“I’m still not sure I understand,” commented Daruk, his sandaled feet kicking up the summer dust as he trod alongside the other archers. “What do you mean you don’t know when we will be back?”
The Carver frowned, the scars on his face bending into curves. Daruk felt uneasy, like the Carver was trying to hide something. “The emperor has not yet negotiated a redemption price for our services,” he said. “He had expected to do so by now, but there was a delay.”
“My father is expecting me back within the year,” Daruk replied. “I must complete my training for the Order of the Dragon.”
“Count Ruuga knows that there have been some … problems … in setting a final term of service. These things are never expected to go well.” His tone was not as polite as his words. “He will have to accept that you will be with me until I am finished here.” His tone lowered, getting more of an edge to it. “You are pledged to the emperor’s service. This is his will.”
Daruk’s lips pressed tight together. “Long live the emperor.”
The Carver walked on. Daruk waited until the man was several paces away before continuing himself. It bothered him that such an important detail would be left until they had already nearly completed such a long journey. For months now, ever since they crossed border from Beinison to Baranur, Daruk had been expecting that this would be merely a year of service and travel, a break from the rigorous training in the Order. To find out now that there was no end in sight was unsettling. While he had excelled in his military training, he had no great love for the martial life, preferring instead to travel and learn the wisdom of other lands. Daruk paused for a moment in the road, allowing the others to pass him by. He covered his eyes to block the glare of the sun, and stared intently at the castle walls ahead. He thought he could detect movement atop them. The Carver reappeared at his side.
“What do you see, Daruk?” the older man asked.
“Three people, atop the wall. A large man, dressed fine. A smaller one … wearing chain mail? And leather. The third …”
“That would be Baron Claywall, and his steward, no doubt. And his daughter, I wager. I hear she’s always meddling in his affairs.” The Carver spat in the dust.
Daruk stared at the daughter. She had long blond hair, unlike Daruk’s dark curls, and fair skin. Used to the swarthy maidens of his native Beinison, Daruk was awestruck.
“She’s beautiful!” he breathed.
“And you’re a mere archer, and don’t you forget it,” commented the Carver. “She’ll have nothing to do with the likes of you.”
The Carver continued on after the rest of the caravan, leaving Daruk to ponder that statement. Why just an archer? Surely the son of a count rated more, even this far from his home. But the Carver had insisted that all the archers were to be treated equally under his care. Daruk shook his head and lifted his eyes to watch the castle walls a moment more before running after the rest.
High above the gate, the three people Daruk had spotted were deep in discussion.
“… put them in the stables, but then we’d have to find a place for the horses,” the steward was saying as he and Baron Claywall looked down at the approaching caravan.
“What about the firing platforms? There should be enough space there for a few days,” countered Claywall as he also watched.
“I don’t trust the mortar on most of them. The workmen are due to start the repairs in a few days — once the wells are finished — and until then I’m not allowing more than a lookout in each.”
“Just bed them in the court and be done with it, Father,” admonished Fennla, tossing her long, blond tresses. “The new quarters will be up soon, and besides, they’re soldiers. They’re *used* to sleeping on the ground.”
“Just so,” Claywall agreed. “Put them in the court. Toughen them up some. This isn’t some hot Beinison garden they’re living in now. They’d best get used to it.”
“Well, they are supposed to be the best archers money can buy,” countered the steward, whose name was Gefaron. “With these men, we’re almost at full strength.”
“Close enough for me,” replied Claywall. “Begin the maneuvers. I want the men ready by fall.” With that he turned and headed for the stairs down. Fennla followed.
“So you’re really going through with it?” she asked him as they walked down.
“Of course. Those villages are unallied. If I don’t take them now, someone else will, and then I’d have either Dross or Callen on my border. Land is wealth and security, Fennla; don’t you forget it. My grandson will rule one of the biggest estates in the north, and secure borders around them.”
“But what of Dargon? Surely he won’t just let you grab so much land without saying something.”
“By the time he finds out it will be long done.” Claywall chuckled. “You’re learning fast how to manage the land, Fennla, but you have a thing or two to learn about court politics. He’ll fuss and fume and then all will be forgotten. No, I just need to make sure I move before either of the other two do.”
“But isn’t Dargon rather fond of the Barels? Won’t he take exception to you taking them?”
“He hardly ever sees them, except when he wants a miracle, or perhaps a loan. No, he’ll make a fuss, but will do nothing.”
They had reached the court, and watched as the caravan moved into the small enclosure. Fennla’s gaze followed the Beinison archers as they moved off to one side as a group.
“They’re so dark,” she commented.
“The sun is hotter down there. It burns their skin,” replied Claywall.
“How much did we pay for them?”
“Too much,” grumbled Claywall. “But I understand they’re worth it.”
Fennla stared appraisingly at the group of men. “We’ll see. Well, I’m off to tend my gardens. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Without waiting for further comment, she left him and walked to the stables. Her horse was ready, with a pack prepared for her trip. She mounted up and rode off. The summer sun sparked and shone off every leaf of her family’s holdings, urging the land to greater productivity. She had been urging as well, directing the planting, monitoring the herds, and corralling the peasants into proper action. Her father had set his heart on the adjacent lands, and preparations for the campaign had consumed all his time. Fennla’s mother, the baroness, was no planner, and in fact had little heart for any public appearances at all, so Fennla had stepped in to fill the gap. It left less time for her own projects, but she was still able to get out to her gardens occasionally.
She reached the small cluster of huts by early afternoon. She dismounted, and was met by Drow, her peasant farmer, his wife Getta, and their daughter Flew. Each bowed properly, then Drow took the horse while Getta offered Fennla some water. As Flew took the pack off the horse Fennla stood and surveyed the land the trio worked.
“Show me the gardens,” she instructed.
