The baronial seat of Bindrmon was a medium-sized town called Beeikar. It lay along the north bank of the Renev River, which ran through Welspeare and Northfield to the sea.
Situated against the Renev, east and upstream of the docks area, was one of Beeikar’s inns. It offered good ale and food that was usually acceptable. The bargemen who worked the river, and who were known for their rowdy behavior, only occasionally ventured as far from their own dockside taverns as the inn; the few that did were seldom trouble. That notwithstanding, the activity within belied the sign above the door which displayed a circle of male swine.
Lord Aldan Bindrmon, only son of Baron Chak Bindrmon, walked through the streets of Beeikar towards his favorite inn. The twenty-two year-old man was tall and slender, with chestnut hair that fell well past his shoulders, and a full beard and moustache cropped close to the skin. His dark grey eyes set off his handsome features and fair complexion.
He walked through the streets of Beeikar with a calm assurance. He ignored the gathering shadows with the arrogance of ranking nobility; he wasn’t yet the baron, but he had been well trained for his eventual job. He didn’t always enjoy the responsibilities that came with his future rank, but he wore the cloak of it with a natural ease.
He was dressed in fine clothing as befit his rank: a dark grey tunic that matched his eyes, black tights above calf-high boots, and a dusky maroon vest that hung halfway to his knees. Embroidered onto the upper left side of the vest was the heraldic symbol of the Bindrmon family: a white shield-shape bearing a large brown diamond, which in turn carried a yellow circle that bore a red oval.
The ninth bell of the day had just rung and the sun was low in the sky. By rights, he probably should have been heading away from the river and back to Bindrmon Keep. His father had not yet returned from his trip to Fremlow City to deliver the barony’s taxes to Duchess Welspeare, which left Aldan nominally in charge. He owed his father’s staff the courtesy of sitting down to dinner with them, but that didn’t dissuade him from his current path. They would get along without him for one more night, and they had enough to do ensuring that the keep was ready for the baron’s return.
The entire staff had treated the absence of the baron like a holiday, which it had been, in that they were out from under the direct command of Baron Chak. Without the elder Bindrmon’s eyes always on them, always watching, always judging, they had been free to go about their duties as any other servant of a noble would. But with the impending return of the baron, they were all constantly on edge, not sure when he would be riding Thunder into his stables and demanding total, focused attendance on his every need. Any freedom Aldan could give them from further worries was sure to be a boon.
Aldan reached the Boar-Ring Inn and stepped inside. The large taproom was mostly empty, with only three of the dozen tables occupied, but it was early yet. The pair of bargemen by the door were getting ready to leave, which was just as well, as they were already very drunk. An older man sat next to the empty fireplace, rubbing his hands in front of it as if to warm them, and mumbling constantly to himself. On the opposite side of the room three dusty farmers sat around a table talking quietly over their tankards.
Aldan walked over to his usual table in the corner near the fireplace. Aivney, one of the two barmaids who worked at the Boar-Ring Inn, arrived as he sat down. She was average in height but in little else. Her black hair was long and thick, framing her round face set with flashing brown eyes and full lips. Her body was amply curved and well displayed in the outfit she wore. Her light blue leather bodice was laced from her hips to just under her breasts, tied tight and positioned just right so as to lift them and present them to the world in the white chemise she wore under it. Her green skirt hung all the way to the floor as was proper, but propriety was defeated by the way she had tucked a bit of the hem by her left foot up under the bottom of the bodice at her hip, revealing a great deal of tawny leg. Aivney was one of the best features of the Boar-Ring.
She draped her arm over his shoulder with the ease of long familiarity, and said, “The usual, yer lawdship?” Her tone was mocking, but her eyes twinkled with merriment.
“Yes, thanks, Aivney,” Aldan said, whereupon she sat in his lap and kissed him on the cheek.
“One bell or two tanight, yer lawdship? The rooms’r all free.” Aldan laughed at the jest even as his cheeks reddened slightly at having the buxom woman’s charms pressed so closely to his body.
He responded in the same vein, putting on the voice of a poet reciting lofty verse, and resolutely staring only into her eyes despite the other temptations offered. “Your charms would require a whole ten bells, my dear, for I couldn’t possibly do them justice in less than the night entire. However, I’m sure that my most darling Tillna would have something to say about it were I to take you up on your offer.”
