Lord Aldan Bindrmon sat in his fiancee’s boarding house room and stared at the grisly contents of the box on his lap. Could the note be true? Could the lump of greyish-brown meat laying at the center of the coiled golden-blond hair actually be Tillna’s heart?
Aldan shuddered in revulsion at that thought. He lifted the package off his lap and stood, knocking the chair over in the process. He dashed to a window, dropping the bundle of cloth and box onto a table on the way. Sticking his head out into the afternoon sunshine of Beeikar, he took several deep breaths and tried to get the lingering scent of blood out of his nose.
Only two days before, Aldan’s life had been normal. He’d had more responsibilities than he’d really wanted as the son of the baron, and his father had driven him hard in getting him ready to be baron someday. But he’d had plenty of time to himself as well, and Tillna besides.
And then his father, Chak Bindrmon, had returned from his regular trip for the tax-taking to Fremlow City, the ducal seat of Welspeare, with news: the baron had arranged for Aldan to marry the daughter of their neighbor, Baron Durening. Millicet would bring with her a handsome dowry which Chak had negotiated, including a portion of the Durening lands located along the Renev River. All his father cared about was the benefit to the barony; Aldan didn’t feel the same. He was in love with Tillna, a beautiful young woman who just happened to be a barmaid at the Boar-Ring Inn, and didn’t care to marry the thirty year-old Millicet for any reason whatsoever.
That very evening, Aldan had proposed to his barmaid right in the middle of the Boar-Ring’s taproom. To his delight, she had accepted. They had made plans to journey to Fremlow City to get married and then had spent the night together. The last time that Aldan had seen her had been when she had left their room upstairs at the inn the next morning. He could hardly believe that that’d been only a day before.
He turned around and leaned against the window sill, looking at the package he had found by the door of Tillna’s room when he had come looking for her. The white cloth that had been wrapped around the package was spread out on the low table. The wooden box rested with a corner toward him, making it look like a diamond. The cavity inside the box was circular, so that the mass of blond hair, hair like Tillna had, coiling within it formed a golden disk. And in the center of that coil rested an ovoid lump of meat, somewhat reddish between the brown and grey. The sight reminded him of something, but he couldn’t quite place what. Then he pushed aside the thought as irrelevant at the moment.
Aldan walked over to the box and looked down at it. He still couldn’t quite believe that the box was evidence that Tillna was dead. Who would kill her? Why? And why address that note to him, with the gruesome line, “You have my heart, Aldan Bindrmon.” Could someone be playing a joke on him? Had Tillna run away, frightened by the idea of getting married, and left this as some kind of farewell message? But she had been the one hinting about marriage for months. She wouldn’t run having gotten her wish.
Aldan looked around the room, and once again saw that nothing was missing. She hadn’t left, then. And she hadn’t been seen in more than a day. The note tacked to the inside of the lid of the box had been penned in a very precise hand, and Aldan doubted that Tillna could read, much less write. He looked back down, touched the hair, and accepted the truth: Tillna had been murdered.
Before he could begin to mourn his loss, a great weariness fell on Aldan, and he sank to his knees. A sense of age flooded him, of having lived longer than he could imagine, of having seen hundreds and hundreds of years pass. The weight of the centuries bore down on him and he felt like it would crush him against the floor and press him right through it, but just then he felt as if everything around him was on fire. Instead of being afraid, or feeling trapped by the encompassing flames, he felt peace well up inside himself. The weariness vanished, defeated by the flames, which faded more slowly. They seemed to leave a sense of promise behind as they went.
Aldan knelt on the floor for several moments, recovering from the strange feelings. His sorrow at his loss had been burned away by the strange flames, but a new emotion was beginning to take its place: anger. He straightened up somewhat and looked at the box. He would dispose of the contents properly, and then he would track down the person who had done this. Someone would pay for killing Tillna.
Aldan wrapped the box back up in the cloth after replacing the lid. Carrying the bundle, he left Tillna’s room and walked down the stairs. He stopped at the door just inside the entryway and knocked on it. He knew that the old woman who ran the boarding house kept her nose in every resident’s business; Tillna had complained about crazy Betta often enough, and she was the reason that Aldan had only visited Tillna once before.
