Baron Chak Bindrmon stormed through the halls of his own keep. His jaw was clenched so tightly that his lips were as white as his hair, and his hands were balled into fists so hard that he could feel his short nails digging into his palms. He was walking fury, and he was headed toward his only child’s room to teach the boy some sense.
Chak had recently returned from his journey to Fremlow City, the ducal seat of Welspeare. Every three years, the Duchess of Welspeare required that all of her barons travel to her castle to deliver their taxes in person; the other two years, traveling tax collectors handled those duties. Chak had put his time in Fremlow City to good use: he had secured a promise of marriage between the only daughter of Baron Groon Durening, Millicet, and his son, Aldan. The union would benefit Bindrmon greatly, since Baron Durening had been eager to secure the marriage of his daughter, who was almost thirty.
The only hitch in the plan was Aldan himself. Chak had just told his son of the wedding plans, whereupon Aldan had defied his father and declared that he loved another and would not honor Chak’s hard-won agreement.
Chak intended to do something about that.
He reached the door of his son’s room and slammed his open hand into it with all of the strength of his fury behind it. It wasn’t barred, and the latch snapped like a twig, letting the door swing open and crash against the wall behind it. Baron Bindrmon stomped into Aldan’s room to find his son standing by the fireplace, staring at a simple, metal candlestick on the mantelpiece. Aldan’s only visible reaction to his father’s entrance was the tension in his shoulders; he didn’t turn around or verbally acknowledge the baron.
Chak stood silently for a moment, waiting for Aldan to turn around. He almost didn’t recognize the candlestick at first, but even when he realized what it was he refused to let himself be deflected from his purpose. He recalled giving a pair of candlesticks like that to his wife, Cyorsa, shortly after their marriage. They had enjoyed pride of place on their dinner table every evening until the fever claimed her life a dozen years previously. He had ordered them removed from his sight and had ceased to think about them.
It didn’t surprise him that Aldan had rescued one from wherever they had been stored. Chak knew that the boy was too soft by far to be a fit heir. He was going to have to take further measures to toughen his son up. Maybe the marriage would help.
Aldan still had not turned, so Chak said, “I may be your father, but I am also the baron. Turn around and show me some respect, son!”
Aldan shuffled himself around to face his father, reluctance in every motion he made. The sullen look on his face was more suited to a thwarted child than someone of his score-and-two years.
“Sit!” Chak commanded. Aldan flinched, almost complying, but he steeled himself and remained standing. Narrowing his eyes, Chak continued, “Your choice, son. Now, what was that all about downstairs? Did I hear right: are you rejecting the marriage I’ve arranged for you?”
Aldan only nodded. The baron thundered on, “You cannot be serious, Aldan. This marriage is in your best interest. Millicet’s dowry will enrich our coffers by a handsome sum, and Baron Durening has agreed to cede a portion of his territory along the Renev River to us, which means increased trade. It is not possible for you to refuse this match after the negotiations Groon and I have gone through!”
Silence stretched in response to Chak’s statement, finally broken by Aldan’s voice, faint but filled with resolve. “I love another, father.”
“What does that matter, eh, boy? Love? All that is good for is deluding the peasants that their old age won’t be spent alone. You’re the son of a baron, Aldan, and that means that marriage has nothing to do with love for you. Marriage is a tool to the nobility. It cements alliances, it conjoins bloodlines and inheritances, it is negotiated and agreed upon, not granted will-ye-nill-ye when the emotion strikes.”
“I love another, father,” Aldan repeated in a stronger voice. The sullen expression he wore was deepening into anger, but Chak wasn’t paying attention.
“So, who is it that you love, boy? One of the nobles of our court? Maybe Northfield’s daughter has caught your eye? Or perhaps a foreign princess has been traveling through our lands and plighted troth with you?”
“I love a barmaid, father, and Tillna is her name. And it is better I love her than all the well-bred women you could bring before me. I have her heart, father, and she mine,” said Aldan Bindrmon with some of the conviction that his father used.
Silence again, but this time it was the baron who was rendered speechless. Finally, he gasped, “A barmaid? A common bawd? You would throw away the riches that Durening offers for a tavern wench? How could you shame me so, Aldan? How could you think that this is acceptable?”