The raven-haired wench jumped to her feet again and said, “You’re right about that, Aldan my heart. She’d have both our hides for blankets and the best parts for slippers, she would!” She laughed heartily, and traced her finger along the fuzz-covered line of his jaw. “Ah well, we shall just have to dream, straight?” She leaned down provocatively and pretended to try to kiss him on the lips, but pecked at his cheek at the last moment.
Straightening up again and arching her back proudly, she continued, “Speaking of our delicate flower, Tillna won’t be in until the second bell past dark. She starts early on the morrow. You remember, don’t you?”
Aldan nodded, and said, “I’m sure she told me. I’ll wait. I’ve no more pressing duties calling me away.”
“I’m sure you don’t, though your father’s away and all. Well, you’re the baron’s son, you know best. I’ll bring you your ale, and make sure she knows you’re here once she arrives, straight?”
Aldan watched Aivney’s hips sway as she walked across the room to the bar. The farmers called out to her for refills, “and some of what ya were givin’ the boy over there, too,” as she approached their table, but she only flashed her bare leg at them teasingly while shaking her finger at them, saying, “Quiet down, you lot, and wait your turn!”
Aldan wasn’t angry that the farmers didn’t recognize him. At that moment, he was just another patron of the Boar-Ring Inn. There were times when he wished that no one knew who he was, that the responsibilities of his position as the baron’s son would vanish like fog in the sun. And then, at other times he welcomed the automatic respect and deference his heritage brought him. He wished he could have it both ways, though.
Aldan was content with his life on the whole. It would be perfect, however, if only he could travel more. He had been born in Beeikar and had never been more than thirty leagues away from it in his entire twenty-two summers. He knew he would someday make regular journeys to Fremlow City like his father did, but he wanted to go farther. He wanted to see Magnus, with its magnificent Crown Castle and the mysterious College of Bards. He wanted to go farther, to Redcrosse or Narragan, or even south into foreign countries like Beinison or Lederia. These were only names on maps to him, but he wanted to walk on the soil of a different duchy, to breathe the air of a different country, to see stran ge sights for himself instead of only reading about the journeys of others.
It wasn’t just the wonder of going someplace different that motivated him, either. Sometimes, the need to go out and explore was almost a physical ache within his body. Something was out there, something he needed to find. It called to him, trying to pull him away from Beeikar and Bindrmon, away from the things he knew, out into the unknown. It was only his sense of responsibility to his father, a sense that had been drilled into him ever since the death of his mother from a spring fever in his tenth year, that kept him at home. Without that, he would have been gone as soon as he had learned to ride.
Aivney returned and set his ale in front of him. Aldan smiled at her in thanks, then lowered his eyes back to the table and took an appreciative sip. She took the hint and went to get the refills for the farmers, leaving him to brood some more.
About two bells and four refills later, Aldan was still sitting in the taproom of the Boar-Ring Inn. The noise level had increased somewhat as patrons slowly and steadily filtered in, but he found it to be pleasant noise: noise that had nothing to do with him.
He had just finished the last drop of his latest refill when Tillna entered the room. He thought that the glow he saw around her as she came through the rear door by the bar might be a reflection of the deep feelings he had for her. It might also be the brighter light of the kitchen fogged in his eyes by five tankards of ale. He almost giggled as he struggled to decide which was more likely and watched Tillna cross the room towards his table.
Tillna was a short, slim, beautiful young woman, with long blond hair that hung down to her waist and eyes that were so clear a blue that they looked like glittering crystals. She dressed far more conservatively than Aivney did, though Aldan could remember when Tillna had worn clothes more like the older barmaid, back when she had first arrived in Beeikar two years previously. She no longer wore a revealing bodice, but a dress that went from her neck to the floor, and she never pinned the hem of that dress under her belt to show off her spectacular legs in public. She always acted like a courtly lady, at least whenever Aldan was around. She almost seemed too good for her barmaid job and her current surroundings.
