I had seen death before, of both natural and unnatural causes. There is a great difference between the body of someone who dies of a disease, or by simply living to the end of their given days, and the corpse of someone murdered by man’s hand.
The ending of Shorel’s life by means of two crossbow bolts in her back as she fled along a forested path stunned me. Shorel my fellow bard, my companion, my lover, was dead. She lay in the middle of the path, blood darkening her tunic, her sightless brown eyes staring into my green ones, her body twisted by her lifeless fall from the back of her horse.
I looked away from her blank stare and saw the two guards who had killed her advancing along the forest path, their horses pacing slowly, their reloaded crossbows pointing at Shorel’s corpse. All of their attention was on her; I had not yet been noticed. Shorel’s horse had continued a short distance beyond the point where her control had left it before stopping as it had been trained to do. I saw that it bore no saddlebags: she had been fleeing in haste, then.
The guardsmen reined in their horses near their victim and dismounted warily, as if Shorel were feigning death to lure them closer. I briefly thought to race out onto the path and single-handedly avenge Shorel’s murder. Thankfully, I regained my senses before doing anything so foolish. The guards were armed, and obviously excellent shots. They had not scrupled to kill one bard, despite the inviolate status bards usually enjoy; I did not think they would quail at shooting another.
Instead, I quietly slipped deeper into the clearing where I had been watering my horse Riesta. I made sure she was secure, then moved with as much stealth as I could muster to a position within the trees where I could see the road but remain reasonably concealed. Hidden behind a trunk and in deep shadow, I watched what followed, hoping that the slight breeze would not shift and carry the scent of the horses to each other.
The guards advanced on Shorel’s body, swords having replaced crossbows in their hands. All of their attention was on the corpse; not a single glance was spared for the surrounding trees. One drew next to her and nudged her with his foot. Her body moved limply. While the first held his sword to her neck, the other bent down and lifted an arm, then let it fall just as limply back down. That one looked up at the first and said, “Dead,” or so I clearly read on his lips, for they were too far away to hear their voices.
The first one shook his head and gave Shorel a rougher kick. Then he and his fellow guard searched her thoroughly, and next her horse. They didn’t find whatever they were looking for, and this did not please them. Eventually they considered their duty done and they remounted their horses and rode away back the way they had come, leading Shorel’s horse with them.
I waited a short while longer to be sure, but they didn’t double back. I let Riesta return to her grazing, and walked out to where they had left Shorel lying.
I knelt by her body, at a loss for what to do next. I reached down and brushed her long brown hair away from her cheek, and then rested my fingertips against her skin for a moment. I remembered her smiles, her kisses, her voice raised in song or passion. I remembered riding with her along forest paths like this one, or sitting to dinner with her at the Bardic College. Waking up to the feel of her body next to mine five days in a row, or seeing her walk through a door after being apart for three months. My eyes misted over as I realized that all I had now of her were memories.
In the midst of my reminiscences, my hands set about automatically straightening her limbs, and then her clothes. I wanted to turn her onto her back, but I didn’t want to remove those quarrels. As the birds began chirping again and normalcy returned to that section of the forest, I lifted her carefully even though she didn’t need care any longer, and carried her to the little clearing.
I buried her with only the ceremony of my own grieving. As I stood over the shallow mound contemplating what I should do next, a curious thing happened. A great weariness came over me, as if somehow Shorel’s death had been one too many. I felt old, older than my years, older than my parents’, older than the Bardic College, and even the kingdom itself. That aching weariness and age bore me to my knees, and I thought I would collapse further and never be able to rise again, but just then I felt as if everything around me was on fire. Instead of fear, or feeling trapped by these encompassing flames, I felt instead peace. The weariness vanished, vanquished, but the flames faded more slowly, and seemed to leave a sense of promise with me as they went.
As I rested momentarily on my knees, recovering from that strange feeling, another image came to me. It was Shorel being struck again with the quarrels, but this time my attention focused on the stick or staff that she had hurled away from herself at that same moment. That hadn’t been a random act; I had seen how intent her face was before the pain swept her concentration away. I knew I had to find that object.