Passion joined growing conviction as Aldan replied, “Father, how could I not love her? Her hair, it shines like gold, and her eyes are the blue of crystal stones, Father. Her beauty shines as bright as the moon, no, bright as the sun! I love her, and will not have another, father!”
“You are not being given a choice!” shouted Baron Bindrmon. “You *will* marry Millicet, and bring her dowry to our barony. Face up to your responsibility. You are not a child. Stop acting like one. Do what you have to, what you know is right. Stop defying me!”
Aldan took a step toward his father, his face screwed up with suddenly released rage. “Stop ignoring me!” he yelled. “Stop treating me like a marionette! You’ve told me what to do ever since mother died, taking away my friends, taking away my very enjoyment of life. You will not take Tillna away from me. I will not marry Millicet, and I do not intend to change my mind!”
Aldan raced out of his own room. Chak watched him go, his son’s outburst ringing in his ears. He reached out to try to grab Aldan’s arm but failed because he couldn’t unclench his fist fast enough, so tightly had it been held.
Baron Bindrmon stood reflecting on his son’s words for quite a while. Eventually he came to the realization that Aldan didn’t know what he was talking about. Chak had guided his son gently, tutoring him for the job he would someday have. It wasn’t easy being baron; Aldan would see that some day, and he would thank his father for the lessons he had learned.
And as far as his son’s final declaration went, Chak intended to make sure that Aldan turned out to be wrong.
Several bells later, two stablehands arrived at the door to Baron Bindrmon’s private chambers. Talss, the tall thin one, knocked tentatively. Lhewin, the tall stocky one, fidgeted. Neither of them knew what the baron wanted, but it wasn’t normal for servants to be summoned like this, and they were both very nervous.
The door opened, and the baron himself beckoned them inside, and then motioned them to sit at the table in the center of the outer room of the suite. Chak sat down opposite them and said, “I have a task for the two of you, along the lines of the service you performed for me back in Fremlow City, concerning Brerk Shaddir.”
Talss remembered. He and four other stablehands, Lhewin included, had convinced Brerk, the second son of Baron Shaddir, that he didn’t want to marry Millicet, thus opening the way for Baron Bindrmon’s arrangement. Talss wasn’t proud of it, but he had done his duty to his baron and his barony, and had received a Round as payment. He wondered who the baron needed frightened away this time.
“My son fancies himself in love with one of the tavern girls over at the Boar-Ring Inn. Her name is Tillna. Do you know her?”
The two stablehands shook their heads. Chak shrugged and continued, “He seems very attached to her, or at least the idea of her. He has utterly rejected what I want, what you helped me get: his betrothal to Durening’s daughter. He will not be swayed by words, and he’s my son, so rough handling is out of the question. But I’ve thought of something else.
“Tillna. If she leaves town, and tells no one where she is going, then Aldan won’t be able to use her as an excuse to refuse Millicet. I want you two to make sure that Tillna leaves. One way or another, she should be out of this barony as soon as possible, preferably out of the duchy entirely. I’m asking this of only the two of you as I don’t think it would take five to scare off one little barmaid.
“I know that this is an unusual thing to ask of you, and I understand that you may not feel it is a worthy thing to be doing. I ask that you remember two things. First, you are once again aiding your barony, as Millicet’s dowry will benefit Bindrmon greatly. Second, to salve your consciences, I will pay you each a Crown now, and a Crown when she is gone.
“So, will you do it?”
Talss had done some very questionable things in the service of Bindrmon, including taking care of Flitchin, the stablehand who had tried to flee the baron’s service on the way to Fremlow City. But for some reason, Talss found this request to be much more shocking. He didn’t know why, unless it had to do with the fact that he was being asked to intimidate a woman. Shaddir’s son Brerk had at least stood a chance against the five sent to persuade him to break off his betrothal. How could a barmaid defend herself against even two grown men?
“Two Crowns?” Talss heard Lhewin ask. He looked over, and saw the wide eyes of avarice on his friend’s face.
The baron placed two large gold coins on the table, and said, “And another for each of you when she is gone.”
A Crown was a great deal of money, and Talss was sorely tempted. When Lhewin’s hand started to stretch out across the table toward the coins, Talss said, “We’ll do it, your excellency. Count on us.”