The door opened wide, and Betta stood there. She was stoop-shouldered with age, and her face was covered in wrinkles, but her hair was an utterly unnatural brown, even though her eyebrows were thin and grey. She said, “Yes?” in a crotchety tone, but when she saw who was there, she said, “Oh my, my … Ah, what can I do for your lordship this day? If you’re looking for Tillna, she’s not here.”
“Well, yes, I am looking for her,” Aldan said, disconcerted that this woman associated him with Tillna after only one visit. “When was the last time you saw her?”
Betta blinked a few times, and a sly smile appeared on her face. “So, the baron’s boy is really asking after our Tillna, is he?” She cackled to herself, then said, “Yesterday’s the last I seen her, your lordship, sir. Leaving like always for her shift, right before seventh bell. She ain’t been back since, nor word of her either. By the rumor, I’d a thought she’d be with you, your lordship.”
“No, ah, not just yet.” She had left for her shift, but she hadn’t arrived at the Boar-Ring. Aldan thought for a moment, then lifted the cloth-wrapped bundle he was carrying. “Did you by chance see who delivered this package?”
“Present from you, was it?” Betta asked. “Saw the tag, with Bindrmon colors on it and all. This morning, it was, a boy came. He had a green rag tied around his arm, like the young ones do that wait at the docks and carry messages for a Bit. He had that package and gave it me, said it was for Tillna. I took it to her room and left it there.” She paused as her eyes widened. “But, if it was you sent the boy, why’d you be askin’? What’s in it, anyway?”
Aldan backed toward the entry and said, “Thank you, mi’lady, for your aid. And if you do see or hear of Tillna, could you send word to the keep? I’m … worried about her.”
Betta nodded, and started to cackle about rumors and romance. Aldan hurried away, wondering whether he should try to find the runner-boy or not. He decided to save that for a last resort option, since it was almost futile anyway.
He then attempted to trace Tillna’s path from the boarding house to the Boar-Ring to see if he could determine where she had vanished. He met with a complete lack of success; there were too many different ways to go through the winding, intersecting streets of Beeikar. Close to the boarding house, he found one or two people who remembered her passing, though not necessarily the previous day. Beyond that, he learned nothing.
Once it became clear that tracking down Tillna’s route was not going to work, Aldan tried to think of some other way to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, the only thread he had to follow was Tillna. Unless …
He recalled the phrase from the note in the box: “You have my heart.” Aldan remembered uttering something like that phrase two days before, first, to his father, in rejecting the arranged marriage to Millicet, and then in the taproom of the Boar-Ring, proposing to Tillna. Unless the use of those words in the note were coincidence, there had to be some connection.
Aldan knew that his father was utterly ruthless in performing baronial duties. Baron Chak Bindrmon expected utter loyalty from his staff, and punished disobedience or failure in sometimes extreme ways. Aldan wasn’t completely sure, but he suspected that his father had even ordered certain servants killed at times.
Aldan had crossed his father in refusing to marry Millicet. Chak would see depriving the barony of her dowry as harming it, and take whatever steps were necessary to deal with that problem. Aldan could see that his father might attempt to prevent his marriage to Tillna, even going so far as to have her killed — a hard thing to suspect about one’s own parent. But he didn’t think that the baron would then deliberately taunt him with the deed by delivering that box to her room for him to find. There was nothing of Chak Bindrmon in that act.
Which meant it had to be someone in the taproom that night. Aldan’s mind leapt to the obvious choice: the Menagerie, who had been sitting at their usual table not four strides away from where he had been standing. The young nobles who made up the Menagerie certainly felt they had reason to hate him. Aldan had once been part of the Menagerie; his nickname had been Falcon. And then his father had dictated that he stop playing childish games with his childhood friends and concentrate on the duties of being baron someday. None of the six remaining members of the group had taken his departure well, and all but Quinla, the only female member of the group, still held it against him to some degree or other.