The afternoon was well advanced by the time I located that one wooden stick among all of the others in the forest. It was a plain walking stick shod with metal. I had never seen Shorel with it before, but I understood why she’d had it as soon as I found it. Chopped into its side were stick-runes, a very simplified set of letters made up of vertical lines, each crossed by a varying number and placement of slashes or flanked by dots. They were easy to carve, and did not require great finesse to make them easily understandable.
The story these runes told was incomplete out of necessity — there wasn’t room on that staff to scribe an epic. But it had enough room to carry the essence of Shorel’s last, desperate message.
The information concerned the coming wedding of Baron Frasilk’s son to the daughter of Baron Jaleit. The runes told me that Baron Frasilk was attempting to unite the two baronies into one by the marriage, despite the slight impediment of Jaleit’s two older sons. The two boys had been out of sight for most of the winter, and the baron had put it about that they were unwell. Shorel had discovered that the boys were actually prisoners in the keep’s vaults. It wasn’t hard to follow her to the conclusion that Frasilk intended to murder the boys once Jaleit’s daughter was wed to his son.
This information explained Shorel’s murder. She had been caught where she didn’t belong and had fled, hoping to reach safety. As a hedge against failure, she had carved the story into this staff. Her final words implored anyone finding it to save the honor of Baron Frasilk and the lives of the boys before momentary greed ruined the future of the betrothed couple.
I resolved to do just that.
I rode into Lesser Hallvis three days later. Lesser Hallvis was the largest town in the north end of Duchy Othuldane. It was situated between Lake Aulk and the Winink River, which drained the lake to the ocean. All manner of trade was drawn naturally to the town, resulting in growth that showed no signs of slowing. That it was situated firmly within the borders of the Jaleit Barony explained Frasilk’s ambitions.
I had chosen Lesser Hallvis as my destination because it was in Jaleit Barony, and because it was on one of the maps I had memorized. I had no plan yet in mind for finishing Shorel’s mission. I needed more information and I would probably need help. I was sure I could find both in Lesser Hallvis.
Four days later, I had a better grasp of the current situation. I had listened to the gossip each night in the taverns and inns, and during the day in the marketplaces. I had asked discreet questions here and there of those likely to hear things: stall holders, tavern owners, a group of people about a public well. What I had learned fleshed out Shorel’s minimal tale completely.
Late in the previous summer, Baron Shando Jaleit had taken suddenly and gravely ill. This had left that barony in danger of being without a leader; Shando’s wife had died shortly after giving birth to their youngest daughter, Shindi, and his oldest child, Krandel, was only fourteen.
Shando had turned to his life-long friend and neighbor, Marin Frasilk. After appointing Baron Frasilk regent for Krandel, Shando had succumbed to his illness.
Baron Frasilk had seemed to take his duties seriously, and he had moved the entire household to his own keep for the winter, leaving only enough people at Jaleit Keep as were necessary to maintain it. Winter had closed in and news, whether gossip or official, ceased to travel. As soon as spring thaw had opened the roads again, word had issued forth from Baron Frasilk’s keep that his son Normb was betrothed to the young Shindi Jaleit. Tongues had wagged at the announcement of the union; some had thought the difference between Normb’s twenty years and Shindi’s mere twelve would cause problems in the future; most of the rest had believed that it was nice that the two friendly families could be bound together that way.
The mention of the ill health of the two Jaleit boys, Krandel and Eelis, had never been officially announced, but when gossip of it had passed from tongue to ear it went as fact. Every person who had traveled from Frasilk Keep was sure to mention the tragic illness of Shando’s heirs, and both so young and formerly healthy. Some put it down to ill luck; others wondered whether Shando’s sickness had been given to the children and when little Shindi would come down with it.
I marveled that no one considered the coincidences involved to be too convenient. One night as I entertained at a tavern I played an old favorite that followed the situation as I knew it almost exactly; no one noticed the similarities. Marin Frasilk had always been friends to Shando and his family. If any long-standing jealousy had existed between them, it was not public knowledge. No one suspected any wrong-doing because no one had any cause to suspect Baron Frasilk of it.
I never even considered just telling people about Shorel’s discoveries. Even if I had been believed, and it was clear that I would not have been, someone would have taken news of the accusations to the baron and he would have been pushed into a rash act.