He grabbed his coin and held it tightly in his hand. The cold weight soon warmed up, so that all he could feel were its edges against his palm. As its presence seemed to diminish the longer he held it, he wondered whether two Crowns were really enough to salve his conscience.
Aldan walked into the Boar-Ring Inn and went right to the bar. “Oablar, my usual room,” he said, throwing coins down.
The proprietor of the inn handed him a key, and scooped up the coins. “I’ll let her know when she arrives that you’re here, my lord,” he said, the hint of a leer in his voice.
“No, thank you, Oablar. I’ll come back down in a few bells and tell her myself. Could you send up some food and a tankard of ale?”
Aldan didn’t see Oablar nod as he climbed the stairs. He spent the next several bells thinking, even though he knew the answer to his problems. There was only one thing he could do, and he needed to do it as soon as possible. He didn’t want anything to happen to his one chance to make his own decision. He might be destined to be baron, with all the responsibility that entailed, but he didn’t have to be saddled with a wife he didn’t know or love. His father would come to understand eventually; understand or, at least, accept.
Third bell after dark had already rung when Aldan went back down the stairs. The taproom of the Boar-Ring was bustling with activity, and both Aivney and Tillna were busily crossing the room taking orders and delivering drinks. Aldan just watched Tillna work for a bit, knowing that soon she wouldn’t have to earn her own way any longer.
Everything was perfect, except for one thing: the Menagerie, that group of young lords who hated him for abandoning their company, sat at their usual table laughing and shouting and leering at both barmaids. Aldan didn’t particularly want to do this in front of them, but he knew that they wouldn’t be leaving until well after derk, and he didn’t want to wait that long.
He stepped off the stairs and over to the edge of the bar. Fox glowered at him from the Menagerie’s table, but Aldan ignored him. Tillna saw him and hurried over. They hugged, and when Aldan kissed her he made sure that he kissed her lips.
Tillna frowned at his presumption, but only until he started to speak. “Tillna, my darling, we’ve been seeing each other for more than a year now, and I think I am finally sure of what I feel about you. You have my heart, Tillna, and I hope I have yours. Will you be my wife?”
Tillna’s response was immediate. “Yes, yes, oh yes!” She hugged him and kissed him hard on the mouth, while the patrons at nearby tables applauded, except for the Menagerie of course. She backed a step from him then, and said, “Oh, Aldan, I’m so glad you finally asked me. I’ve been ready to say yes for so long now. But, what about your father?”
Aldan laughed a mirthless laugh, and said, “The baron will not be pleased, but I no longer care. I want to marry you, and his wishes can feed the crows.”
Tillna said, with a calculating look in her eye, “But, does not the baron have to sanction our marriage? You are noble, after all.”
“Yes, I am noble.” Aldan had an answer ready. “Which means that I can also appeal to the one my father owes fealty to for sanction as well. You’ve always wanted to see Fremlow City. We can be there in two days. The sooner we leave, the sooner we will be married.”
“Oh, Aldan … I have to pack, to prepare. I couldn’t leave before day after tomorrow, will that be all right? Oh, I wish Yawrab were back from her trip to the ducal seat. Perhaps we will meet her there? There are so many details to take care of! I’m so, so happy, Aldan!”
The sixth bell of night was close to ringing when Talss and Lhewin entered the Boar-Ring Inn. The taproom was almost deserted, with only the four young men of the Menagerie occupying their table in one corner of the room, near the bar. They were quiet, seriously studying the tankards in front of them with the intensity of the very drunk. Both barmaids were gone; Aivney to her home, Tillna upstairs with Aldan. Oablar stood behind the bar polishing leather mugs.
The two baronial stablehands walked over to the bar, frowning and stumbling slightly. They had spent a great deal of time arguing back and forth back at the keep about whether they should really do as the baron asked, and what kind of tactics they should employ. Ale had been consumed during their conversations, but not enough to make them drunk. Not very, anyway.
Eventually, they had decided that they wanted to see Tillna in person. Unaware of the number of bells that had already passed, they left the keep and strolled through the deserted town only to find that there were no women at all in the Boar-Ring.
Talss said, “Two alesh, barman.”
Oablar drew their drinks and said, “Don’t settle in, straight? I’m wantin’ to close soon.” Talss and Lhewin lifted their tankards in acknowledgment, and staggered to the nearest table.