Getta took Fennla on a tour of the garden, which had grown to several acres of trees, shrubs, herb beds, and paths. Fennla walked along behind Getta as the woman pointed out the various sections. Fennla listened attentively. The pair ended their tour back near the hut, beside a wall that she had previously instructed Flew to make. Flew and Drow were waiting there.
“I’ll be staying here for the evening, so please prepare my bedchamber,” she instructed Drow, who scuttled off to comply. She turned to Getta and Flew next. “Why hasn’t this wall been completed?”
Flew curtseyed nervously. “The straw has run out, Milady,” she explained. “We’ve been waiting for the villagers to bring more by.”
“Don’t wait for them — get your own straw,” she instructed. She waved her hand at the surrounding land. “There’s grass everywhere. Just cut it, and use it to make the brick.” She raised her tone commandingly. “I expect to see this wall done when I return next. Now go cut some grass and churn a batch of mud — I want to see if you’re doing it well enough.”
“Yes, Milady,” Flew responded, and hurried off. Fennla watched her go, congratulating herself on how well she had handled the situation. Her father had taught her to be firm and clear with the peasants, and she was getting much more practice at it now. She turned back to Getta.
“Let’s get to work.”
Fennla exchanged her travelling dress for a coarser skirt offered by Getta. The two women and Drow began working in one of the nearby herb beds, Fennla instructing and showing, Drow and Getta nodding and mimicking the younger woman in her movements. They worked until Flew returned, her tattered skirt holding several armfuls of newly cut grass. Fennla left Getta in the herb bed and walked over to where Flew was untying the bundle, while Drow ran to get Fennla more water. Fennla made Flew count out the measures of sand, grass, and water that went into the pit. She watched carefully as the young woman jumped in and trod the ingredients together. After several menes of stomping, Fennla reached in and felt the batch. Clucking with displeasure, she gathered her skirt above her waist and jumped in the pit with Flew, stomping the mud and lecturing the bemused peasant girl on the finer points of cob construction. Only when she was satisfied that Flew was again correctly kneading the mix did Fennla climb out. Despite the fact that she was covered more by mud than cloth, she refused the water Drow offered her to wash with, insisting instead on returning to the herb beds.
When dusk fell Fennla finally allowed the peasant family to begin preparing supper for her. While they labored in the hut, Fennla walked to the well to wash. She laid the peasant’s skirt on the ground for a mat, and began to peel the cob from her skin and hair, loosening it with handfuls of the water Drow had drawn earlier. She looked up as Flew approached.
“Shall I get your travelling clothes, Milady?” she asked.
“Yes. Wait …” Fennla took the soiled water she had used and poured it over the girl’s head. Flew gasped in shock, and Drow looked out of the hut, concerned. “You’re filthy,” Fennla explained. “I don’t want you getting my clothes dirty. Wash that mud off.” Flew nodded, sputtering, and obeyed, pouring more water over her own head, washing her torso and legs. Once she was clean, she drew more water for her mistress, helping her scrub until the blue of her blood could again be seen. Flew then ran to the hut for the travelling dress, scooping up her own skirt on the way. She returned with both garments: the travelling dress for Fennla to wear, the skirt to dry Fennla’s hair. The two then joined the older couple in the hut, where Fennla presided over the coarse meal as her father would over a state banquet. After the meal, Fennla assumed the couple’s straw mattress, while the peasant family retired to a night under the stars.
As Fennla returned to the keep the next day, she was surprised to see a number of her father’s men riding up to the castle with a man bound and slung over a horse. Interested, she rode in after them, to find her father being briefed by the leader of the pack.
“… this man riding through our fields, southwest of the keep.” The man had the air of a person who was reciting a poem. “When we attempted to question him, he tried to ride off, so we bound him and brought him back here for you to judge.”
Claywall took the man’s hair and lifted his head roughly. His features mocked surprise.
“Put this man down! Don’t you know who this is?” He motioned to the riders, who dismounted and set the prisoner on his feet. He was a young man and appeared in good health save for a few recent bruises. His hair was ruddy and he wore no beard. His clothes indicated wealth, but were of a strange cut.
“Master Barel, I’m sorry to see you enduring such rough treatment from my men,” remarked Claywall. “Surely you have done nothing to warrant it,” he leaned forward inquiringly. “Have you?”
“I assure you, Lord Claywall, I have done nothing more than ride across your borders, as your own men have so many times across ours,” he replied, glancing sourly at his captors.
“Well, these are tense times here in Clayhold,” remarked Claywall. “A dispute between myself and your southern neighbor, Dross, have required that I maintain a careful watch over my lands.” He eyed Barel, cocking his eyebrows suspiciously. “So, what business brings you to this area?”
“I was on my way to visit Baron Callen, to your north, when your men intercepted me. Although,” he again eyed the riders unhappily, “I seem to remember the questioning coming after the binding rather than before.”
“Callen, eh?” The suspicion in Claywall’s eyes was quite genuine this time. “Another troublemaker. What are you doing for him?”
“Or what is he doing for me,” replied Barel. “I was going to pick up some iron he had promised us. He’s late on the payment.”
“I’d have less business with him if I were you,” Claywall growled. “He’s just plain trouble.” He emphasized the last word, then his face brightened up. “In fact, I have a bit of business I’d like to pursue with you. You’re Levy, aren’t you? The Elder’s third son, am I right?”
“Yes, you are. I believe we’ve met before.” Levy shrugged his shoulders, as if to remind Claywall that he was still bound.
“Indeed, I do remember you. You’ve done quite a bit of studying, under some quite brilliant men, as I recall. Done a thing or two for Dargon himself even.”
“I’d be more than willing to discuss it with you, Baron Claywall,” Levy replied, quite obviously fidgeting now, “but couldn’t we do this as free men?”
