Robarde and Heresephone
Robarde Ryler, son of a tailor and now part time thief had learned everything that life could possibly teach him from the streets of Pelonastra. The narrow alleyways, rickety bridges, creaking wooden jetties and wharfs, the crumbling stone battlements and the moss encrusted bricks of the ageing townhouses; all this had been Robarde’s education for the past year. It had taught him but one lesson about life, principally its brevity and its cruelty. Robarde had learned that to be alone was the worst fate of all (one which tended to lead to all the other available terrible fates). The streets devoured loners and those without a tribe, as they very nearly did in Robarde’s case. Robarde’s father, a kind, gentle tailor who was devoted to his only son died one early morning, his body sat upright in his chair until his son discovered him. Robarde remembered virtually nothing weeks and months after that moment, he had no recollection of the neighbours in the small hamlet of Evayam, ten miles from the gates of Pelonastra, and how they helped. He had no recollection of the funeral, of visits from family members determined to take everything of value from the small cottage Robarde and his father shared. He had no recollection of the message sent to his mother in Hayle to come and collect him. There was no recollection of her response either, only the certainty that she never came. There were only the haziest recollections of arriving in Pelonastra and finding a stable to hide in for the first few nights. When he was discovered by the stable keeper and sent about his way with a slap to the back of the head, Robarde felt for the first time that life itself might be drawing to a close, and that dying could soon be his only option. On that very morning, he met Holis and was finally freed from a remorseless loneliness that had crushed him.
Holis was at the same time the best and the worst person Robarde had ever met, and his strange relationship with the boy was a never ending pendulum that swung between love and hatred. It had begun with a pastry.
“Here,” had come the gruff voice, and a dirty hand had placed a saints cross (a cross shaped sweet apple pie) in Robarde’s lap, “...you looked hungry.”
Robarde, who had been sitting on the Beggars Bridge between Olinast and Yulinast Islands, considering whether it would really matter all that much if he plunged into the icy cold waters of the harbour, looked up at his benefactor. Holis had stood next to him in a worn huntsman’s jerkin, two sizes too big for him. His mop of sandy hair, ruddy cheeks and dark eyes that never quite maintained contact with anyone or anything instantly made Robarde feel cautious and wary; he tried in vain to read the boy’s expression.
“You gonna eat it? I’ll have it if you don’t want it. Anyway, I stole it from a barrow up the road and the man who baked it will probably want it back, so I’d get it down your neck if I were you.”
Robarde, who hadn’t eaten in days, and who had two coins, a pair of Drakeish Ironfellows left in the world, gave one final cursory glance at the boy to make sure this wasn’t some sort of fiendish trick and then took a huge bite from the pie. The feeling of the hot, sweet apple filling his belly, flooding a warmth through his cold aching body suddenly made Robarde cry. Tears flooded from his eyes and he tried to rub them away with his sleeve. The boy, who clearly had no time for sentimentality of any sort, winced involuntarily.
“Don’t be soft, just giving you a pie.”
“Sorry,” mumbled Robarde, climbing to his feet.
The boy pulled his jerkin around him against the winter’s cold and walked to the end of the bridge. Without turning he shouted to Robarde behind him:
“You coming or what then?”
This, Robarde was later to discover, was how Holis made friends with people. Desperation and the certainty that if he wasn’t careful he would be dead in a matter of days guided Robarde’s next actions. He picked up the small sack of belongings that he had saved from his father’s cottage and followed Holis onto Yulinast Island and into the winding maze of alleyways and rickety bridges that would become his home.