Lhewin took a long draw of the fresh ale and said, “Not here.”
Talss shook his head in agreement, and drank more slowly. “I wonder if the baron … ah … knew what he thought he … knew?”
Talss was talking more loudly than he intended, and he was overheard. Fox’s head lifted at the mention of ‘baron’ and he paid a fuzzy attention to the two men dressed in the livery of the Bindrmons at the next table.
“Don’t know,” replied Lhewin. “Maybe there ish no Tillna.”
“Easy money, then,” laughed Talss. “Easy money if she’s a fig … a figm … a dream, huh?”
“Easy money, Talsh,” agreed Lhewin.
Unnoticed by the stablehands, Weasel’s head had also risen from its drunkard’s droop, and he listened in on the conversation too, drawn by the name of the barmaid. Owl was asleep over his drink, and Bear … well, Bear was giggling into his hands again.
“I shtill don’ like this, Llll-hewin,” complained Talss. “We stopped that Brerk guy from marryin’ so the baron could get Aldan married. But Aldan’s already got a sweetheart. So why don’t we just go tell Brerk that he can have his wifey back, and let the kid marry this ‘magin’ry barmaid?”
“Baron says. That’sh why,” intoned Lhewin. “Get rid of barmaid, and Aldan has to marry who baron wants. ‘Nless Till-nah isn’t real.”
“She’s real,” said Talss morosely. “We don’ have that kinda luck. Wish we hadn’t agreed to do this, though.”
Fox took Bear’s full tankard of ale and threw it in his own face. The jolt sobered him up somewhat, and he dried himself off a bit with Owl’s cloak.
“Greetings!” Both Talss and Lhewin started when the red-haired young man appeared across the table from them and spoke. Neither really noticed the wet hair or the heavy odor of ale coming from him.
Fox continued, “I couldn’t help but overhear, and pardon for eavesdropping. You say you are here looking for Tillna the barmaid?”
The stablehands nodded somewhat stupidly, and Fox continued, “Did I catch it right that you want to … get rid of her?”
Talss nodded again. The drink had drowned his sense and loosened his tongue and he said, “Baron’s orders, so his shon will marry someone else, someone he doesn’t want to.”
Fox’s grin had nothing merry about it. “I think that I and my friends over there can help you. Please, let us take this burden onto our shoulders. We’ll gladly ensure that Tillna is gotten rid of, and the marriage plans of Aldan Bindrmon are altered permanently.
“Here,” he said, fumbling at his belt. He laid a Crown on the table, and continued, “For the privilege of completing this task for you. Trust me, your baron will be well pleased with the results.”
Talss looked at the Crown on the table, and then at the young man across the table. The answer was obvious. He snatched the coin before Lhewin had even stopped blinking in surprise, and said, “Thank you for yer offer, mi’lord. The baron was in some hurry about the matter …”
“We shall be about your business as soon as the sun lifts himself from his slumber.” When Talss and Lhewin just stared, Fox said, “Tomorrow, my friends. We will begin tomorrow. Fare well.”
The stablehands rose, shook Fox’s hand, and left, even though he had come to their table. Fox looked over at Weasel, who grinned a wicked grin back.
Fox was walking through Beeikar’s marketplace the next morning. He was happy to finally have an excuse to deal with Tillna, and so strike a blow against Aldan the Rat. He didn’t think it would be difficult for the Menagerie to frighten one woman enough to get her to run away. It would be even better if she proved stubborn about it; he owed her a slap or two — at least — for the way she had been treating him recently.
At the edge of the market, Fox noticed that a gypsy had occupied one of the stalls set up there. His colorful clothing was very distinctive, but Fox thought he would have known the man’s origins even without the patchwork raiments; the swarthy features and full, black beard were equally distinctive, he thought.
Fox looked over the wares for sale. At one end of the counter were some poorly-made daggers and short swords, meant for flashy display and not for use. Next to the weapons was what seemed to be half of a stone sculpture of some kind. It had been circular when whole, and the inner two-thirds of the flat upper surface was covered by intertwining bands of silver, gold, and glass. Around the rim were carved two birds of prey next to each other and a cat.
Fox touched the sculpture, setting a finger to one of the carved birds. He jerked his hand back as if he had been bitten, but after shaking his finger and looking for a mark he seemed to forget all about the strange sensation and the sculpture at the same time.