Claywall frowned. “I have a right to be suspicious.” He stared at Levy hard for a moment, then nodded at his men, who stepped forward and unbound Levy. Claywall glowered darkly at him while Levy rubbed some life back into his hands and arms. Claywall then turned to Gefaron, who had by this time joined the growing crowd. “Master Barel will stay with us this evening.” Levy’s eyebrows arched, and he swallowed hard. Claywall looked back at him. “Won’t you?”
Once Levy was installed in a secure room high in the keep, Fennla cornered her father in the main hall.
“So you caught him,” she said simply.
“Of course I did. He’s a craftsman, not a crafty man,” he replied, savoring the play on words.
“So how will you convince him to do it?” she asked.
“It should be obvious to anyone that he needs to make me happy while he’s in my … care.” He gave Fennla a meaningful look. “It won’t take him long to see that I can do a lot before Dargon steps in. He’ll work for me rather willingly.”
“I don’t trust the work of a man coerced,” she replied, her tone low and steady. “I don’t trust *him*. I don’t like this.”
“He’s smart but not wise, dear Fennla. Leave this to me.” Claywall turned away, confident. “It’ll work out.”
As was the case for all in the barony, Daruk’s life was bound up in Baron Claywall’s schemes. As the baron had said, it didn’t take much to induce Levy to work in Clayhold; it was obvious that the entire Barel clan was hostage to the man’s whims. Similarly, the baron pushed his troops to train more vigorously than was warranted by an otherwise calm summer. The Carver also was driven, and between Claywall’s insistence on constant target practice, and the Carver’s insistence on other forms of training, Daruk and the other archers had little time for anything that was not martial.
Nonetheless, Daruk somehow found time to make his way into the keep almost every day on some pretext or other, hoping for a look at the beautiful Fennla. His attraction to her was entirely unrequited; she was utterly unaware of his existence. Her beauty aside, Daruk himself was unsure of exactly why he wanted to see her so much. It wasn’t her reputed character, to be sure; she and Claywall set the mood for the entire holding, lending a chilly air to the otherwise sunny area. Daruk had been raised to be fair of word and deed, and had made it his goal to embody those ideals. His behavior set him apart at Clayhold. More than once he found himself carrying a thankless burden simply because its rightful owner knew that Daruk would not refuse to accept it. He had long ago accepted that his was a life of service, however, and he thrived on it.
It was on one of these errands that Gefaron hailed him and pressed him into service. Daruk found himself hauling boxes up to the second floor for a visiting dignitary. One other unlucky archer, Knot by name, also ended up playing the porter, along with a number of other servants and laborers. As the son of a count, Daruk had a bit more experience in the world than some of his companions, and he recognized the arcane markings on some of his loads. He didn’t recognize the visitor, but he was clearly a mage of some sort. Claywall was leaving no stone unturned in his quest for power. After many trips up the stairs Daruk was not unhappy to find the carts finally empty. The drill grounds were empty, the archers gone to eat. The kitchen door was nearby, and Daruk stepped in and appropriated a small loaf. He stepped outside to eat it. He shared the space with a little kitchen maid, who sat in the dust carefully pulling small bits off her own loaf and tucking them into her mouth, concentrating on the chewing with intensity. Daruk watched her eat, noting the fading bruises on her cheeks and the rips in her only garment, a shirt that barely reached past her thin belly. He found it hard to guess her age, for although she was as tiny as a toddler, her face spoke of more years than her frame. She finished her bread and continued to sit there, her face expressionless but her eyes alive with interest, following the movements in the courtyard. Daruk tore a chunk off his own loaf and bent down, holding it out to her. She flicked quick eyes at it, then looked up at him, a startled look on her face. He smiled. After a moment she returned the smile, and took his offering.
“It won’t do you any good to fatten her up,” a voice behind him said. He arose and turned to find Gefaron behind him, also holding a loaf. “Unlike Beinison, Baranur does not hold with virgin sacrifices.”
Daruk gave the man a perfunctory salute. “Only the barbarians of old did that,” he replied, “and they were more likely to sacrifice virginity than virgins. Not that there is much difference, I suppose. Without her maiden’s proof a girl’s life isn’t worth much.” He looked down again at the girl, who stared back unabashed.
Gefaron grunted. “You are still barbarians. You discount half your own people just because of their sex.” He bit off another bite. “It makes you weak. You should learn the lesson of Alanna and Lottio.”
“I don’t worship Alanna the Dark.”
“Pity. You could learn from her example. A woman can drive as hard as a man when she knows what she wants. That’s why we allow our daughters to inherit with our sons. You Beinison should too.”
Daruk shook his head, watching the little girl eat. “There are many things about both our societies that I would change.” He gave the girl the rest of his bread. “There are too many who serve because they have no choice, and too many who are served just because of who their father,” he glanced up at Gefaron, “or mother, was.” Daruk looked back down at the girl. “I do not worship the foolish gods of my people. If they do exist, which I doubt, then they are nothing but people grown large, with the same evils and weaknesses as anyone else. If something is worth worshipping, then it must stand for more than mere pleasure and politics. I have sworn to myself that I will only worship that which is higher than what I see around me.”
“The word of a southerner,” Gefaron sniffed. “Not worth the air it blows on.”
Daruk straightened, his brow furrowed. “I keep my word, even to my own hurt. Can you say the same of all the men of Baranur?”
Gefaron took one more bite from his loaf then tossed the rest aside. “Men are pigs and women are dogs. Remember that and you will do well.”
Behind Daruk came a quiet muttering. He turned to see Knot emerge from the keep, his last load delivered. Shaking his head and scowling, he headed for the drill grounds. He had only gone a few steps when a voice called out from the stairwell.