No, my only recourse was to expose the baron’s actions personally. The truth had to be told, before it became moot. But I knew that more than just my own eyes needed to see that truth. One witness was easy enough to silence, as Shorel had proved. The more who learned the truth, the harder it would be to silence it again. I needed accomplices, and more than that I needed people I could count on in the keep to go looking for me, should I turn up missing.
People who travel for a living are often looked down on by the folk of the places they travel to. They are strangers wherever they go, and most distrust strangers instinctively. This is why there is almost always a certain section in larger towns where these strangers can go and be apart from the locals. A certain tavern or inn will cater expressly to merchants or mercenaries or wandering tinkers, treating them like they belong. Those who drink or lodge there can share the commonality of being not-local with each other, even though they are often strangers to each other as much as to the residents.
Bards are usually immune to this mistrust, but we are as welcome at a travelers’ inn as at a locals’ inn. The Long Road was one of the former kind in Lesser Hallvis, and there I came up lucky in my search for aid.
One night as I entered the inn and glanced around the bustling taproom, I spotted a tall, grey-haired man I recognized. It was Goerff Heas who, last I knew, had been the leader of a traveling puppet show. As I made my way over to his table, I recognized several of the seven who were gathered around him as also being members of the Payslee Puppets, Goerff’s troupe.
He saw me striding through the crowded room and rose to greet me. “Ho, Bard Nakaz, it’s been long since our paths crossed. Do you fare well?”
I gripped his offered forearm in greeting, and replied, “Ho, puppeteer Goerff! Well met, indeed. My farings have been well enough, well enough. What of your own journeys? Do your puppets still mesmerize young and old alike?”
He laughed and nodded, and room was made for me at their table. Goerff introduced me around the table. First, he proudly presented his son and daughter-in-law, Teiff and Allea Heas, whom I had not met before. Allea had finally influenced Teiff to take up with his father, and now both were being groomed to take over the Payslee Puppets. Marum, the puppet-maker, and Womore, the costumer, I had met before. Lavisk was the carpenter and scenery builder, while Huyal and Demni had been hired as protection but who had proven to be competent puppeteers and so contributed to the group in that way also.
The evening passed swiftly in their company. We traded stories back and forth, some more accurate than others, and we drank good ale and ate good food. I learned that the Payslee Puppets were not currently engaged, and an idea flashed into my mind at that news.
Late that evening, I drew Goerff aside to speak to him privately. I trusted him on the basis of our past associations, so I told him the real reason I was in Jaleit. I also told him that I was going to need eyes and ears to help me witness the truth of what Baron Frasilk was hiding, as well as weapons and hands to hold them to help me uncover that truth. I asked him whether I could hire his troupe to be those eyes, ears, hands, and weapons for me, for the duke, and for the king, to ensure that justice was served.
His response was immediate. “Yes,” he said, “and you don’t have to offer us Crowns to have us with you for this. It is the right thing to do. How are we going to accomplish it?”
We discussed several options, but couldn’t finalize any plans as neither of us had ever been to the baron’s keep before. We needed more information. What we did agree on at that point was that we should not go as ourselves. Another bard showing up so soon after Shorel might make the baron nervous, and Goerff’s people would be able to mingle better with the people of the keep than the Payslee Puppets would.
There was one other suggestion that Goerff made that I made haste to carry out. I was fortunate enough to be able to track down a middle-aged man named Prett who had, until recently, been a retainer at Baron Jaleit’s court. He was as easy to recruit as Goerff had been once he knew of Shorel’s discovery, and he would be able to identify the boys we were looking for conclusively.
It was the ninth of Naia when I rode into Baron Frasilk’s keep with a merchant caravan carrying wares for the wedding and Melrin festivities. My fine clothes and my instruments were in safe keeping back in Lesser Hallvis along with the bard-marked trappings for Riesta. I was just one more hired hand to those in the keep, as anonymous as any other servant.
Frasilk keep was of modest, though sturdy, construction. The outer wall was maybe two man-lengths tall, without any towers at the corners. There was no gatehouse, just wooden doors set into the wall. Within the wall were several wooden outbuildings: barracks, stables, storage and the like.
The keep itself was a two-story stone structure with a flat roof and crenelations. It bore a single tower in one corner that rose another story before being capped with a conical slate roof. Inside the keep, most of the ground floor was occupied by the gathering hall, with the kitchens to one side and guest quarters on the other. The second floor was all apartments. It was an easy layout to memorize and keep track of, and I made sure to do it as soon as possible.
