasonal feasting and celebrations that would follow. And best of all, the chanting in the chapel to cheer Lord Melkavar as he began his lonely journey to the south. Vanrel loved the stories and ceremonial that went with the rituals at festival times even better than the feasting.

There it is again! This time, she deliberately slowed her pace and looked out of the corner of her eye to where she had seen the fluttering movement in the grass. It was, in fact, a pair of birds, but they were birds such as Vanrel had never seen. Their plumage was bright red with gold-tipped flight feathers. Being a fletcher’s daughter, Vanrel thought she knew all about birds and their feathers, but it seemed she was wrong. She stopped for a closer look — and right in front of her eyes, the extravagantly plumed creatures turned into a pair of starlings.

Vanrel blinked rapidly. There must be something in her eyes. She lifted her hands to rub them, then bent down for a closer look. Perhaps the red and gold was just a trick of the light. Or maybe she was going mad! All that reading — her father had said it wasn’t good for her. Before the thought was fully formed, however, the starlings had become a couple of playful kittens, chasing a small stone and batting it with their paws.

Vanrel, already squatting on her haunches in her efforts to see the birds clearly, sat down in shock. 
‘Enough’s enough,’ she thought. ‘I really have been reading too much. Maybe I should go home and tell Mother I’m unwell, and I’ll go to see Master Ostraner tomorrow instead.’

The kittens disappeared into a clump of bushes, which started to wave as if some larger creature was pushing its way through. Vanrel was sure she could hear giggling. ‘Come out and show yourself,’ she said, in her best imitation of her mother’s voice when she was cross. ‘I’ve had enough of your silly jokes.’ Silence, then whispers which Vanrel could not make out.

‘Very well, we’ll come out,’ came a boy’s voice from the grass.

‘No, Tommavad, we mustn’t. Remember what mother said.’ This was a girl’s voice, more urgent than the first.

‘Who’s going to tell mother? I’m not, and if you do I’ll turn you into frogspawn and I’ll be a stickleback and I’ll eat you, so there.’ And with that the bushes parted and a boy crawled out on his hands and knees, followed uncertainly by a girl.

From the talk about obeying their mother she had supposed they were children, but on looking more closely Vanrel was surprised that the boy appeared to be roughly her own age and the girl only a little younger. They were like no one she’d ever seen before. The boy’s skin was green and his hair fiery red. His sister, while her skin was quite normal, sported grey fur instead of hair.

Seeing Vanrel’s horrified look, they turned to each other and burst out laughing.

‘Bother,’ said the boy. ‘Got it wrong again.’ He squeezed his eyes shut and slowly his skin turned a more normal shade and his hair faded to auburn. The girl did likewise, but her head remained obdurately furry. In fact, it turned tortoiseshell.

‘Sorry,’ said the girl. ‘I keep getting cat mixed up with every shape-change I try.’ She squinted in concentration and Vanrel couldn’t help laughing.

‘How do you do that?’

‘With great difficulty,’ responded Tommavad with a pompous dignity that ill-suited his urchin-like appearance. ‘I’m nearly sixteen, so I’m getting better at shape-changing, but Spirivia here will never be any good at it.’

‘I will so too!’ The girl’s voice was indignant. ‘I’m only fourteen. Just wait until I’m as old as you. I’ll be much better at it than you are.’

‘You’ll never be as old as me,’ scoffed her brother. ‘By the time you’re sixteen I’ll eighteen.’

‘And I’ll be seventeen,’ put in Vanrel. ‘So my age is right in between.’ She didn’t add that she felt decidedly grown-up alongside these two.

‘Yes, but you’re a grumlee,’ Tommavad answered as if addressing that very thought, ‘and grumlees only live sixty or seventy years, so they have to grow up faster than elves. That’s what my father says, anyway.’

Vanrel noted that they spoke with what sounded like a slight foreign accent, and what was more, she detected a superior tone in Tommavad’s voice, but it hardly gave authority to what he was telling her. 
‘You’re elves? Oh, come on! How is it that I can see you, then?’

‘Because we’re practising looking like grumlees, silly. You wouldn’t be able to see us otherwise.’
Vanrel sat silently, staring at the strange children. Everyone knew of the elves, of course, and how they could take on the appearance of any living being they chose, but she had never heard of anyone actually seeing them do it.