At the age of twelve, Robarde was hardly the most worldly of children and had never met someone like Holis before. Holis, aged fifteen, was the sort of boy who would have been told in no uncertain terms by the bailiff of Evayam to keep travelling, preferably to somewhere like Hayl where ruffians and thieves came from (according to Robarde’s father). Robarde, educated in measuring, cutting and sewing cloth by his father and in writing and reading Swithick and a few words of Vannic by the Mendicant Brothers, the local monastic order, had some sense that he was destined for slightly better things than petty theft. There had been tailors in the Ryler family for a hundred years his father used to proudly tell him, and some of Robard’s happiest times had been finding bolts of cloth that his father had stored in the old hayloft of their cottage. In the days to come, he would try and fail repeatedly to make sense of how the life he had once lived had been so comprehensively destroyed and replaced by the exhilarating, terrifying and endlessly unpredictable life in the world of Holis. He had no idea quite why Holis had chosen to befriend him, or to offer him a hot Saint’s Cross, but as time went by it became clear that there was no way of really understanding why Holis did anything at all. He seemed to have a strange propensity for making friends with people, but without the requirement to know anything about them. He quickly decided that Robarde, who he simply called Rob, was a younger sibling and in Holis’s experience, younger brothers were there to impress, to entertain, to protect and to sometimes punch when bored. He always knew how to find places to sleep where nobody else would find them. He knew how to rove across the city stealing from market stalls without attracting too much attention, he was contemptuous of careless thieves who ended up in the pillory because they preyed on one market square too regularly. Holis didn’t view theft as an artform, rather an act that was defined by certain timeless and immutable laws. Robarde made for a terrible thief, but Holis was determined to be his teacher, in no small part because he tired of providing for the pair of them. What Robard lacked in skill and bluff, he made up for in persistence, all the time knowing that if Holis chose to abandon him his main chance of survival on the streets of Pelonastra would be gone. Holis would sometimes vanish for days on end, leaving Robarde to fend for himself, returning inexplicably with some or other partially intelligible story about where he had been. Often this involved some sordid detail about a farmer’s wife or a merchant’s daughter, along with some piece of pilfered jewellery by way of verification. Other than being a constant source of fascination to Robarde, who simply had no idea how someone like Holis could exist at all, his life with Pelonastra’s oddest thief was a combination of long periods of mundanity, punctuated with brief moments of excitement and terror. When stealing eggs from the Arminer Tavern, Baler the cook caught both boys in the barrel yard and tried to butcher them both with a meat cleaver. When the Beggar’s Bridge Boys, a gang that seemed to have haunted the streets of Yulinast for generations decided that both Holis and Robarde had been on their territory for far too long and decided to drown both of them in the waters of Filthtown, only Holis’s desperation saved them, as he found a tar-dipped ship’s anchor rope and used it as a club, beating half a dozen of the ‘Beggars’, a wild look of triumphalism and hatred in his eyes as they cowered on the ground and begged for mercy. No danger, no thrill, in fact no experience that life had thrown in the direction of Robarde would prepare him for the experience that lay ahead however. Meeting Heresephone and Anu changed everything.
Heresephone (whose name Robarde would only learn later on) was the singularly bravest person Robarde had ever seen in his life. She had stood in the old cloth market square on Yulinast, her blonde hair pulled back, robed in the blue cloth of the Mendicants indicating that she was their ward.
“These men are brigands and villains of the peace,” her cut glass voice enunciated in the most perfect Swithick across the market square. She pointed to two Molvari men who flanked a small and petrified looking Olorian girl. The two men glowered at Heresephone and whilst neither touched the girl, it seemed abundantly clear to Robarde, who had for once come to the market to buy something to eat honestly that the girl was no willing companion of the two men. She glanced up at both of them anxiously and caught the unspoken threat in their eyes. Robarde, not slow to read others, saw it too; keep quiet, come with us or things will go very badly for you indeed.
“Call a magistrate!” shouted Heresephone, using the sort of tone that seemed, inexplicably, to get comparative strangers to do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do.
“You! You sir!” she shouted at a cloth merchant, “...who is the magistrate of Pelonastra? Fetch him here this instant, these men are villains, I have seen it with my own eyes, they mean to seize this girl. Have you no laws here?”
A stunned silence fell over the square, the market vendors at once found this precocious girl an irritation and a distraction from their day to day business, but she had laid down to all of them an unmistakable challenge. Swithicks were self interested and greedy folks at the best of times, but Pelonastra as a city only operated when lawlessness existed at Robarde and Holis’s level of activity, not kidnapping or whatever else this was. Heresephone, evidently no fool, knew full well that they would know who the local magistrate was. In the Mill Lands, the nearest keeper of law and peace was normally found drinking or playing dice in a local alehouse.