Aldan had been in love with her for almost as long as she had been around, though they had been courting for eighteen months and sleeping together for ten. He knew that her behavior had changed ever since they had begun stealing a night together every sennight or so. Tillna had gone from saucy wench to proper young lady as soon as his interest in her had been proven to be more than passing lust. Their trysts together were always in the rooms of the Boar-Ring because he wasn’t quite ready to introduce her to his father just yet. He did his best to treat Tillna right, giving her presents frequently, making sure he never took her or her time for granted.
She seemed to glide across the taproom floor, the hem of her skirt quivering only slightly as her toes flicked at it. She dodged questing fingers with practiced ease, ignoring the questers totally, her eyes fixed on her goal: Aldan.
Tillna stopped in front of him and said, “Oh, Aldan, I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve missed you, love.” She sat next to him on the bench and kissed him on the cheek with remarkably less passion than Aivney had feigned earlier. Aldan didn’t notice the lack as that was how she always kissed him, in public at least.
He put his arm around her waist and pulled her closer. “I had to be at the keep last night and the night before, since I expected my father home then. He hasn’t yet returned, but I couldn’t bear another night of waiting. So, I’m here. I missed you, too.”
Tillna leaned close and whispered in his ear, “If I was living at the keep with you, then we could have waited for your father together. I’m sure that would have been more fun than just sitting here for bells like Aivney said you were doing.”
Aldan nodded absently, while inwardly cringing at the hint. Tillna had been making those kinds of observations more and more lately, and he knew that he was going to have to respond to them eventually. It was only right that he formalize their relationship, and he wanted that as much as she did. He would have been more eager if not for his father, and if only it didn’t seem like more responsibility.
Aldan’s musings were interrupted by the door slamming open to admit a great deal of noise being made by four young men. He frowned as he watched them cross the taproom laughing and shouting at each other. One of the four was already very drunk, and much of the merriment came from the others making fun of the inebriated one’s state.
The four young men arranged themselves around their usual table on the opposite side of the taproom from Aldan and the fireplace. They were known as the Menagerie: the children of several local nobles, close in age and interests. Born into wealth and privilege but without responsibility to go with it, they had fallen in together from a young age and become fast friends. They had played and practiced together as children; now that they were all in their early twenties, they spent most of their time plotting mischief and getting up enough drunkards’ courage to carry out those plans.
They called each other by animal nicknames, and so named themselves collectively the Menagerie. For example, the large, dark-haired, and very drunk young man was named Eywran, but was known as Bear because he was often lumbering and clumsy looking, but he fancied himself a very dangerous man.
They were trouble-makers in Beeikar, threatening the merchants, chasing people through the streets, causing fights in taverns. But it wasn’t the threat they posed that had led Aldan to learn so much about them: he had once been one of them. He had been Falcon then, and a happy part of the Menagerie. He had been friends with Bear and Fox, Owl and Weasel, and the Rabbits, when he was younger. He remembered chasing through the streets, brandishing sticks as they played warriors, knocking over people and carts in their heedless dashing. He remembered studying history with them, and hiking through the woods with them. Those had been good times, when his heritage had meant nothing to his friends, or to himself.
That had changed about five years previously, when his father had insisted that he grow up and start taking responsibility for his future. Someday he would be baron, and he needed to know what that meant, and what it didn’t. According to his father, it certainly didn’t mean running wild with a group of delinquent young nobles.
The rest of the Menagerie hadn’t taken well to his leaving. None of them had believed that it hadn’t been his choice. Fox, a slim, red-haired youth with a sly tongue and a wicked gleam in his eye, had taken it very personally. Aldan had once considered Fox his best friend, and the two of them had come up with the idea of the Menagerie together. When he had told the others that his father had forbidden him to associate with them any longer, Fox had tried to convince him to defy the baron, remain part of the group anyway, in secret if necessary. Aldan couldn’t convince any of them that his father wasn’t someone whom you could hide things from.
Fox’s response had been disdainful, calling Aldan a stuck-up snob who thought he was suddenly too good for their company. “We’ll call you Rat from now on!” he’d shouted. “The Rat who ran away!”