‘You’re pulling my leg,’ she finally said.

Tommavad folded his arms. ‘Pulling your leg, are we? You don’t know what we can do. Come back tomorrow and we’ll show you things that will make you change your mind.’

‘Hah!’ Vanrel scoffed. ‘I’ve heard that story before. ‘I can do all sorts of things, but not today … Do you think I was hatched last spring?’

‘No, really,’ said Spirivia. ‘We are learning shape-changing and scrying and translocation — all kinds of things. But we have to go now, so we can’t show you today. Mother will be looking for us.’

The girl’s eagerness touched Vanrel’s heart. ‘All right, I‘ll come again tomorrow. But if you don’t show up I’ll know you’re just a pair of mountebank children who’ve learnt a few stupid tricks.’

‘We really do have to go now,’ said Spirivia, almost hopping from foot to foot with anxiety. ‘Come on, Tom, or we’ll be in trouble.’

Tom turned to follow his sister into the bushes. ‘See you tomorrow!’ he called over his shoulder, leaving Vanrel, mind awhirl, to set her reluctant feet back on the road to town.

* * *

Court duties again. Linvar sighed as he dressed in his formal surcoat with the fox fur trim. The weekly courts involved purely local business such as any baron has to deal with: arguments about farmstead borders and complaints about unfair trading among tenants of the king’s lands around Castle Beverak. Ever since he was about ten, he had attended many times with his tutor, watching from below the dais, but now he often sat alongside his father. It wouldn’t be so bad, if he had something to do instead of sitting there like a straw dummy, trying to look interested in the tenants’ arguments.

He dragged his feet as he descended the steps to the Great Hall. His father was already there, deep in discussion with the chamberlain and the bailiff. Linvar nodded to the two servants and bowed to his father before they took their seats.

It wasn’t that he hated court duties, but he did prefer to be doing something rather than listening and thinking. His father had insisted that he learn the workings of the kingdom from the ground up, so he knew a good deal about the mechanisms of the castle and the jobs of the people whose home it was. There were harness makers, smiths, armourers, bowyers and fletchers, as well as the huntsmen, falconers, stable hands and kennel boys. Everyone knew everyone else’s name and most other things about them as well, since whole families had served the royal house for generations. And Linvar knew them all.

But court duties? Meh. Linvar settled in for another morning of boredom.

The first case involved two of his father’s yeoman tenants. A miller was suing his neighbour for having diverted a stream onto his own property. ‘There’s not enough water to drive the millwheel now, sire,’ complained the miller. ‘I can’t make a living without water, and people are having to take their corn into Rannerven for grinding.’

The farmer, for his part, complained that due to the dry summer, there was insufficient water for his stock, and so as not to lose all his cattle he’d had no option but to build the dam. ‘Tis but a small dam, sir,’ he said. ‘I’ve not taken the whole flow, by any means. Yon Nevran is trying to do me out of my livelihood.’

‘That’s not true and you know it, Adifer,’ retorted the miller. ‘You could have driven your stock down to the water’s edge, rather than make a dam.’

‘You’ll have your turn again in a moment, Nevran,’ said Beverak. ‘But for now you must let Adifer speak. Go on, Adifer.

‘The banks are too steep on my land, sire, and if the cattle crossed Adifer’s land to get to the stream he’d have been complaining about them trampling his field. I do believe, sire, that this man holds a grudge against me for not letting my son marry his daughter.’

‘I wouldn’t have your shiftless idiot of a son in my family if you paid me,’ said Adifer. ‘It’s you that holds the grudge because I wouldn’t grind your corn for nothing.’

Beverak thumped the bench with a gavel. ‘Enough!’ he thundered. ‘Stand down, the pair of you, while I consult with Prince Linvar.’

Linvar’s guts clenched. Why on earth couldn’t the old man have given him some warning? He’d been sitting on this damned bench twice a month for the past three or four years, and never once had he been consulted on a case. Besides, what did he know of dams and cows and wayward daughters?

‘Forget all their other complaints and stick with the case in hand,’ his father murmured. ‘We need to try and make sure the farmer has water for his stock without taking water from the mill. Now, what do you think?’