“Chancellor, you want Chancellor, he’s the magistrate,” said Symonds the cobbler, whom Holis had stolen shoes from some months earlier, but then having recognised the excellent quality of the footwear paid him back in kind by beating two Beggar’s Bridge Boys who tried to extort Symonds for nine iron pence.
“Fetch him!” said Heresephone “...now!” she added with a bark as the hapless Symonds prevaricated. Seeing the two increasingly angry Molvari prepare to leave, she now mobilised a level of moral authority never previously seen on the island of Yulinast.
“Good people of the island, I beseech you, protect this girl, she does not go of her own will with these men, these villains of the peace, place yourselves around her until the law decides what to do with these, these….men.”
To Robarde’s amazement, the market sellers, the servants sent out to buy loaves and salted pork for their masters, the idle youths and the old women with wooden cages of chickens, the half drunk young lords on the steps of the tavern dutifully set aside their haggling, their conversations and minor disputes and walked to the centre of the square, forming a circle around the girl, forcing the two Molvari to step back or risk being trapped by the crowd. The girl’s eyes, darting back and forth, came to rest on Heresephone. She stumbled through the spring mud of the market and almost fell at her rescuer’s side. It was at this point that Robarde felt a familiar jab in the ribs, indicating that Holis had decided to make an appearance at the Cloth Market.
“What are you sat here for? Go on…” He gestured to the gathering ring of protection around the girl. Holis, as far as Robarde knew, had never done an act of chivalry in his life, though today he thought it the right moment to do a good deed by proxy. Holis’s indignation that Robarde hadn’t thought to protect the girl without his prompting both bemused and irritated Robarde. As he trudged through the mud, he thought he saw the tiniest expression of satisfaction on the Heresephone’s face, the look of a girl seeing justice, decency and all things worthy in this world temporarily assert themselves.
A commotion at the edge of the market, along Dranney Lane announced the arrival of Chancellor. Holis’s normally inscrutable face was suddenly transparent as he remembered why he tried to avoid Chancellor at all costs. The wandering tavern magistrate had sent a parchment writ around the town calling for his arrest after a brawl where a sailor lost a finger and it had not, as yet, been fulfilled. Parchment writs were one of the more serious threats to the wellbeing of local hoodlums as they invariably resulted in several months or years in the Spire, the city’s old prison. The very act of commiting ones crimes to parchment and ink was itself costly (parchment was three iron pennies a sheet) and therefore constituted a serious investment on the part of the Lords Elect. It was commonly understood that word of the summons would make it to the relevant criminal’s ears and in order to prevent further punishment, they would present themselves before the issuing magistrate and receive some sentence or another. Holis let it be known when he heard about the writ that he would only appear before Chancellor in manacles or dead, though secretly he hoped that the entire matter would somehow go away if he ignored it for long enough. Chancellor was a short, rotund man with a thick grey beard that was braided at the end in the traditional Swithick style, his flowing grey hair was matted and his chin hairs yellowed by pipe smoke, his face was ruddy from drink but under his grey fringe were two gleaming, unwavering eyes.
“Who has roused me from my stool? Who has called on me? Who has disturbed the peace so thoroughly that my name is bandied around the streets?” his voice boomed across the square. Holis and several other local miscreants vanished into the side streets, leaving Robarde to witness the arrival of a figure who had only existed as an apocryphal tale until this moment.
“It was I sir, though these men are the disturbers of the peace,” said Heresephone. Chancellor squinted and turned to face the girl, recognising instantly that she had no prior knowledge of him or his influence in Yulinast.
“It was you, was it miss? And what might I do for you?”
“You might take these men into your custody, they are kidnappers and they are knaves, I saw it with my own eyes,” she said.
“That is certainly a crime under the peace of the Lords Elect,” he mused, “...though of course I only have your word for it, and I cannot go throwing men in jail on the say so of a…”
“...of a what? A girl?”
“Yes, as rotten as that might sound.”
Heresephone lifted her chin, as if to indicate that the man who spoke in such a crude and unseemly fashion at her across the market square was not fit to exist within her gaze. Robarde knew full well that look, it was the look that gentry daughters who were measured for their finery in his father’s parlour gave to anyone who dared to address them.