“You! Archer!” Fennla emerged from the door and approached Knot, whose scowl deepened. “I need supplies carried up to the wall. Come with me.” She turned and walked off briskly, Knot following behind. Daruk watched her go, his eyes taking in the roll of the hips, the set of the shoulders, the sway of her hair.
“You can put away your blade,” Gefaron said dryly. “That’s one sheath it’ll never slip into.”
Daruk looked down, frowning. “I’ll have you know I never drew it.”
Gefaron snorted. “I don’t know why you’re looking at her, anyway. She’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Fennla intends to have the holding when Claywall is gone, regardless of who she’s married to or who comes of out of it. No man has any place in her plans, except maybe for a roll, and until the baron picks her a husband she’ll never even get that.”
Daruk looked at him. “I thought you said that men and women inherit equally. Why would Claywall care who she beds?”
“Claywall’s grip on his title is weak enough as it is. He doesn’t want to waste his only heir on some commoner.” Gefaron noted the puzzlement in Daruk’s expression. “Didn’t you know? The baron was not born a Claywall: his wife was. The baron was born a mere knight, albeit one with more than his share of ambition. He managed to turn the Lady’s eye when she was young, and rode her for all she was worth. The Lady, see, she’s kind of soft, and not just between the legs, if you know.” He tapped his temple twice. “The baron married into this holding, and runs it like it was his, but he knows his claim is less than tight. The Lady ripped delivering Fennla, so she’s not going to be whelping any more pups for him. So he’s keeping the young bitch on a tight leash until she gives him a litter he likes. So you can forget getting any of her love. The only thing going betw een her legs is a saddle.”
Daruk’s upper lip curled slightly as he listened. “You have a low tongue for your office, Gefaron. I’d have expected better, even working for a usurper like Claywall.”
Gefaron glowered. “Remember your place, archer, and your tongue. I was once a commoner, walking in the dirt like you. But I know how to seize an opportunity. Baron Claywall is rising fast, and I intend to rise with him. I’ll be noble before long, one way or another.”
“You may have a title soon, but that will not make you noble,” Daruk said, rising. “You cannot get nobility from marriage, or promotion.”
“Ah!” Gefaron smiled unkindly. “We have a dreamer in our midst! Tell me more of your wisdom, dreamer!”
“It doesn’t take a wise man to know that you will never be noble until you rise above who you are today.”
“And you will lead us into this grace, I suppose?”
“I can only lead if I seek it myself.”
“So now you would seek to be noble also.” Gefaron laughed coldly. “You’re an idiot. A naive idiot. I’ll say this last, and then I expect you never to speak to me again unless I speak first. In this life we get what we can take for ourselves, nothing more, nothing less. To expect anything from anyone other than sheer self-interest is a losing bet.” With that he turned and walked toward the keep gate.
Daruk watched him go, and eventually started for the drill grounds. After his first step he spied the discarded loaf Gefaron had tossed away. Daruk looked back at the kitchen girl, who was standing in her tattered shirt, watching him. He picked up the bread, dusted it off, and handed it to her.
The archer’s quarters were made and the firing platforms strengthened by the time the next caravan passed through the keep’s gates. This caravan was much smaller, though not by design. Gefaron rushed up, his hands on his head and shock on his face.
“What happened?” he shouted as guards pulled bodies off the blood-streaked wagons.
“Bandits,” grunted the lead driver as he slid off the seat, his right arm protecting his left, which was bandaged. “They feathered us from the bushes, then toppled the carts and sacked the goods. We killed one, but they carted the body off with them.”
“Why didn’t they kill you?” demanded Gefaron, facing the man angrily.
“They *did* kill us,” snapped the driver, waving his good hand at the carnage, “those that they wanted to. Once we were down, they hit the goods and ran. They were after plunder, not blood. We just got in the way.”
“We hired you to bring us food and cloth,” countered Gefaron, “not dead bodies. Why didn’t you hire guards?!”
“We did!” shouted the man. “They lie there now!” He pointed at the pile of dead.
Gefaron stepped back, apoplectic. “Pay them for what they have, then send them off,” he ordered his clerk, who stood by.
“What?!” The driver lunged at Gefaron, but the guards held him. Gefaron ignored the invective that poured out of the driver’s mouth as he stormed back into the tower. He met Claywall and Fennla coming out.
“What is it?” demanded Claywall.
“Bandits. Probably Dross and his men,” replied Gefaron. He stared out at the shouting merchant. “The fool probably never had a chance.”
“Twice Dross rides my border, and now he hits my cargo. This is too much,” muttered Claywall. “Order all the patrols doubled, and post extra watches. No one goes alone, and each man carries a signal horn. They blow at the first sign of anything, clear?” Gefaron nodded, then walked off to accomplish the task.
“Looks like your garden will have to do without you, Fennla,” Claywall told his daughter.
“I want you to stay inside the keep from now on.”
“I will not! I can take care of myself!” Her eyes flashed.
“Nonsense!” snapped Claywall. “They killed half a caravan! No one goes out alone!”
“So I won’t be alone!” she replied. “Give me a bodyguard!”
“I can’t!” He spun to face her. “I have no more women — they’re all watching your mother and that blasted old wretch you call grandmother, and I’ll not hire another just so you can stretch your legs.”
“So give me one of your men!” she replied, exasperated.
“Oh, no. No, no, no,” he replied, waggling his hands. “It’s bad enough that I have Dross and Callen sniping at my birth every time I turn around, the *last* thing I need is some bastard grandson running around here,” she gasped in disgust at that, “mucking up the inheritance and causing me pain! No, you’re going to stay closed until we find the right family, and I’ll not have the chance of that ruined by some guard just so you can get some fresh air!”