Four of the Menagerie had been present that night, the Rabbit twins being away in Fremlow City with their parents. They would certainly have heard him proposing to Tillna, and he wouldn’t put it past them to hurt her, possibly even murder her, to get back at him. And the box was certainly something that Fox or Owl, or even Bear might think of. From the falcon on the lid to the grisly contents, to the taunting note itself, it definitely had the flavor of the Menagerie.
Now, he only had to prove it.
Later that night, Aldan pushed open the door to the Boar-Ring Inn and entered the taproom. Most of the dozen tables within were full, and Aivney, the raven-haired, flirtatious barmaid had her skirt down and her hair up as she rushed from table to table, ignoring the groping hands and pinching fingers with a tired expression on her face. To Aldan’s surprise, Oablar, the proprietor of the inn, was out from behind his bar and serving customers on the floor as well. He didn’t need to dodge the lusty attentions of the patrons; not only were his bald head and craggy features enough to scare away goblins, but everyone knew that his wife was jealousy personified and deadly with a rolling pin.
Aldan also noticed that the table normally reserved for the Menagerie was occupied by two gypsies and a man with flax-yellow hair dressed all in green.
Aivney stopped next to Aldan as he stood by the door, put a hand on his arm, and said, “She’s not here, dearest.”
“I know,” he said, “I know. Busy, huh? Why’s Oablar working tables?”
“‘Cause I don’t have four hands and eight legs, hun. With Tillna quittin’ early like she done, we ain’t had time ta hire a replacement. Someone’s gotta keep their lips wet so their fists don’t smash the furniture and each other.
“If yer not lookin’ for yer lady, why’re ya here?”
“The Menagerie,” Aldan replied. “Have they been here tonight?”
“Sure, straight, they haven’t been gone much longer than it takes a bargeman to get drunk. Why?
Aldan ignored her question, and asked another of his own. “Were they here last night, do you remember?”
Aivney said, “It’s an occasion when they ain’t here, dear heart.” She didn’t notice him flinch at that, and continued, “They was here early yesterday. I remember that Tillna didn’t show up, and Oablar sent a runner-boy to fetch me ’cause she had early shift. They was here when I arrived, all happy and all fingers, too. I remember them getting loud after dark, like always, and eventually they left. Why’re ya innerested?”
“Thanks,” was all he said. Aldan leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, turned and left. Aivney looked after him for a moment, and then got called back to her duties by the shouts of thirsty patrons and Oablar’s growl.
Aldan slowly made his way back to the keep, no closer to finding his prey than he had been that afternoon. He’d had no better luck trying to find the Menagerie than tracking Tillna’s steps. They hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary the previous day by all accounts, including spending the evening bells at the Boar-Ring. If they had indeed abducted Tillna and murdered her, they had done an incredible job of it. No one had witnessed anything suspicious.
He knew that just confronting them wouldn’t help. They wouldn’t tell him anything; they didn’t need to. There just had to be something, though. Some mistake, some way to prove their involvement — if only he could find it.
The next morning, halfway between fourth and fifth bells, Aldan was racing down into Beeikar from the keep. He had his clue, and he cursed himself for having taken so long to realize it.
Earlier that morning, he had been trying to decide what to do with the package from Tillna’s room. The box was beautifully carved, but he didn’t think he could keep it considering its current use. He had finally decided to burn the whole thing in the keep’s forge-fire. He opened the box one final time to say farewell to Tillna’s remains, and he caught sight of the note tacked to the inside of the lid. He pulled it from its fastenings, then closed up the box and set it aside.
He examined the parchment again. He had already noticed that it was very precisely lettered. The hand was exact, the lines were even, and each copy of any one letter was nearly identical. With the time to study it like that, distanced from the emotional impact of it, Aldan realized something: he had seen enough professionally inked documents to know that these were the trademarks of a scribe.
Looking closely, he saw an ornate spot of color in the lower right corner which turned out to be the letter S encircled by several loops of blue and red. He knew that signature: it belonged to Sestik, the only public scribe in Beeikar.