“Well girl, who else can verify your words? And who exactly were these men trying to kidnap?”
“Everyone here saw them, they all know what’s been going on,” she batted back confidently, certain that right would soon prevail, “...they attempted to drag this girl away against her will.”
Heresephone pointed towards the young Olorian girl who looked warily at the crowd of onlookers and stared at Heresephone as if she were a creature from a folk tale, manifested directly in front of her.
“I’m going to guess your friend here doesn’t speak Swithick,” said Chancellor gruffy, “...do you know how many times each day young girls are spirited through markets like this, on to ships like those.” he said gesturing towards the harbour, “...sailed away to the Graces know where?”
“I will tell you sir that it is no doubt a frequent occurrence, and one which you and the other noble officers of the law have great difficulty enforcing.”
“You would be right in saying that,” Chancellor said, the condescension oozing from every word.
“Except for now,” she retorted, “...because I’ve caught these villains for you, and now all you have to do is protect this girl, and punish the pair of them.”
Chancellor’s mock joviality disappeared and a look of menace descended over him.
“Unless I have another witness miss, there is no case to answer and these men may go about their business unmolested by the law. I see no such witness, so I will ask you to stop creating this commotion, to leave these men to whatever they are doing and me to my…”
“I saw them,” shouted Robarde. The words left his mouth moments long before his thoughts had the opportunity to act as a filter, they were powered by an unfortunate combination of admiration for Heresephone, a secret longing to be as noble, brave and maddeningly defiant, and a general suspicion that the two men were probably up to no good. He had learned how to lie convincingly from Holis, who, if he were there, would have been able to deliver falsehoods with even greater skill.
Heresepone looked slightly bemused and then, realising that an unexpected ally had come to her aid, beamed triumphantly at Chancellor.
“You see sir, here is someone else who knows these men are rogues.” Chancellor, however, was not so easily convinced; he was also keen to find any opportunity not to have to spend the next hour writing writs of punishment when a game of dice and a goblet of wine awaited him in the Inn of St Stephen. He turned to face Robarde, who leant against a low wall and then marched in his direction; Chancellor was able to see Robarde for what he was from a hundred paces, one of the flea-ridden urchins of Filthtown. When he reached Robarde he pressed his face so close to the boy that Robarde could smell the aroma of old tobacco in his beard.
“Tell the truth lad, or you’ll end up in the pillory today. What did you see?”
“I, er, I, I saw those men over there, they got the girl and they were taking her and she didn’t want to go, and then the other girl here, she shouted at them and called for you. That’s what I saw, I swear,” he lied. Robarde was pretty convinced that Heresephone was telling the truth, and therefore repeating it wasn’t a lie, in fact it was almost adding to the truth and making it stronger. Chancellor sighed, two witnesses meant that the case had what Swithick scholars called ‘lawful merit’ and frustratingly for him could not be ignored. His dice game was forfeit and an afternoon’s drinking was also lost, but he had no choice than to do the role the Lords Elect paid him for. He was determined to make whatever justice dolled out here as quick as possible. He stalked over to the two Molvari men, short blonde haired sailors with hard faces and scowled at them.
“You two, speak Swithick?”
The two men nodded.
“Good, this is simple then. Let the girl go, whatever she is to you, she isn’t any more, understood?”
There was a lengthy pause and then once more, the men nodded.
“Go back to your ship and stay there until you sail, you will not set foot in Pelonastra nor harass its citizens or guests. This girl,” he said pointing towards the Olorian, “...now falls under my protection, and if I find you anywhere near her between now and they say your ship sets sail, I’ll hang the pair of you. Now go.”