“Father!!” Fennla shouted. “Have you lost your *mind*? I’m practically lord here as it is, and do you really think that *I*…”
“No, no, and don’t ask!” he barked, and she shut up. He stared at her for a moment, turning away to walk back into the keep. “A bodyguard I could live with, but you’re not having a man hanging around you with nothing to look at but you, and nothing but his piece on his mind!”
Fennla stared at him, her face red and her fists clenched. She spun on her heel, and started off down the corridor, fuming, then paused. She cocked her head for a moment, as if listening to his words again, then her lips tightened and she headed back out into the courtyard. She walked purposefully to where the new archers were training with practice swords. As Fennla walked up she passed a servant carrying water. She took the servant by the arm.
“Fetch the surgeon,” she told her, then continued up to the archers. They came to attention as she approached.
Daruk couldn’t help but stare as she approached. So often he had watched in awe as she appeared in the distance, usually with her father, but rarely had he gotten close to her, and never this close. Her beauty all but took his breath away. He glanced at the other archers to see if they also were experiencing such bliss, but most of them were merely looking fatigued, sweat dripping off their skin as they stood, dust-encrusted and baking in the summer sun.
“Carver,” she called as she approached. The Carver stepped respectfully forward and gave a slight bow.
“I have need of a bodyguard.” She looked the archers over. “I’d like a volunteer.”
Daruk was stepping forward before the Carver had even turned around. “Does anyone want to volunteer for bodyguard duty?” Carver asked, his eyes falling on Daruk.
“I’ll do it, Carver,” Daruk replied. He looked around. None of the others had stepped forward. His heart thrilled when he realized the job was his by default.
Fennla looked the man over almost pityingly. “It’s not going to be an easy job,” she remarked coldly. “It will require great personal sacrifice.” She frowned slightly. “You may even have to give your life for it.”
Daruk’s chest lifted more than slightly. “I’ll do it, Milady.”
She looked around at the other archers. None moved forward — in fact several were regarding her with looks of disdain. She had never really spent much time around the Beinison, and now she had even less desire to. Not that she worried about their feelings for her; they were mere soldiers, and would do as they were ordered.
“It would seem that you have an easy choice, Carver,” she remarked, surveying the group.
“Aye, so it seems,” agreed the Carver. His eyebrows lifted slightly as the surgeon joined them.
“Please follow me,” Fennla said, and turned toward the nearby smithy, a chamber built into the wall of the keep. The Carver motioned to the other archers to resume practice, and he, the surgeon, and Daruk followed Fennla into the dim room.
“Leave, and close the door behind you,” Fennla commanded the smith as they entered. He did so with a curious glance at the foursome. The forge burned brightly, and skylights further illuminated the room. Fennla stepped over to a table that held a number of swords recently forged.
“What is your name, archer?” she asked, lifting one of the heavy blades.
“Will you swear an oath of fealty to me, in addition to any oath you have to my father?”
“I swear, Milady.”
“And will you swear that you will protect me, and give your life for me, if necessary?”
“I swear it, Milady.” Daruk’s heart was thudding in his chest for excitement and joy.
She looked at him, one eyebrow canted. “Your word and your oath?”
“On my honor.”
“You really want this, don’t you, Daruk?” Fennla’s voice held almost a note of wonder.
“Then you will be my bodyguard,” she replied, turning around, blade held firmly in her hands, “once you are gelded.”
There was a pregnant pause.
“What?” asked Daruk, incredulous.
“Milady …” the Carver started, shock on his face.
“My father will allow me a bodyguard,” Fennla interrupted, “but I may not have a man in my bedchamber.” She stared into Daruk’s eyes. “You swore you wanted to be my bodyguard, that you would give your life for me. Do you take that back now?”
Daruk stared back, fear in his eyes. He swallowed hard.
“Because,” Fennla continued, sensing Daruk’s dilemma, pressing it, “I cannot have a man guard me who cannot even keep his own word.”
Daruk stood, frozen, his eyes wide. He opened his mouth and his lips moved silently. The Carver looked at him, uncertain. Finally Daruk found his voice. “I swore.”
Fennla looked around, her eyes settling on the table behind her. She stepped to one side and pushed the clutter back, exposing the corner.
“Lay your parts up here,” she instructed Daruk. She turned to the surgeon. “Fetch your kit to bind the wound.”
“But Milady, this is not …” started the surgeon, but she raised the blade to his face.
“I did not ask your opinion,” she stated firmly, in a voice very like her father’s. “Do as I said.”
The man stumbled off through the door and ran for the keep. Daruk stood, paralyzed, Fennla’s words, and his own, ringing in his ears. The Carver, a man of the sword and used to blood, stepped up to Fennla, his hands clasped in supplication.
“Milady, be reasonable. Surely there is something, some other way to do this,” he asked, his voice even.
“Well,” stammered the Carver, “we could set up a rotation, or, or assign you a, a couple of men, or …”
“We are short-handed as it is, Carver,” she explained, “and my father has a campaign to plan. He cannot spare but one person for me, and I am certainly not going to wait for a woman to be found who can safeguard my life outside these walls. No, I need one man, and I need him trained and strong, and I need him *safe* and I need him *now*. And Daruk wants the job, don’t you, Daruk?”
“But that was before he knew …”
“I gave my word,” Daruk replied in a dull, leaden voice.
“Shut up, fool!” snapped the Carver. “Milady …”
The Carver continued to argue his case, but Daruk was not listening. He slowly undid the knot that held up his trousers. Once free, the loose clothes slipped easily to the floor, exposing the items in question. Daruk cradled his balls in his hands, trying to imagine them gone. The Carver saw this and snatched the trousers up, lifting them back into place.
“Now wait just a moment,” he started, but just then the surgeon reappeared, kit in hand, his face gray.