Huyal, Demni, and Prett had traveled with me in the caravan. The first two were guards, naturally. The former retainer served as another hired hand. The rest of the Payslee Puppets were to arrive individually. Some were already present; the rest were supposed to do so within the next few days. I had that long to snoop around and learn what there was to learn first hand.
Skulking and prying in secret after information is not one of the classes taught in the Bardic College. Nevertheless, a surprising number of us take training in the subject when and where we can. Sometimes the truth requires that an effort be made to lure it out, like a shy maiden, or a wild bird. I went seeking, coy and quiet, striving to be as scarcely noticed in my work as any hunter after game.
I learned from the guards themselves that the watch was still tripled on the door to the vaults beneath the keep as they grumbled over their boring duty in the kitchen at midday. The extra work had begun a fortnight past, when a thief had attempted to steal a valuable treasure that Baron Jaleit had entrusted to Baron Frasilk. That thief had been run down and killed, and the Baron himself had rewarded the two who had done it for their diligent service. Speculation had the well-guarded treasure being a scepter of gold, or a crown carved from amber, or a small statue with magical powers that one guard seemed to remember that Baron Jaleit had always treasured. It was not easy to grit my teeth and remain impassive when they called Shorel a base thief masquerading at being a bard.
I learned, again by being in the right place to overhear others speak, that Jaleit’s boys had still not been seen by anyone save Baron Frasilk since Deber or perhaps earlier. The baron daily took food and medicine up to their tower room, and a doubled watch of guards stood at the base of those tower stairs lest some other scoundrel sneak into the keep with a mind to harm them. The baron took his responsibility to Krandel and Eelis very seriously, so that even the keep’s physician was not allowed to see the boys, but must dole out his tonics and poultices by what Frasilk told him. I wondered upon hearing this how the boys were getting food and care in their real hideaway, as no one had entered the vaults since Shorel’s fatal attempt.
What I experienced for myself in Frasilk’s court, and of Frasilk himself, surprised me. My expectations had, of course, been colored by my private knowledge. The court that I had imagined could foster the right conditions for such treachery as the baron perpetrated would have been one full of intrigue, with all manner of minor nobles battling covertly for position amongst themselves. The modest keep of Baron Frasilk was nothing like that. Rank was barely honored, save that of the baron himself. He had honest, simple, loyal people around him, people who served their baron as they would their duke or their king, with their whole selves. Cooks cooked gladly, guards guarded contentedly, pages ran about happily, and squires trained with their knights eagerly.
And the baron seemed just the sort to foster that kind of camaraderie. Frasilk was a large man, huge of chest and arm, a fighting man with the rough manners of one. He never stood on ceremony, or put on airs. He seemed to be one of his people, instead of the lord of his people, and they treated him that way too.
Did I see a haunted look in his eyes late at the dinner table? Did I catch him falling silent at odd times when all around him was noise and laughter? Were his trips up the stairs more ostentatious than I felt was needed? Did I only imagine these things because of what had happened one afternoon a fortnight ago?
If I had not known Shorel as well as I had, I might almost have believed that the tale carved into the walking stick was the false one. But Shorel was no thief, nor was she a liar. I still had work to do.
Normb was a slighter copy of his father. Only twenty years old, he’d not had the experiences that had deepened his father’s chest or broadened his shoulders. Normb strove for the same kind of openness his father had, but it was still evident that he was apart from them, more noble than common.
As for Shindi, I saw her seldom, and only at meals. There, she sat quietly on the opposite side of the baron from her promised husband, and seemed quite sad. Perhaps she missed her brothers, or even her father. She was still quite young, and small for her age, delicate, beginning to hint at the beauty she would be as she grew older. Standing next to Normb, though, she looked like a doll, or a figurine, so small and fragile, so lost.
My other recruits filtered into the keep slowly, making sure that I knew of their presence with a slap on the shoulder as they passed me, or a hearty greeting and a wink. My plan was formulated by the time the last one had arrived. In a court like the one I had imagined my ploy would never have worked; here, they were too honest to think every possible move through to its most devious end.