Fox’s attention shifted to the carved wooden figures and boxes arrayed next to the stone fragment. Figurines of people and animals, and animals dressed as people, were all of the highest craftsmanship, with crisp, clear detail. Fox looked for carvings that represented him or his friends, but there were no foxes or fox people, or any of the other Menagerie animals at all. The closest he came was a rat-woman dressed like a ship’s captain, but that only made him frown, and he moved on.
Then, he saw the box. It was about eight hands square, and on the lid was carved a stylized representation of a falcon. The bird looked just like the ones on … on … no, he hadn’t ever seen falcons carved like that before. The sides of the box were carved with wavy lines — no, they were woven loops, like hair, or braided bread or … or bread, straight.
The falcon was carved so that to view it properly, the box had to be resting so that it looked like a diamond, not a square. Fox worked the tightly friction-fit lid off and discovered that the inside of the box was round.
Those three things came together and, with a flash of interwoven bands, falcons, and a cat behind his eyes, Fox got an idea. A wicked — no, an evil idea. He liked it. He knew that the Menagerie would like it too. He paid for the box, and went to tell his friends about the change in plans.
Later that evening, Aldan stopped at the Boar-Ring Inn. “Have you seen Tillna today, Aivney?”
“No, love, she ain’t been in,” Aivney said distractedly as she served ales to a table full of bargemen while dodging their pinching fingers.
“Thank you. See you later.”
In the depths of the night, four figures, completely muffled in robes and hoods, carried a long, narrow bundle between them to the banks of the Renev River. Faint chanting could be heard as the bundle began to sway between them, and suddenly it was flung into the rushing water. It bobbed for a moment, the dark stain in the center seeming to fade as the bundle absorbed water. Then it vanished from sight.
The anonymous figures stood staring after the vanished bundle. One staggered for a moment, as if on the rolling deck of a ship. Another, the largest, lifted its arms to its hood, and giggled.
Presently, the four turned and walked back into the darkness.
The next afternoon Aldan went to Tillna’s boarding house. He was beginning to get worried, as she hadn’t been seen by anyone in over a day. Had she run away? But she had seemed so happy when he proposed …
Aldan climbed the single flight of stairs to the upper floor and walked to the back of the hall. He knocked on her door, and it swung open. Suddenly apprehensive, Aldan walked in.
He half expected to find the room bare, but it wasn’t. Tillna’s belongings filled it, making it hers. Only one thing seemed out of place: on the narrow table next to the door was a large package, wrapped in cloth. Hanging from the cord that tied the cloth together was a small piece of parchment on which was painted the badge of Bindrmon.
Aldan took the package and stepped further into the room. He sat down and untied the cord, letting the white cloth fall away from what it wrapped. This revealed a carved wood box with a falcon on the lid. It was heavy and well constructed, and he examined the carvings around the edges and on the top. He turned the box so that the falcon was upright, so that it sat on its corner and looked like a diamond. The box was beautiful, and the falcon was just perfect, but something was making him uneasy about this. Was it some kind of farewell gift from Tillna? If not, who had left it? The falcon might indicate some kind of connection to the Menagerie, but they only called him Rat now.
Nervously, he, tried to lift the lid from the box, but it wouldn’t budge. He tried harder, finding indentations at each corner that allowed him to get a grip on it. He felt it start to move finally, its friction-fit ceasing to resist. As the lid lifted, the first thing he noticed was the smell. He had hunted enough to know that iron tang: blood. He moved the lid aside, and was confronted with contents so bizarre that he had no idea what he was looking at. Hair, blond hair was all he could see at first, golden hair coiling around and filling the round insides of the box. Except in the middle, where a lump of reddish-brown and slightly grey meat rested, roughly oval, slightly thicker at the bottom than the top.
He was dumbfounded. What was this? What did it mean? By chance, he noticed that there was something inside the lid. He glanced at it, and saw that it was a parchment with very neat, precise writing on it.
Lifting the lid, he read the writing and learned all he needed to know, and much more than he had feared.
When you proposed, you said you hoped you had my heart. Well,
dearest, I hope that this reassures you.
You have my heart, Aldan Bindrmon.
My love and my life,