Linvar frowned and thought for a moment. His mind raced around in circles, briefly examining one crazy notion after another before he found one that fitted. ‘Couldn’t they make a right-of-way from the road to the stream, alongside Adifer’s property? Then other local farmers could drive their stock down to the water, too. In a dry summer like this one they must all run short of water.’

His father smiled. ‘Good thinking. See how easy it is?’ He banged the bench again.

‘All right, Adifer and Nevran, stand forward. Prince Linvar has suggested, and I agree with him, that you should get together with other tenants along your road to build a pathway down to the stream. It will come off your land, Adifer, but you will be compensated by a fee levied on all the farmers who’ll have right-of-way.’ He turned to the bailiff. ‘Futhred, we’re charging you with overseeing this work. The path is to be completed by next quarter day — that gives you nearly a month — and Nevran is to dismantle his dam as soon as the work is done.’

Linvar felt quite proud of himself, and his father congratulated him on his creative solution. ‘The local court doesn’t present any serious problems, Linvar. A small fine here, a little compensation there, a short time in stocks where a petty crime’s been committed… you’re getting the hang of it, I can see.’

Maybe sitting in court wasn’t so bad, after all.

* * *

Vanrel was in two minds as to whether she should bother to return to her rendezvous with the elvish pair, but in the end, her curiosity drove her to turn up. Sure enough, Tommavad and Spirivia were there again, playing shape-changing games by the roadside. They were kittens when Vanrel first saw them, but as she approached they took on the forms of the previous day, except this time Tommavad’s skin was purple and Spirivia had a cat’s ears as well as tortoiseshell fuzz atop her head. Vanrel laughed.

‘How long will it take you to master shape-changing properly?’ she asked.
Tommavad looked miffed. ‘I’m very good at it, for my age,’ he replied stiffly. ‘I’d like to see you try. 
It’s not easy, you know. We have to practise for hours.’

‘But it looks just like playing!’

‘Oh, I expect it would look like that, to a grumlee.’

‘What under Melkavar’s sun is a grumlee? I’ve been wondering about that ever since yesterday!’

‘An ordinary mortal. Someone like you.’

‘It’s not a nice word’.

‘Tommavad smirked. ‘It’s not supposed to be.’ He picked up the stone the kittens had been playing with and tossed it from hand to hand. ‘I’ll wager you don’t know what this is.’

Vanrel regarded the stone cautiously. ‘It looks like a stone to me. You can find plenty more just like it down on the strand below the castle.’

‘Oh yes, it’s a stone all right.’ Tommavad held it up to the light and gazed at it. ‘But it didn’t come from the seashore. Our father gave it to us so we could practise scrying.’

‘Scrying? You mean, telling the future?’

Tommavad shrugged. ‘Of course. If I put this in water, I can see anything I want to see.’

‘Can I look at it?’

Tommavad handed Vanrel the stone. She examined it carefully.

‘I don’t believe you,’ she finally said. ‘It’s just an ordinary pebble.’

Spirivia was indignant. ‘It is not! It’s a real scrying stone. We were practising with it earlier, weren’t we Tom? Why don’t we show her?’

For a change, Tommavad was the cautious one. ‘I don’t know if we should, Spivvy. That would really get us into trouble if mother found out.’

‘She won’t find out, will she? Come on, we told her we’d prove we’re elvish. Let’s go down to the stream and show her some scrying. If she’s brave enough to come, that is.’

Vanrel was indignant. ‘Of course I’m brave enough. Come on then. Show me what you can do with your silly stone.’ She marched past the pair and into the bushes, which, she knew, bordered one of the many streams that flowed into the river on its way down to the port at Rannerven. Her new friends followed.

By the streamside lay a still, shallow pool where part of the bank between two trees had washed away. There, Tom knelt at the water’s edge and submerged the pebble. ‘Now, we all hold hands, see? And we all breathe together. In…out…in…out.

Vanrel’s breath quickly fell into the rhythm. Fascinated, she stared into the water, which had become cloudy. Suddenly, it cleared and Vanrel gasped. What she saw was herself: older, certainly, but quite recognisable. She was wearing a long grey overgown and a grey veil, like a nun, and she appeared to be teaching a group of young girls how to sew. The picture was there only for a breath or two then it wavered and disappeared.

She reached into the water, lifted the stone out and stared at it in disbelief. Doubt immediately assailed her.