I passed word to Goerff that everyone should meet at night’s seventh bell at the base of the tower stairs. Late that evening, I was just outside the kitchen when a young page exited it carrying a tray bearing the mid-watch meal of the tower guards. I chatted amicably with the boy for a few moments, easily distracting him long enough to slip the sleeping draught into the jug of ale, then let him continue on his way.
I was first to arrive at the foot of the tower stairs two bells or so after the middle of the night. The two guards posted there were fast asleep; my plan was working so far.
Even so, I couldn’t help but feel nervous at what I was undertaking. I hoped that the danger was minimal, but I couldn’t be sure. And the baron had ordered Shorel killed for her discovery. I hoped that I had foreseen all eventualities.
I attempted to distract myself while I waited by reviewing the night’s proposed activities. I had decided to check the tower room first for two reasons. The door to the vaults under the keep had six guards watching over it, and the chances of one of those six not drinking enough of the drugged ale was too great to risk. Also, the door was well secured by chains and bars, requiring three different keys to open it. I had no reason to believe that any of the members of the Payslee Puppets knew how to open those locks, and neither did I.
In any case, there had to be another way into the vaults. I knew that Baron Frasilk had Shando’s boys imprisoned in the vaults below the keep, but I couldn’t believe that he had simply locked them away to let them starve. Shorel had found them alive, so the baron hadn’t just killed them out of hand. My thinking was that he needed them alive until after the wedding, probably as insurance against anything going wrong. Until Shindi was Normb’s wife, the rightful heirs needed to be kept alive, in case something went wrong. Only once Normb had a rightful claim to Jaleit’s daughter were the sons of Shando really expendable.
Perhaps it was a leap that only a bard with his head full of old tales could make, but I was wagering that Frasilk’s daily excursions into his tower served two purposes: to give the impression that he was taking care of the sick children, and to take the food he pretended to carry to their sick room into their actual cell. If I was wrong, and remained uncaught, we would simply have to determine a way through that well-guarded door.
One after another, my recruits appeared. Soon there were nine people standing around me, and it was time to begin. I quietly explained my plan, and chose my caravan-companions to come with me. The other six members of Goerff’s troupe were instructed to wait until light and, if we did not return, he was to take up the burden of proving Shorel’s story and, if possible, of rescuing us.
I began to climb the stairs, my picked companions following cautiously. We went directly up about three floors and came to a small landing with a single door. It opened easily when I lifted the latch, and we entered a completely empty room.
There weren’t even the trappings of a sick-room here: no bed, no fire in the single hearth, and certainly no ailing boys. A cold stone floor, bare stone walls, a peaked wooden ceiling, shuttered windows, and the fireplace, empty of logs and even of ash. I also noted that there was no pile of dishes or of food here. If Frasilk didn’t take his trays of food elsewhere, then what did he do with them?
The four of us tapped on walls and pushed at likely looking stones, hoping to find the secret door I was sure existed. No one was having any success, even after half-a-bell of searching. I stood in the middle of the room and tried to think while the others continued looking. As they brushed their hands across the walls and eyed cracks in the mortar for signs of regularity, I noticed that no one was searching in the area around the door. I had ignored it for what was likely the same reason: there was a landing out there, and so no place for a secret passage to exist.
I wondered, however, if that wasn’t part of the secret. I opened the door and checked the dimensions of the landing. Pacing off those dimensions within the room left plenty of wall that hadn’t been checked. I tapped first to one side of the door and then to the other, and was finally rewarded by a hollow echo. With only a bit of poking and prodding, I found the catch and the hidden door opened wide.
My recruits had already gathered around me, so we lifted our lanterns and started into the new passage. It looked as if the hidden stairway followed the open stair exactly. It made sense to me: why build two staircases when you can build one, and then build a wall down the middle of it?
We descended as far as we had ascended, as quietly as frightened rats within the walls. At the level of the main floor, the stairway turned to the side and continued downward. At the bottom, we quickly found the catch and another hidden door swung open onto the vaults of Frasilk Keep.
The layout of the cellar was simple. There were two corridors set crosswise to each other. One corridor ended in the stairs that led up to the well-locked main door; the cross corridor had the secret door at one end. Doors lined each corridor, the ones closest to the main stairway pierced by small, barred windows so they could be used as cells at need. A quick check showed that none of them were occupied.