“Enough, Carver. Let’s get to it,” Fennla commanded. The Carver looked in her eyes and saw determination. He looked in Daruk’s eyes, and saw both resignation, and joy. He looked in the surgeon’s eyes, and saw only terror. He let the trousers fall, and stepped back.
“Place them here,” Fennla commanded, tapping the blade on the corner of the table.
“Milady, there are better ways to do this,” stammered the surgeon. “The proper way …”
“Silence, or you’ll be next,” she hissed, anger in her eyes. She turned and watched as Daruk stepped over the trousers, and positioned himself at the table. He gingerly laid his testicles on the wood, pressing his male organ up out of the way against his belly.
“No, all of it — my father will allow nothing,” she ordered. Daruk shot her a wide-eyed look, then dropped his hands to his side, allowing the penis to fall. Fennla glanced at the Carver. “Hold him.”
The Carver hesitated a moment, then resolve entered his eyes, and he came at Daruk hard, pinning his arms behind him and pressing him against the table.
“Hey,” Daruk said, indignant, as if to protest and profess his willingness.
The deed was done in a stroke. The heavy blade cleft cord, tissue, and skin, pinning the injured cluster to the wood. Daruk and the Carver staggered back, trailing blood. Daruk’s legs gave out, and the Carver eased him to the floor.
“Milady,” whispered Daruk before his eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out in shock.
“Bind his wound,” Fennla ordered. The two men closed in over the bleeding archer, wielding bandages. She turned to the table, where the blade still stuck. The severed genitals, more crushed than cut, pressed tight against the blade, the pinched member erect in a sad mockery of life. She wrenched the blade from the wood and they collapsed in a crimson pool. She set the sword down and lifted the cluster by its bifurcated foreskin, examining it carefully. Satisfied as to its completeness, she turned and headed for the door.
“Take him to my chambers when you’re finished,” she admonished. The surgeon, stooped by the fire with a hot iron in his hands, merely nodded. She closed the door behind her. As she walked away she wrung the last of the blood from the items. Behind, in the smithy, there erupted a howl of agony. The archers, startled out of their routine, ran for the small room. She continued on.
Fennla walked the corridors to her father’s study. The door was open, and she walked calmly past the guards to her father’s desk. He did not look up from the document he was writing. She dropped the severed genitals on the parchment. He exploded back in shock and terror.
“Ol’s balls, woman!” he bellowed.
“Actually, they came from one of your archers,” she explained calmly as he clawed his way up and out of his chair, his eyes fixed on the wet mass.
“You whore,” he exclaimed quietly, horror on his face. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“You said I could have a bodyguard, as long as it wasn’t a man.” She looked him in the eyes, her gaze unwavering. “Well, he’s not a man anymore.”
“You bitch.” His voice was rising in volume as the shock left him. “For this you ruined one of my men, one of my prized archers?!”
“Ah,” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes, “only a man would consider this ruined. It’s not like I cut off his fingers.”
Claywall came round the table, eyes locked with hers. “You always have to be pushing, just a little bit more, don’t you? You always have to be grabbing just a bit more control.”
“What else would you want me to do, father?” she asked, not giving an inch. “How else have you taught me to rule?”
His face hovered a mere fingerbreadth from hers, his breath caressing the fine hairs on her upper lip. “You want a bodyguard? Fine. You’ve got one now. If I ever see you without him I swear I will hang you.” He drew a ragged breath. “He will sleep with you. He will eat with you. He will bathe with you. He will *shit* with you. He will be a second skin to you and you will *never*, *ever*, be out of his sight. Do you understand, my dear daughter?”
“Once he’s up and about, that shouldn’t be a problem.”
Claywall’s words almost choked him. “You’re just sorry it wasn’t me you shortened.”
Her eyes never flinched, never wavered. Her tone was smooth as milk, sweet as honey. “I’m glad you could see things my way, father. So nice to talk to you.”
Claywall’s face flushed red and his brows knit. The only sound was his uneven breath. They stood nose to nose for a long moment, then he shoved her aside and stormed out. She straightened up and smoothed her dress, smiling. She casually retrieved her bloody tokens and walked off past the silent, trembling guards.
Three bells passed before she returned to her quarters to find her normally smooth bed roiled by the quavering body of the gelded archer. Her white sheets were stained with his sweat and blood. He was moaning quietly, his hands clasped over his vacant groin, his eyes closed with pain and loss. She was actually unprepared for the sight; it took her aback a bit.
“Oh, this won’t do,” she said aloud. “Here, archer,” she knelt on the bed beside him, setting her hand on his shoulder. “I need you to get off my bed.” He stopped shaking and slowly sat up. “I should have told them to bring you up here after you’ve recovered from the operation. Why don’t you go down to the infirmary? Do you know where it is?”
“Yes, Milady,” came the quiet reply. He slowly stood up and began shuffling for the door.
“Oh, what is your name?” she asked.
“D-daruk, Milady,” came the soft reply.
“Good, Daruk. Go on.” He nodded, and shuffled off, closing the door behind him slowly. She shook her head as he went, then surveyed her ruined bed. Shaking her head some more, she took and shook the bell to summon her chambermaid.
The next day Fennla was awakened by a quiet knock on her door. She arose, wrapping her robes around her. She opened the door and peered out inquisitively. To her surprise, there stood Daruk.
“You’re up!” she exclaimed.
“I’m here to serve you,” he replied. His voice was stronger than when she had heard it last, but there was a breathy quality to it, as if his breath was too hot to contain.
“Are you able?” she asked, noting his stance. He looked as if it were requiring effort to stay up.
“The surgeon has stitched … my wound …” He spoke these words with great control, his eyes not meeting hers. His hands were pressed tight against his sides, and he stood at attention, although painfully so. “A soldier must be at his duties as soon as he is able.”