Now none of them would so much as talk to him, except for Quinla. Quinel and Quinla were the missing Rabbit twins, son and daughter of the Denvas. Quinla, the only female member of the Menagerie, had once been sweet on him in a childhood-crush kind of way. She, too, had been hurt by his departure from the Menagerie, but she was also the kindest of them, and she had forgiven him long ago. She was also a moderating voice among the group, and her absence could mean real trouble. It was strange that she and her brother weren’t present. The group was ordinarily inseparable and it was strange to see less than the full six-person Menagerie out in public.
“I wonder where the Rabbit twins are?” Aldan muttered.
“Fremlow City,” murmured Tillna. Aldan looked at her quizzically; he didn’t realize that he had asked the question aloud.
She nodded, and repeated, “Fremlow City. Lord and Lady Denva had to go to the ducal city on family business, and the twins went along.”
Aldan continued to stare, puzzled, and Tillna continued, “I’ve told you before, my sister Yawrab is chatelaine of the Denva manor. They took her with them, and she told me about it. I don’t think it’s fair that she gets to see Fremlow City when I’ve never been farther north than Beeikar, dear heart.”
Aldan responded to the tone in her voice automatically. “Don’t worry, love, someday you’ll be able to go north with me when I have to go for the tax-taking.”
While he was soothing her with promises of their future together, he was recalling Tillna mentioning her sister. Yawrab was almost ten years older than Tillna, and had been the housekeeper of a manor in Shaddir Barony, far to the south of Welspeare. She had been hired away from that family by the Denvas and had brought her sister along when she traveled north to Beeikar. Aldan had never met Yawrab since the Denva manor was a bell’s ride outside Beeikar and Tillna lived in a boarding house in town. He figured that she must be good at her job to have been hired across such a distance. Maybe he could convince his father to hire her to manage Bindrmon Keep. Maybe the baron would mind less if Aldan wanted to marry the sister of his chatelaine, instead of just a barmaid.
Tillna’s kiss on his cheek drew him out of his reverie. He looked up at the standing Tillna as she said, “I had better get to work. There are certainly enough customers now.”
Aldan looked around at the half-filled taproom, flinching away from the glares being cast his way from the Menagerie’s table. Aivney was hustling about, taking orders and throwing exasperated looks at her fellow employee.
“I’d better be going as well,” he said, rising next to her. He hugged her and tried to kiss her on the lips, but she turned her head and all he pecked was her silken cheek.
“Will I see you tomorrow? I start early, so I’ll be getting off early too.” Her smile was coy, even if her eyes were cool.
“Unless my father comes home in the meantime and has some task or other for me to complete, yes. I’ll be here.” Aldan hugged her again, then stepped back. He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it properly, smiling as she giggled and blushed. He said, “‘Til then,” turned, and walked to the door. He looked back as he opened it, and their eyes met. They smiled at each other, and then he left.
Tillna turned from watching Aldan leave to the drunken Menagerie. Fox was leering at her, and it had been he who had shouted.
When she did no more than look their way, Fox shouted again, “Hey, now that fancy-boy has gone, come on over and let me kiss you proper!”
Tillna walked over to the Menagerie’s table, which caused all four boys to hoot and holler. Fox stuck out his tongue and waggled it, while Weasel, a small man with brown hair and eyes and a narrow face, full of nervous energy, turned on the bench and grabbed at his crotch.
She stopped next to the table, frowning fiercely. Fox didn’t catch the hint, and said, “I knew you’d come back finally, sweet-roll. Get tired of fancy-boy finally? Need some more of good old Foxy? Its only been, what, four or five months; I’m sure you remember my touch. I’ll give you what you need, as much and as *long* as you need! Come here!”
The slap was loud enough to stop conversation all across the taproom. Fox sat there with a shocked expression, his hand to the side of his face. Weasel just stared, jaw wide, hand still squeezing his crotch. Bear, the one who had arrived falling-down drunk, was giggling into his hands and staring at the table. Owl, who had been born Lothanin, and had strangely grey hair and large eyes, was silent as usual, but his knowing smirk said that he had seen it coming.
Tillna pointed her finger right between Fox’s eyes, and whispered fiercely, “You and your miserable Menagerie had better just forget we ever even met, much less anything else. I’ve got me my someday-baron, and no petty lordling is going to ruin that for me. Remember that I’m going to be your baroness someday; I have a long memory and I can make you very sorry.