All of the doors were locked, but a large key ring hung at the base of the main stairs. I distributed these keys among us and we began to search.
I took my keys and went to the door farthest from the stairs. I tried all three keys on it, but none worked. I tried the door on the other side of the corridor, and the last key opened it.
The room was small and uninhabited. I might have ignored the pile of clothes in the corner if there hadn’t been a wooden flute on top. I walked over to the pile and picked up the flute. I knew it was Shorel’s — I could tell from the wear marks, especially the one her little finger had made where she rested it. I knelt and moved aside the clothes, recognizing one tunic I had purchased for her, with leaves embroidered around the neck and cuffs. Her saddlebags were here as well, hastily stuffed with her personal items: her quilt, the portrait in wood of her brother, the strange stone sculpture I had first seen the previous summer, the last time we had been together.
I set my lantern down on the floor and took the stone sculpture out of the saddlebag. I stared at it with an intensity that blocked out all other thoughts, including the reason I was down here in the first place. I traced the interlacing bands of gold, silver and glass. I brushed my fingers across the two animals sculpted into the outer third of the arced edge, lightly over the fox, but more caressingly over the stylized cat.
I remembered that night in the Bardic College when I had first seen it. I recalled dinner, when I had been distracted by that handsome, if not well talented, bard named Kethseir. I remembered going up to Shorel’s room afterward, intent at first on making it up to her for my periods of inattention at the meal. I had noticed the addition to her possessions almost immediately. I recalled the way it had seemed to be part of me, to belong to me, from the first moment my eyes rested on it. I had needed to concentrate hard to make good on my promise to myself to pay full attention to Shorel, despite the call of the sculpture.
It still called to me, and now there was nothing to keep me from taking ownership of it.
The thought reminded me of Shorel, which reminded me of my mission. I wondered how much time I had wasted staring at the stone. I set it down reluctantly, and as I stood I heard the clash of arms.
Lifting my lantern from the floor, I dashed out of the room and then stopped. In front of me, Huyal and Demni were defending themselves against two fully-armored guardsmen. Beyond them was the baron, looking furious. The short swords of my recruits were barely serving to protect them against the larger weapons of the baron’s men.
I strode forward, and said, “Stop! Before someone else is killed!” with all of the authority I could muster.
My desperate gambit worked; the guards looked at me and stopped, backing away from their prey. Baron Frasilk looked at me, and then looked at them and said, “I didn’t tell you to retreat! Do your duty! Kill them, and him too!”
Before the guards could comply, I said, “Baron, wait! Think about what you want to do. How many will have to die to keep your secret?”
He laughed, somewhat nervously. “What secret, thief? That the treasures of my vaults seem to attract rogue after rogue? Eventually there will be enough bodies to deter future knaves like you.” He spoke with bravado, but to his own men, not me. He was trying valiantly to maintain his fiction; his words told me that these men didn’t know the truth.
I contemplated telling them myself, but I couldn’t count on them believing me no matter how authoritative I sounded. I was just another thief, and not even one masquerading as a bard, as they believed Shorel had. I thought about going back into that room to fetch the scrolls in her saddlebags, thinking that might convince them of her actual status … but no, they might just as easily believe she had stolen them from the same person she had stolen her horse and other gear from.
I began to think that this phase of my plan was not going to succeed. And then, as I thought about it, I realized that the other phase was not going to work any better if this one did fail. I had left six people behind with the knowledge of what the baron was really doing. But they had no more proof than I did. They could tell their tale, but who would believe such perfidy of their baron? Even if enough people could be made to doubt, and a group was permitted into the cellars to search, Baron Frasilk had a multitude of options. It would take time for my six accomplices to generate enough support to force such a search; Frasilk could spirit the boys away at any time through the hidden doorway, and the search would find nothing. He might even be forced into the ultimate act of killing the boys and hiding the bodies, or just saying that they had succumbed to their illness like their father before them. I had miscalculated, and my anchoring plan was a lready a failure.
I had no choice but to make my first plan work, or all was lost.
“So, baron, what happened last winter?” I asked, switching targets. I spoke rapidly, but with assurance, and with that same authority I had used earlier. “Your friend Shando Jaleit asked you to be regent for his son, and suddenly there was an opportunity right in your midst. A means to improve your son’s inheritance greatly, and only two young boys to suffer for it.