“Indeed,” Fennla replied, shaking her head at the whole male gender. “So I’ve been told.” She surveyed his attire, noting a certain limpness at the crotch. “Let down your trousers for me.”
A flash of pain and anger sparked in his eyes. “Please, Milady. It is not proper for a lady to be looking at a mere archer so.”
“Oh, please,” she replied, stepping outside into the hall, “as if I don’t anyway. It was proper enough when I cut you short yesterday. Off with them. I want to see the stitches.”
His lips went tight and his face went red, but his hands moved to his waist and his trousers hit the floor. Fennla bent down to examine the wound. She unwrapped the bandage and traced the sewn edges with her finger. The surgeon had cut away the hair, and now Daruk’s loins were as smooth as those of the kitchen girl. The surgeon had drawn the remaining skin together around what seemed to be the protruding stub of a thin bone. A closer look showed it to be a boiled feather quill. Fennla noted that his flesh was very warm, almost hot to the touch. As she crouched there, the chambermaid stepped out of the apartment.
“Och, Milady,” she gasped, her hand to her mouth, “isn’t it a bit early for that?” Her eyes widened when she saw the vacancy in Daruk’s loins. “Oh, so he’s the one you did, is he?”
“Yes, I’m checking to make sure I got it all,” Fennla replied, oblivious to Daruk’s deepening shame and embarrassment.
“So this is your Lottio,” the maid said, getting down beside Fennla and peering at Daruk’s wound.
“You know, from that old story. Wanted to show pure intention, so he sent his bits to his lover in a box, but she turned out to be a goddess, and so she put them back on for him. Alanna the Dark, I think it was.”
“Never heard it,” Fennla said, straightened up. As she did she handed Daruk the top of his trousers. “It’s quite clean, then. I expect you can get started immediately,” she said, fixing her gaze directly on him as he fumbled with his knot, his eyes averted. “I’m planning to ride out to my garden today. You will accompany me.” Daruk murmured something affirmative, not quite looking at her as she stepped back into her room. She peeled off her robe and handed it to the chambermaid. “Now come in here and close the door.” When she saw his startled look her brows furrowed. “Well? Step to it! You’re a eunuch now; start acting like one! I didn’t cut your prick off just so I could pickle it!” She turned and walked away from him, leaving him to close the door, sealing away from the world his pain and shame.
Once Fennla had bathed and dressed she and Daruk went to the stables for two horses. She noted with irritation that Daruk seemed to grow more distant, slower to respond, less sure with his actions. She grew impatient, snapping at him, ordering him to hurry. He seemed oblivious to her concerns. The two were finally saddled and riding out when Daruk just folded in the saddle, pitching off onto the dusty courtyard. Fennla wheeled her horse about, startled in spite of herself. She sat there, unsure what to do. Daruk lay unmoving. “Is he dead?” she wondered “What should I do?” She felt uneasy at the thought, certain that Claywall would have a fit if Daruk died because of her initiative.
The surgeon came running across the courtyard and placed his hand on Daruk’s chest. He spun to face her, furious.
“What’s he doing out? What did you do?” he demanded.
“I did nothing,” she protested, not feeling the certainty she forced into her voice. “He came to my door. We were going riding.”
“You can’t just castrate a man and expect him to walk away from it like it was a simple fall!” he shouted at her. “I’ve ordered him to bed! He has a fever! He could die from this!” Almost as if to contradict him, Daruk stirred, trying to rise. The surgeon lifted him up, half carrying him. “I’m sending for Taithleach.” Without waiting for her reply he began to drag Daruk back toward the infirmary.
Taithleach arrived within a few menes. Fennla walked into the infirmary as he completed examining Daruk.
“Are you the Lady Claywall?” he asked somberly, his tone accusing and condemning. Fennla nodded, hesitant to reply. Her father’s military buildup had resulted in a number of rather severe injuries, and Claywall had recently retained the healer because of his renown and expertise. It cost quite a bit, however, and Fennla had never liked the man. He seemed far too haughty, and now her involvement in Daruk’s predicament made her feel a surprising and unaccustomed defensiveness. The healer glanced about, then looked askance at Fennla and the surgeon. “Did you keep Lottio’s Proof?”
The two silently turned to stare at a small crock on a nearby table. Following their gaze, Taithleach peered inside, then carefully fished out Daruk’s severed genitals. He examined them carefully, the preservative brine running down his wrist.
“Not quite a godly set, but quite nice.” He cast a disapproving eye at Fennla. “But then there are no goddesses here. Certainly no weeping Alanna.” Ignoring the angry huff from Fennla, Taithleach carefully laid the cluster back in the brine, then turned to the waiting pair. “I am able to heal him, but he will not be able to perform as a man for a year.”
“You mean …” the surgeon began, but Fennla cut him off.
“No!” she ordered. “I don’t *want* you to heal him like that! He’s *supposed* to be a eunuch!” She glowered at the healer.
“To protect your cosmic virtue, I suppose,” he stated evenly, meeting her stare.
She shoved her face into his. “Like Lottio, he offered it. Unlike Alanna, I accepted.”
“The healing magics are not always predictable,” he intoned. “Sometimes things grow back on their own.”
“Then I’ll cut them off again!” she thundered, on the edge of hysterics. She felt her world slipping out of her control, and she needed to get it back. She took a few deep breaths, staring into Taithleach’s cold, gray eyes. “Look, you’re one of the best healers around. You’re *supposed* to know what you’re doing.” She noted with approval the glint of anger in his eyes. She felt her grip coming back. “I want you to heal him as a eunuch, so that it can’t grow back and won’t grow back.” She studied his expression. “Now, can you do that or can’t you?”
He locked eyes with her. “I can do that, Milady.”
It was she who looked away. “Then do so. Take the fever from him, along with any hope of his ever being a man again.” She looked down at Daruk, stirring fitfully in a fevered sleep. “I need him ready as soon as possible.”