‘That can’t be right. I’m not going to be a nun. I’m going to be a fletcher, like my mother and father. I still think you’re just playing tricks on me.’

Tommavad shrugged. ‘What will be, will be. That’s what we saw, and it’s very likely to come true. Scrying stones don’t lie, but the future isn’t fixed, either. You’ll just have to wait and see.’

The two children suddenly looked at each other and seemed to have forgotten Vanrel. ‘Mother’s calling,’ said Spirivia in horror. ‘Quick, Tom, we must run. It’s all your fault! You know we’re not supposed to be down here…’

Vanrel had heard nothing, but Tom and Spivvy scrambled to their feet and ran off as though the ground were on fire. By the time Vanrel pushed her way back through the bushes they had both vanished. She waited for a few minutes in case they came back, but they did not, so she stowed the scrying stone in her purse and set off back to Castle Beverak.

Back at the castle, she couldn’t wait to try the stone for herself. Maybe it would only work with elvish people, so she wasn’t holding out too much hope of more visions, but as soon as she placed the stone in water, the cloudiness appeared, quickly giving way to a vision of a wedding feast in the castle’s Great Hall. And there was Vanrel, waiting on the tables! She had been begging Binny to let her help on feast days. Maybe she was going to get a chance to do it soon! Next came an image of Princess Lyrien with a baby, then a strange one of soldiers in some foreign place. Vanrel recognised Prince Ruthvard as a young man, and realised she was seeing a scene from the past, when he had been a surgeon in the army of Kyrisia.

Vision followed vision: feasts and funerals; everyday events involving fellow residents of the castle; even some intimate scenes that embarrassed Vanrel. She was sure, for instance, that Balifer, the huntsman, would not want people to know he was paying secret visits to the wife of one of the guardsmen. All the same, she couldn’t stop looking...

* * *

A month had passed since the court case between the miller and the farmer. Linvar decided to ride out that way to see if the work had been finished as ordered. This was more his kind of thing. Talking to people and learning about their daily lives was far more interesting than sitting in court.

Nevran and Adifer, it seemed, had forgotten their enmity. They were sitting in the sun by Adifer’s mill, sharing a pint of ale. They set their beakers down and stood up as soon as Linvar’s horse leapt the five-bar gate that marked the edge of Adifer’s holding.

Linvar cantered up the path to the mill and dismounted. ‘May I join you, gentlemen?’
Nevran and Adifer looked a trifle embarrassed, no doubt at being called gentlemen, but they bowed politely. ‘We’re honoured to see you, your highness,’ said Adifer.

‘All the work finished then?’

‘Yes, sir,’ replied Nevran. ‘All done. No worries there.’

‘That right o’ way is going to be a nice little earner once the wells run dry in summertime,’ said Adifer. ‘I’m grateful to your highness and his majesty for thinking of it, for the extra income will pay for my daughter’s wedding.’

‘Oh, so she’s going to wed, after all? Who’s the lucky fellow?’

‘Why, my Dev, of course, sir,’ put in Nevran. ‘Did we not tell you they were courting?’

Linvar decided not to mention Adifer’s previous opinion that Nevran’s boy was a shiftless idiot. ‘I’m pleased to hear that, Nevran, and I wish them every happiness.’

‘I wish to Melkavar we’d had more children, sir,’ Nevran told Linvar gloomily. ‘Another well-grown lad to help with the autumn ploughing would be a godsend to me. I’m well past the age when I could do much of it myself, and it’s too much for young Dev on his own. My sister’s daughter from over near Tethring is coming over, but she’ll be no use on a plough.’

‘Why don’t I come and help?’ Linvar asked. ‘I’d enjoy it, really I would, Nevran. I’m not frightened of hard work.’

Nevran looked shocked. ‘Oh, sir, we couldn’t have you handling a plough!’

‘I’ve done it before, Nevran, on the castle’s home farm. I’ll not be as good as you or Dev, of course, but I’m happy to help. I suppose you’ve got two ploughs?’

Now Nevran looked embarrassed. ‘No sir, only one. My old one broke at the end of last season, and I haven’t been able to afford another.’

‘Then I’ll see if I can borrow one. I’ll come back tomorrow and let you know.’ And with that, Linvar leapt onto his mount, went at the five-bar gate at a gallop, cleared it and gave the horse its head all the way back to town.