The two men looked briefly at one another, assessing their options before turning away and disappearing into the adjacent streets. Seeing the two men vanish, Chancellor then turned to Heresephone, a look of displeasure etched across his face. The laws of the Mill Lands, which Chancellor knew well, now presented him with an irritation. During the reign of King Samuel II, as the lands became gripped by terrors during the Sundering, Pelonastra had filled with the poor of the Shay Valley and the gentry feared an uprising as beggars hammered on their doors, pleading that they be fed. In a moment of uncharacteristic foresight and judgement, King Sam passed the foundling laws, enabling the poor to hand their children over to the Lords Elect of the Council to become wards of the city. This meant that at the very least, their offspring would be fed, clothed and housed, meaning that mothers and fathers only needed to fend for themselves. It staved off revolt, but had left a curious legacy. It had been impossible to reverse the foundling laws when the crisis had passed, there had been a deep attachment to them and to the idea that during a period as terrifying as the Sundering, that the King’s government might step in and provide a degree of safety for the poorest (and for the wealthy too). Many gentry, perpetually wary of the poor, were reluctant to remove foundling laws, because if a second crisis came about the masses might not be so easily placated. Chancellor knew the law well and understood its intricacies. It made him a de facto parent, right in the middle of an afternoon of wine and dice. This, he resolved to himself then and there, would not stand. An immediate solution was required.
“You!” he snarled at Heresephone, “You will come with me!”
Determined to show this objectionable man that she was not intimidated by him, Heresephone gestured for Chancellor to lead the way. He grabbed the Olorian girl by the collar and half dragged her along, out of the square and down Dranney Lane. At the bottom of the lane, he turned left and on to the waterfront, where a row of houses and above them run down old garrets were buffeted by the cold sea air. Chancellor marched up a flight of rickety stairs with the Olorian girl, Heresephone struggled to keep up behind them, her dress catching on the creaking wood. When Chancellor found the door that he was looking for, he hammered until the hinges rattled. An irate voice in the distance barked a stream of obscenities and bare feet ran across old oak boards. The bolt slid back and the door flew open and before them stood a bleary eyed Tobias Hogg dressed in an old robe. The ensuing silence, formed by a mixture of bemusement and anger was broken by Chancellor.
“You’re the one who throws scraps to the poor out the back of St Stephen’s Gate aren’t you?” he asked.
“I, sir am the Keeper of King Samuel’s Benefice,” roared Tobias at Chancellor.
“Yes, right, that’s the title, well it’s time to earn your keep my friend, because I have some strays for you to feed.”
“Who are you?” asked Tobias, “...who are they?” he demanded to know, pointing at Heresephone and the girl.
“I am Chancellor, and I think you will probably have heard of me,” the magistrate retorted, watching Tobias’s anger rapidly subside.
“They,” he said pointing at the two girls, “...are your problem, Mister Scraps.”
Tobias looked in horror, his orderly life was not designed for two, let alone three.
“This one is a foundling and is your job to feed,” said Chancellor, pointing at the Olorian girl, “...and the other one is her protector, so find her something to do.”
He flashed Heresephone a smile and she returned a quasi grimace. Heresephone had taken a profound disliking to Chancellor over the last few minutes and she was fairly certain that the feeling was mutual. It pained her to accept that by depositing her at Tobias’s doorstep, Chancellor had unwittingly saved her life.
Tobias, aware of Chancellor by reputation only, was astute enough to realise that defying the old magistrate was not one of the options on offer today. Instead, he sighed and gestured for the two girls to enter his small, cramped garrett, his mind rapidly processing how this imposition could be transformed into an opportunity.
Castermayne, Master of the King’s Barbican, in essence had but one job; to send commoners who came to petition Prince Bard Rever back out into the street. The most eminent scholars of royal protocol in Harenis all agreed that majesty was all a matter of performance, the moment anyone could speak to their liege, the entire edifice of regal power would crumble away. Castermayne believed it was his job to protect the mystique of has master, but he also accepted that in the Mill Lands, in the long run, it was a lost cause. Despite his title, there was no king, and he worked from St Stephen’s Gate, not a barbican, his job was largely metaphorical, and the same could be said for the state of royal power across the Mill Lands. The steady stream of commoners demanding the Prince address obscure grievances over grazing or fishing rights, stolen cattle or sheep, betrothals that had not been honoured and wrongs gone unavenged were always met by Castermayne’s impassive expression. There were some disputes that he had the power (though not always the inclination), to intervene in directly. Sometimes the Prince himself would adjudicate, though Castermayne always tried to discourage it. Bard, now in his sixth decade had little time for or interest in his views on protocol or propaganda and had always been more willing to engage in manual labour on his lands. Bard was well known amongst the peasantry of the West for digging ditches, mending cart wheels and slaughtering livestock, and as long as his retainers never actually forgot their place, sharing bread and ale with them after a long day of hard work.