Aldan arrived at Sestik’s house out of breath. Once he had realized that the scribe was the link he had been looking for, he had wasted no time in going after him. His fervent hope was that the Menagerie had overlooked their error in using Sestik in their plans.
When he’d caught his breath and composed himself, Aldan knocked on the scribe’s door. At the sound of “Enter,” he did. He found himself in a narrow room that seemed to run across the front of the house. In the center of the room was a narrow table that spanned the width of the room just under the window. Behind it sat Sestik, parchment before him, inkpots and brushes next to him. Behind Sestik was the door to the rest of the residence.
Sestik rose and said, “What service may I render you today, my Lord Aldan?”
Aldan presented the note from the box, and said, “Is this your work, Sestik?”
The scribe glanced at it and replied with pride, “Yes, my Lord, it is. I take it that you received the surprise that Lord Kuvey and mi’lady Tillna prepared for you? I do hope that my craftsmanship did not detract from it in any way. I wasn’t given time to properly illuminate the document, after all –”
“Did you say Kuvey *and* Tillna?” Aldan interrupted.
“Well, that’s what Lord Kuvey said when he dictated the words, yes. I –”
Aldan interrupted again. “So, you didn’t see Tillna?”
“No, no. Just Lord Kuvey.”
“And when was this, if you recall?”
“Two days ago,” said Sestik. He thought for a moment, then said, “Midday, or perhaps more nearly sixth bell. Yes, that’s right, because –”
“Thank you, Sestik, you have been a great help. I will reward you for this information, I promise, just as soon as I have dealt with them. I cannot possibly thank you enough. Fare well.” Aldan turned and walked out, ignoring Sestik’s confused stammer of, “But … but I only wrote a note of love dictated by a go-between. What kind of information is that to be rewarded for?”
Outside of Sestik’s house, Aldan paused momentarily to savor his triumph. He had the proof he needed: Lord Kuvey was Weasel of the Menagerie. The note had been commissioned before Tillna’s disappearance, which meant that the abduction and murder had been planned out in advance. He still needed to find them, but with any luck, they didn’t know that he was chasing them. Beeikar wasn’t large enough for them to hide in for very long. He was looking forward to his vengeance.
The Menagerie of Bear, Fox, Owl, and Weasel were walking into the market square that afternoon. It was mostly empty, since Beeikar wasn’t large enough to require a daily market. The few occupied stalls were ragpicker merchants, and of no interest to the four young lords.
Bear said, “We got away with it, didn’t we?”
“So far,” replied Owl. “So far. No one even seems to know that she’s dead, which is only good for us.”
“We showed him, didn’t we?” gloated Bear.
Fox grinned slyly, and said, “That we did, Bear, that we did.”
“Do you think he’s found it yet?” asked Weasel.
Owl replied, “We couldn’t very well go and ask, now could we? After all, it’s no business of ours what’s in Tillna’s room or who’s visited it. He’ll get it eventually, never fear. That tag was perfect, Fox, and the box will get to him one way or another.”
“I only wish that the note could have been more decorated,” mused Weasel. “Some twisty leaves around the edge, a falcon here or there, maybe even a rat next to his name. But Sestik is too much of a perfectionist; he said it would take a –”
Fox was suddenly standing in front of Weasel. “What did you say?” he asked in a low, menacing tone.
“D-decorations? Leaves … rats?” stammered the perplexed Weasel.
“No. Sestik, you gutter-flop. Did you say Sestik?”
“Y-yes, Fox. I … you know my writing hand is shaky at best. The note needed to be readable, and you didn’t give me all day to get it right. So, I went to Sestik. Don’t worry, I made up a story and everything …”
Fox’s unrelenting glare caused Weasel’s explanation to dwindle and fade away. Fox’s fists were balling at his sides, and his right temple was pulsing as his jaw clenched and unclenched. He turned away abruptly and with a hurried, “Come on!” he began to run.