“How long did you agonize over your decision? Was it an impulsive thing, as you sat in your gathering hall one stormy night, looking at the sparseness of your home, and imagining the luxury that Krandel would be going home to eventually with a coronet on his head? Or did you plot and plan, perhaps actually poisoning Shando as a means to set up this carefully orchestrated marriage?
“Tell me, Marin, is it really worth it? Do you think your son would appreciate all that you are doing for him? Or your people, who love you; would they still love you knowing the steps you are taking to increase their prosperity? Would your guards still be loyal to you if they knew that Shando’s sons are not ill, but being held prisoner by you so that your son will be able to inherit Jaleit’s lands as well as your own?”
The two guards’ heads were swiveling between me and their baron, at first wondering what I was talking about and then wondering why Baron Frasilk wasn’t denying my accusations. Frasilk himself was too busy turning red with fury and then white with fear to respond to my questions. As I finished my litany, he finally said, “You … you … you lie! How dare –”
At that moment, Prett stepped out of the cross corridor and was spotted by one of the guards. He pointed and said, “‘Ware, my liege, another is behind you!”
Frasilk turned and saw Prett. His nervousness seemed to increase, and he said, “Quickly, men, apprehend that one! The treasure …”
He was interrupted by the appearance of that treasure. Two boys stepped up behind Prett, two young boys who were pale but seemed to be in good health otherwise. I could see their resemblance to their sister.
The baron wilted on the spot, and his guards let their swords, and their jaws, fall. I walked passed them, and over to Prett, drawing my own people with me. Soon, we were grouped around Prett and the boys protectively, facing the stricken baron.
“Let me ask another question, Baron Frasilk,” I said. “How would you like to handle this little revelation? These guards now know the truth. Would you have them executed for it, as you wished us executed? Or do you think them loyal enough to you to keep your secret?”
Frasilk stammered, “I … I …” He looked at his guards, who were frowning at him. “I … I didn’t mean … I thought …” The baron deflated like a punctured bladder. In a voice much too small for his frame, he said, “No. No, this is too much. Too many problems, too many complications. I shouldn’t have ever attempted …”
He looked up at me, anguish in his eyes. “I only wanted what was best for my people. When Shando made me regent, the possibilities were suddenly there in front of me, like flowers in a garden, waiting to be plucked. It was so easy …
“If my people hadn’t been so loyal to me, it would never have worked. But they believed me. They never questioned a word I said. All I had to do was say it, and they all believed boys were sick. Normb wasn’t happy about being betrothed to little Shindi, but he never complained to me. He never said, ‘But why, father?’ He didn’t even know of my plan, yet he never objected. I don’t deserve such loyalty.”
Taking pity on the man, I said, “Perhaps you could arrange for Baron Jaleit’s sons to make a miraculous recovery today, leading them down from their sick room yourself and presenting them to your court with all manner of rejoicing that they have recovered. I’m sure that would be an acceptable way to begin atoning for your mistake.
“There remains, of course, reparations to these boys for locking them away from the sun for half a year. And also for tricking your guards into killing a bard. Nor do I think that your son should be required to bravely suffer his betrothal any longer. I’m sure we can come to some kind of arrangement, right?”
The baron’s guards had a look of determination on their faces, but it was directed at their liege. Frasilk didn’t say anything more; he just nodded and hung his head in shame.
I rode away from Frasilk Keep with several announcement and record scrolls in my case. The marriage between Normb Frasilk and Shindi Jaleit was canceled. Baron Jaleit’s two sons had made a complete recovery from their two-season-long illness and were doing well. Prett, the former retainer, was named as Krandel Jaleit’s new regent, and the Jaleit household moved back to their castle shortly after Melrin.
I also took with me Shorel’s stone sculpture, leaving the rest of her belongings behind. I told myself that it would remind me of her, but truthfully, it never did. Taking possession of it was like reclaiming something of mine and so thorough was that feeling that I never associated the stone with Shorel again. I carried it with me everywhere, taking it out to look at, to touch, to experience it often. It became like a talisman to me, and I took great comfort from its presence in my life.
Perhaps there had never been any need of bad omens in the first place.