Six days passed, and Fennla was watching out the window of her room. It overlooked the courtyard, where her father and Gefaron were gathered with a small crowd, watching Levy Barel.
“… guest, but I really do need to be concerned that I’m getting something useful from all that food I’ve been feeding you,” Claywall was admonishing, in what seemed like a genuinely concerned tone. “Perhaps you could show us just what it is you’ve been working on?”
Barel had been housed in a hastily erected barn, built against the outer wall of the courtyard. He stood now in front of its slatty door.
“It hardly seems like a day since I’ve arrived to test your hospitality,” Levy replied in an arch tone of voice, “and I feel like my labors here have barely begun.” He paused for effect. “But even so I had expected that you would want to see some of my work, so I have arranged a demonstration.” He turned toward the barn, then paused and turned back. “Do you have some small children here? I need a few for my demonstration.”
“Children?” scoffed Claywall. “I’ve asked for some engines of war! I know that children can be destructive, but how do you expect to use them, throw them at the enemy?” His entourage erupted in callous laughter at his humor, and Levy returned a chill smile.
“Not at all, sir. I just need them to show something, for a contrast, as you will. Surely a holding as large and prosperous as yours has a few children around?”
Claywall motioned and an aide gathered up six of the watching youngsters, herding them toward Levy. He took them in tow, instructing them quietly as he led them into his workshop.
“See to it they’re well cared for,” called Claywall after them, to the appreciative chuckles of his men. They waited a mene or so, before the children came out, carrying long bundles of rope arranged in peculiar ways. Levy followed them, directing them to the side of his barn, where two uprights stood, with a large, square stone between them. As the crowd watched, Levy had the children lay out the rope in front of either post, reaching out into the courtyard. He passed some of the rope through several large iron eyes set in the top of the stone, and then up through two large iron loops affixed to the tops of the uprights. Once he was satisfied with his arrangement, he looked over his little helpers. He picked out the littlest one, the kitchen maid.
“So, little one, do you think you’re strong?” he asked her, loud enough so everyone could hear.
“Yes,” she replied shyly, embarrased to be in the center of attention.
“Do you think you could lift that stone for us?” Levy asked, pointing to the large rock.
“No,” she replied immediately, grinning in spite of herself at such a silly question. The people laughed.
“Then I’ll tell you what,” Levy replied. “Go to that pile there,” he pointed at a pile of rounded rocks by the wall, “and bring me a good rock. Not too big, not too small, one that’s just right.”
She nodded timidly and dashed off to get a stone. The crowd watched with interest, and Levy turned to address them.
“You see, she is stronger than she thinks she is.”
The girl returned, small hands wrapped around a double-fist sized rock. She dropped it at Levy’s feet. He did a comic dance of avoidance, drawing laughter from the crowd.
“Everyone wants to throw stones at me,” he commented. Claywall didn’t laugh, but his eyes twinkled. “All right, my little one, take that rock, and put it,” Barel lifted a woven pouch at the end of the laid-out ropes, “in here.” She did so, and he transferred the pouch to her. “Now, I want you to hold this stone, just so, and I want you to walk backwards, away from that big rock, straight?” She nodded, and when he released her, she did just that.
Fennla watched, intrigued, as the girl backed slowly away, hands around the rock. The ropes, thick twine really, trailed her, and Fennla could see now that they passed through an intricate arrangement of small wooden holders before looping up to the posts and then down to the rock. The girl kept backing up, and the ropes drew taut. She continued, and Fennla gasped as the great stone began to move.
Every eye in the courtyard was watching as the little girl, who weighted no more than a medium sized dog, walked backward and lifted a block of rock that weighed more than a man. She continued backward, drawing the crowd with her until it formed a corridor for her to move through. Finally Levy motioned for her to stop, and the crowd broke into applause.
“Well, my little giant,” Levy told her, walking back to where she stood, “you are a lot stronger than you think, aren’t you?” She nodded, beaming. “Well, I think you’ve done enough work for now. You can just drop that little rock.”
She did, but the rock didn’t quite fall. Drawn by the pull on the cord, it bounced off the ground and whipped up into the air, drawn by the attached cord and the suspended block, which in turn fell to the ground. Even Fennla, in the tower, could feel the thud of its impact. A moment later, the small stone smacked into the stone keep wall, and shattered into gravel. The crowd burst into applause. Levy turned to Claywall.
“That is what I have been doing,” he said, lips tight.
“Then I think I’ll keep feeding you,” grinned Claywall, and walked away.
Fennla turned away from the window and returned to where Daruk sat, his hands carefully folded over his bow. “You should have seen that, archer. Barel had made an engine that can smash rock when wound by a mere girl. Think what else he could make for us.”
“Barel is a very clever man,” Daruk replied neutrally. “Your father would do well to watch him very carefully.”
“Oh, he does, he does,” she assured him. She returned to her interrupted wardrobe, allowing the chambermaid to hold the garments as she stepped into them. “Are you sure you’re quite ready to ride with me?” she asked, eyeing him carefully. “I can’t have another incident like the last time.”
“I am quite well now, Milady,” Daruk replied, his eyes never leaving her. “The healer is quite skilled.”
She noted his gaze. “Do you miss them?” she asked.
“Yes, I do,” he replied frankly, understanding her question. “More than you could know, as a woman. But,” he added quickly, “I miss my father and my home as well, and I left them gladly, to serve you.”
“And you do serve me well, archer,” she continued, shrugging on her blouse. “Today we will ride out to my garden, after I have tested your archery skills. Do you feel ready?”
Fennla smoothed the fine fabric, dismissing the chambermaid to return to the elder lady’s side. She turned to assess herself in the mirror, then headed for the door.