The others followed as Fox raced through the streets of Beeikar. They arrived in front of Sestik’s home, and Fox barged right in without knocking. Sestik looked up as the others piled in behind Fox. The scribe said, “Welcome Lords Wannek, Lothanin, Eywran. Lord Kuvey, Lord Aldan was here earlier. I believe that the surprise you planned went well, or so it seemed. I’m not sure why he came to me, but –”
Fox turned to the others, shot Weasel a murderous glare, and said, “Go!” They all dashed out, slamming the door behind them. Sestik just said, “Hmph!” and put the intrusion out of his mind as unfathomable.
Outside, the Menagerie huddled around each other. Fox spoke what they all knew. “He’s found the box, and thanks to Weasel, he knows we are responsible. We’re murderers, and he’s got the proof. We’ve got to get out of here, now.”
“But where will we go, Fox? We’ve never been anywhere,” whined Bear.
“Magnus,” said Fox. “We’ll head for Magnus; he’ll never find us there. Separately, so it will be harder to track us. Go home, get money and supplies, and leave for Magnus as soon as you can.”
“If Magnus is big enough to hide us from Aldan, how will we find each other again?” asked Weasel.
“I shouldn’t even tell you, you slug-brained scut, but … I don’t know,” said Fox.
“The Bardic College,” suggested Owl. “Starting in a fortnight, we’ll gather on the steps in front of the Bardic College at fifth bell until we are all together. Straight?”
“Straight,” said Fox, and the other two nodded. “Good luck.” He gripped Owl’s right wrist with his right hand. Owl grabbed Bear’s wrist, Bear grabbed Weasel’s wrist, and Weasel gripped Fox’s, forming a square between their hands. They all looked at each other, panic beginning in Bear’s face and behind Weasel’s eyes, resolve on Owl’s face and, of course, Fox’s. With a final squeeze, they broke apart and left, each going their own way. They knew they’d be back together in a fortnight in Magnus.
Lord Kuvey, or Weasel as he preferred, was running along a forest path south of Beeikar that night. He looked back over his shoulder, but he couldn’t see his pursuit. He didn’t slow down; he knew that Aldan wasn’t going to give up that easily.
Weasel was very sorry for his mistake. Both of them, actually. When he had gone to the village scribe, Sestik, to write the note, he had never imagined that Aldan would be able to figure out where it had come from. Fox should have been the one to get the note. Fox always thought two or five moves ahead, which was why he always beat Weasel at King’s Key. Fox wouldn’t have made that first mistake.
Or the second one, most likely. Weasel had gone home after the Menagerie had discovered that Aldan knew who had killed Tillna. He had packed up his belongings, and then raided his mother’s strongbox. With loaded saddlebags, he had ridden right to the Boar-Ring instead of toward Magnus. He had wanted to say farewell to Aivney before leaving forever.
He had planned to give her a quick kiss, and maybe a Round as a final tip, and then be on his way. Instead, he had found Aivney free for a few bells. Tillna’s replacement had been hired and shown around. The tall, willowy redheaded woman was experienced as a barmaid, and Oablar wanted to see if she could handle the room alone.
He had spent those few bells, and a few more besides, upstairs with Aivney, saying a proper farewell. The new woman had worked out very well. That, combined with a light night, and Aivney hadn’t been required downstairs until the third bell after dark.
Weasel had expected that the only result of his unplanned tryst would be leaving for Magnus a little late and with some very pleasant memories. When he had walked down the stairs a short while after Aivney to find Aldan walking up to the bar as Aivney angled toward him, Weasel had known utter panic. He had moved as quietly as he could over to the door but just as he’d reached it, Aldan had turned around and spotted him.
Weasel had been rooted to the spot for a moment, watching as Aldan’s eyes widened in surprise, and Aivney reached his side. Aldan had started dashing toward the door. Aivney had said, “What?” Aldan had shouted, “Tillna’s dead, and –” before tripping over a bench that had been accidentally moved into his path.
The crash had jolted Weasel out of his shock, and he’d raced out the door. He’d heard rushing footsteps inside the inn and hadn’t even taken the time to unhitch his horse but had taken off on foot.