He found an old plough at the castle and had it carted down to Nevran’s farm along with a pair of oxen, and the very next day he set to ploughing with a will. He was very sore afterwards but he went back to try again, all the same, and soon he could almost keep up with Nevran’s son, Dev.

On the third day, he had been ploughing for a several hours in a freezing wind, when a young girl shyly brought him a slice of mutton pie and drink of hot ale. Linvar stopped work at the end of the furlong and warmed his hands on the beaker.

‘Just what I needed!’ he said with a smile as he returned the container to the girl. He regarded her youthful charms with more than a passing interest. Like the ale, she was warm and soothing with a hint of excitement to be enjoyed if one drank more deeply.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Kitrel, your highness.’ The girl’s eyes were modestly downcast, but her face was flushed and a slight smile enlivened her lips.

‘Kitrel.’ The name tasted like honey in his mouth. ‘You don’t live here, do you?’

‘No sir, I’m from Tethring, up near the county border.’

She cast a glance upwards as she spoke this time, and Linvar was enchanted by her green eyes and the smattering of freckles on her nose, matching her hair. Redheaded women were supposed to be passionate. It might be worth finding out if the reports were true...

‘I’m just here to help my aunt and uncle, sir,’ she added with another shy glance.

‘Will you be staying long?’

‘Another fortnight or so, sir.’

‘Then I’ll see you again, won’t I, Kitrel?’ And with one last smile, the prince returned to his ploughing with renewed vitality. He easily did another two hours before taking himself back to the castle, whistling all the way.

After that, on every single visit Kitrel made some excuse to call by the prince as he worked. After three or four such meetings, she began to walk part of the way home with him. There were, of course, plenty of barns to rest in, and Linvar found himself arriving back at the castle later and later with every visit...

* * *

At the end of a fortnight, Kitrel went back to Tethring. Linvar could not truly say he was in love with her, but apart from a few brief fumbles with harlots in the back streets of Rannerven, she was his first lover as he was hers, and he missed their meetings in the hayshed.

His father had warned him against seducing the daughters of the castle’s workers. ‘It always leads to trouble,’ he had said. ‘Either other girls are jealous, or some boy will be. And while some parents are flattered to have their daughters favoured by a prince, others resent it and see it as an example of royal bullying and arrogance. Take your pleasures elsewhere, and in secret. And remember the risk you take, of getting a bastard on someone’s daughter…’

Linvar’s conscience pricked him. True, Kitrel’s family did not live at Castle Beverak, but her uncle was a tenant of the king and her parents lived close to an elderman’s country residence. Uncle 
Dristhev would hardly thank him for causing trouble in his bailiwick. But Kitrel was old enough to know what she wanted, wasn’t she? She hadn’t allowed herself to be seduced in order to seek preferment for her family, as the daughters of some peasants and even lesser nobles would have done. 

She had clearly wanted the affair as much as he had. And anyway, it was over now. Or was it? The whole episode was too fresh in Linvar’s mind for him to think about it objectively. 

Despite his earnest reasoning, he missed Kitrel. The softness of her skin, the silky feel of her hair against his face as they lay together in the hay, the misty look in her eyes, half closed in passion, her parted lips inviting his mouth to hers…the remembrance brought an aching rush of longing.

His father complicated the issue by giving Linvar something new to think about. Not for the first time, he had turned his attention to the question of Linvar’s marriage, and had drawn up a list of suitable young women for his son’s consideration.

‘Whomever you choose, she must be healthy, sensible and well able to cope with life as queen, for that’s what she will be one day,’ he cautioned. ‘She’ll eventually have to run this household, for a start. A castle needs the hand of a lady; one who has been bred to the work.’

Linvar took the list away and regarded it distastefully. Against the thought of Kitrel, all other young women seemed insipid. Lady Ruthvarda Westlakes — too talkative. Lady Volrana Southwoods — Melkavar be merciful, the girl was downright ugly! Renvaret Lowlands…Linvar laughed to himself. Surely she couldn’t be more than twelve years old.

Anyway, these ideas of his father’s were never followed through. Several times in the past, various girls had been suggested as suitable brides for an heir to the throne, and nothing ever came of those recommendations. Linvar sighed as he tossed the list aside. When would he see his Kitrel again?
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