It was perhaps this widespread knowledge that Bard was the nobleman with a common touch that brought Hganna Harle to St Stephen’s Gate that evening. She explained that she had come from the village of Haestingen near Drake and that she urgently needed to see the Prince himself. Castermayne had made the amateur’s mistake of opening the old oak door at the rear of St Stephens to ask what it was that Hganna wanted.
“I beseech you sir, I have come these long miles all the way from my village, down the banks of the Shay to speak with the Prince himself.”
“His highness invites commonfolk to speak with him, they do not simply turn up uninvited.”
“Forgive my boldness sir, I know this to be true, and yet it could not wait, it is a matter of burning concern.”
Castermayne sighed, it always was. He glanced up and down at the girl, who was so cold and pale her skin seemed tinged by blue. Her sleight frame, high cheekbones and her rolls of red hair might have made her a highly desired courtier had she been born into wealth. When he was done hearing her, he thought to himself, he would order the girl to return home and not linger in the city, where predators lurked, waiting for unsuspecting country girls.
“What is this matter that would see you intrude on King Samuel’s Peace?” he asked, recognising as he did so the farcical nature of invoking the laws of the last and now long dead king of Pelonastrius, the realm that predated the Mill Lands.
“A man came to our village some months past. He was ill and feverish and my kin didn’t know what to do. We had never seen his sort before, but his horse was shod in Drake, my cousin Alred knew the smithy there…”
“Tell me what you want girl!” snapped Castermayne impatiently.
“The man, he was dying and he said many things,…many strange things before he passed away. He was with the fever and he didn’t know whether we were kin or foe. My father found a book in his saddlebag, but even the learned folk in the village couldn’t read it. It was in words none of us had ever seen, old Cromar the carpenter, he said it wasn’t words at all. He said it was secrets.”
Castermayne found himself suddenly far better able to concentrate on the girl’s words. His eyes searched the streets for anyone else who might be loitering, watching, as he opened the door wider and ushered Hganna inside his parlour at St Stephen’s gate without speaking.
“Where is he now, this man?” he asked as he sat the girl down at an old wooden table.
“He, he died of his fever and we did the good thing, we buried him by the great ash tree on the road to Trent. There’s an old white stone that marks the spot. We were afraid someone would come looking for him and think we’d cut his throat. Folk hang for less than that…”
“...Did anyone come looking for him?” asked Castermayne.
“Yes they did, there were strangers weeks later, riding from Drake, asking after the man in the taverns, they wanted to know if we’d seen him. We all said no.”
“And what of the book girl, what of that, do you have it?” he asked.
Gingerly, she reached into the pocket of her dress and produced a thin, red leatherbound tome, and placed it on the table.
Castermayne picked up the book and opened it, carefully turning the dry, thin parchment pages, running his fingers across lines of marks and dashes, turning the pages slowly, allowing the implications of what he saw sink deep into his mind. Doubt and certainty wrestled with one another until he was able to condense the facts as he saw them down to one simple truth; secrets were traversing across the Mill Lands and unless his master Prince Bard, who was the lord of all the city armouries at Drake knew the author or intended reader of these messages, then it was imperative that each and every question the book now raised by answered. His attitude towards Hganna began to change, no longer was she a nuisance.
“Girl, I will take you to see the Prince, he will wish to speak with you, but you are cold and hungry. Come this way to the kitchen and I will see that you are fed.
Bard reached for his goblet, he found that the only way in which he could withstand the interminable prattle of his fellow Lords Elect of the Council was to numb himself with wine. It would at one time have been considered unseemly that a member of the Rever family demean themselves through direct involvement in the grubby business of governance; the twin noble families of the Mill Lands had for most of their existence tried to remain removed and aloof from the affairs of state, King Alerandth of Orne had even insisted on it once from both dynasties. Once, idleness had been considered a noble virtue, once but no longer. Now the rulers of the Mill Lands occupied a much more modest position in society and in the affections of the people, gone were the days of the idle lord, and, thought Bard, good riddance. It had been three centuries at least since fealty had been the unearned right of the powerful, and in the period known by so many as the Time of Miseries, the Revers and DeHauers had to at least create the pretence of having a purpose.