“Am I understood?” No one moved, and she continued, “I’ll take that as yes.”
She turned and strode away like a conquering queen, disappearing into the kitchen. The silence broke all at once as interrupted conversations resumed a little louder than they needed to.
At the Menagerie’s table, the young men looked at each other with hate in their eyes. All except Bear, who was still giggling. Their hate burned for Aldan, once Falcon but no longer, and for Tillna, whom Aldan had taken away from them. Someday, they both would pay.
Aldan was in his room the next afternoon when the page arrived and informed him that his father was awaiting his attendance. He’d been expecting that the summons would come, and was ready.
Upon returning from his brief visit with Tillna the previous evening, Aldan had found the keep in an uproar: Baron Bindrmon had returned while he was at the Boar-Ring. Aldan had hurried to his rooms, knowing that when his father was ready, he would be called.
He walked quickly through the corridors of the keep, and came to the receiving hall as instructed. He had been rehearsing his report ever since he had learned of his father’s return, and he was confident of what he was going to say about the time that the baron had been gone.
Baron Bindrmon was standing to one side of the receiving hall, talking with Ricce, the stablemaster. Aldan walked over just as Ricce bowed and turned away.
“Ah, Aldan, how have you been?” the baron asked. “I understand from the staff that your brief stewardship of the keep went smoothly.”
Aldan nodded, and said, “Yes, yes it did. I –”
He was interrupted as his father said, “Good, good. Now, before I hear your report, I have some very good news. Come, let us sit.”
Aldan wondered what the good news might be. Had the duchess decided to return some of the tax money? What else could his father have come back from Fremlow City with? Two chairs had been placed in the corner, and he sat in one while the baron settled into the other.
Baron Bindrmon looked his son in the eye and said, “My boy, I’ve arranged a marriage for you. Millicet, the daughter of Baron Durening, our neighbor to the east, will be your bride. Groon Durening and I discussed it and worked out all of the details. By the end of Sy, you will be wed.”
Aldan didn’t hear a word beyond the first sentence. He couldn’t believe what he father had said. Married? He didn’t even know Millicet Durening. He couldn’t get married to someone he didn’t even know. And what about Tillna?
“Ah, Father …”
The baron continued, “Now, Millicet’s dowry will be extensive, a great addition to our barony. She …”
Aldan wasn’t concerned about dowries large or small. Once again, his father was ignoring him, arranging his life without asking him his preferences. He tried again to get the baron’s attention. “Father, please, I …”
“Millicet is a little old, but I’m sure she will make a fine wife, and an excellent future baroness. Groon’s family is of impeccable lineage, so she has surely been …”
“Father!” Aldan tried to interrupt again, but Chak was intent. Aldan could have been a statue for all that his responses mattered to his father.
“In a fortnight, Groon and his daughter will be visiting. You’ll get to see your future bride, properly chaperoned, of course, and perhaps get to know her. Then …”
Aldan’s frustration grew. He was again being treated like a child. Then he had been told what to eat, what to read, who to be friends with; now he was being instructed who to marry, who to spend the rest of his life with. His father had no care for what he wanted, only what was best for the barony. And he was tired of it.
Resolve hardened in Aldan. It was time to make that decision he had been putting off again and again. He needed something more than a petulant “I don’t want to” to forestall his father. He might not be completely sure that marrying Tillna was the right thing to do, but at least it was his own decision.
“Father!” This time, Aldan’s shout echoed all around the hall. Baron Bindrmon stopped and looked at him, and he wasn’t surprised that there was no hint of shock on his father’s face.
He stood up from his chair and said, “I’m sorry, Father. I will not marry this woman. I love another, and you cannot change that. You will have to tell Baron Durening to find another husband for his daughter.”
He turned and left as swiftly as dignity would allow, leaving no space for an argument. He didn’t see his father’s impassive face staring after him, or the way that the baron’s knuckles grew whiter and whiter where his fists gripped the arms of his chair. And he was too far away to hear the crack as Baron Bindrmon slammed his fists down on those arms and snapped them in two.