He’d been fleeing ever since. West along the river first, and then south when the first bridge came along. He had glimpsed Aldan from time to time, but whenever he thought he’d shaken the baron’s son from his trail long enough to take the time to get a mount or find his friends, Aldan had reappeared.
Weasel was getting tired. He needed someplace to hide, someplace to lie low until Aldan gave up and he could resume his journey to Magnus in peace. So far, the road he’d been following had been through farm fields, but up ahead was a deep stand of trees. Maybe he could lose Aldan in there.
Weasel angled across the edge of one field, and plunged into the trees. The light of the clear summer night sky was immediately cut off, and he had no choice but to slow to a walk as he felt his way from tree trunk to tree trunk. He tried to keep going in the same direction, but it was hard to do. It didn’t really matter, he knew, as long as he didn’t end up back on the road just yet.
He feared he was doing just that as the light began to increase, but he soon came out into a small clearing filled with the white light of the moon and capped with the brilliant stars of summer. The clearing was only ten strides across at most, and considering the difficulty he’d had maintaining a path through the darkness of the trees, Weasel didn’t think it likely that Aldan would be able to find this same clearing.
He sank down on his haunches and leaned back against a tree at the edge of the clearing. He was panting as he calmed down from his exertions. Sweat dripped down his neck, but he was too tired to wipe it away just yet.
He heard a rustling behind him, but it was so soft that he knew it had to be some forest animal resuming its foraging. He didn’t realize he’d made his third mistake until the shadow fell over him.
He looked up, and there was Aldan, knife in hand and hate in his eyes. Weasel bolted, dashing across the clearing, intending to disappear into the trees on the other side.
Weasel thought he was running across level ground, but the moonlight was deceptive. He stumbled badly on the first hillock his foot caught when he was almost all the way across the clearing. Then he felt his ankle wrench badly in a depression that he couldn’t see. Off balance and in pain, he tripped over a stone hidden by grass and fell headlong between two tree trunks.
The pain of his fall was intense, and startled a short cry out of his lips that masked the strange cracking noise from beneath him. When the burning pain in his chest didn’t abate, however, he knew something was wrong.
He wanted to push himself up and see what had happened to his chest, but he didn’t have the strength. Weasel began to have trouble breathing, and he started to call for aid, but only a very faint, “Help, help” came out of his mouth.
When Weasel felt himself being turned over by rough hands, the pain in his chest increased, forcing him to scream raggedly. He was propped up against someone’s lap, his head tilted so he could look down along his body. He focused his blurry vision to see the broken end of a dead branch sticking up out of his chest, blood bubbling around the wound and oozing down his tunic. He looked up and saw Aldan gazing down at him, no pity at all in his eyes.
“Where were you going, Weasel? Where are the others?” Aldan’s questions were forced through gritted teeth, and his eyes demanded truth.
Weasel thought about lying. Then he thought about Tillna, lying dead, while Fox cut her chest open, and Bear hacked off her long braid. Aldan deserved the truth, and he didn’t have anything to lose anyway. Fox certainly wasn’t going to get even with him now. Fortune had already taken care of that. He’d tell Aldan about Magnus, and about the rendezvous at the Bardic College every fifth-bell starting in a fortnight. Aldan would find them, and give them what they deserved, too.
Darkness started to close in on his vision as he whispered, “Rat …” Aldan leaned closer, so he could hear. “Rat … sorry, Falcon … they went … to …” Weasel couldn’t feel his hands or his feet, and the pain was fading away. With a last effort sent on his dying breath, he said, “Dargon.”
Aldan felt Weasel slump, dead, on his lap. “Dargon,” he repeated, mulling over Weasel’s last words. “They’ve gone to Dargon.”
That sounded like them. Run as far away as possible, and Dargon was pretty far away. Aldan nodded to himself. “They won’t escape me that way,” he said to the corpse of his former friend. “I’ll follow them wherever they’ve gone, even if it is as far north as Dargon. I swear they won’t escape me!”
The body of Weasel didn’t reply.
The author would like to thank the folk-rock group Steeleye Span, and one track from their album “Back in Line,” for the inspiration for this story.