An alarming number of his cousins and even more distant relatives were yet to appreciate this one salient point. For three generations the Lordship of the City Armouries of Drake had fallen to the eldest surviving member of the Rever family, a title that carried with it immense power and responsibilities. It made said member of the Revers a member of the Lords Elect of the Council of the Mill Lands, one whose main responsibilities were the training of soldiers, the production of swords, mail, and shields and all the necessary wagons, tents, food and fresh water that an army might need. Bard had taken up this responsibility with great enthusiasm a decade earlier when Bereneth, his father, had died. In the intervening decade he had come to understand several alarming truths about the Mill Lands, its ability to wage war and defend itself from its enemies and the Lords Elect of the Council. The first alarming truth was the fact that other than the Honourable Company of Trailkeepers and the Northern Border Horse, there was no semblance of military strength in the Mill Lands whatsoever. It had been established law since the days of the Morghanan Kings over a thousand years ago that in each hamlet, village and town a sword marshal would drill a yeomanry once every ten days in longsword, pike, bow and shield, with each man bearing arms for the king to receive an iron penny’s pay for their service. Bard had sent reeves across the country to find out how many Mill Landish communities and villages even had a sword marshal. Out of nearly seven hundred journeys across the winding broken roads, into the hills and the deep valleys of the Lower Orne Mountains, his reeves returned empty handed. When summoned, the serving sword marshals attended Bard’s chambers to give account of themselves; there were two of them. Bard realised that for decades his father, and his grandfather before him hadn’t even bothered to ask the question. They had both been content to wear the ceremonial chains of office in Drake, they had both been content to create illusions for the comfort of other Mill Landers. Each year, considerable time and expense had been invested in the annual ‘Marching of the Banners’, when the knights of the Rever and DeHauer families, along with other minor noble lines, paraded through Drake. Behind them came the Drake Armoury Companions, the burly sons of blacksmiths and forgemasters in shining mail wielding hammers and axes. Each year a few hundred yeomen from the villages nearest to Drake were coerced into sacrificing a couple of good harvesting days to wear the city’s colours and to carry pikes behind the companions. Put together, the parade of approximately a thousand soldiers presented to Mill Landers the comforting spectacle of military prowess. The absence of the Trailkeepers and the Northern Border Horse from the Marching of the Banners was no accident. Not only did their commanders view such pageantry and pomp as a nonsense, but more importantly, they patrolled the wilder eastern borders of the Mill Lands, a sign of strength (what little strength the Mill Lands could actually muster) to the Haatchi people of the great eastern plains and to the Khul herself in the lands of Mordikhaan, across the Straits of Dancare. Bard’s great education was to see the Marching of the Banners as a nonsense too.
He then learned why the Lords Elect of the Council were content to perpetuate the charade, and why they were so disinterested in pouring the not inconsiderable wealth of Pelonastra into a properly organised and trained army. It had been protocol for over three centuries, ever since the last great bloodfeud between Rever and DeHauer families that neither would rule the council, andi instead a Lord Minister would be appointed for life. The Lord Minister would be from neither family, which meant that the appointment normally came from the Aruhvian Church. The Archimandrite of Dancare would invariably propose a candidate and unless there was some profound reason to object, they would be appointed. The council, over the last four decades, had been dominated by Lord Anayrus Lund, who had been appointed by the Archimandrite Narus and who now served his successor, Oleryd. Lund represented to Bard every single thing that was manifestly rotten in the realm, and yet he managed to simultaneously use his powers of condescension and faux charm to effectively dominate the council and therefore the realm. As a younger, more unsuspecting man, Bard had put forth a new charter to strengthen the defences of the Mill Lands, or at the very least the Shay Valley, Lund had smiled and nodded in a way which Bard would come to know and loathe.
“Your father would have been intrigued by this Bard,” he had said, casting his eye in an idle and noncommittal manner at the parchment before him, “...so very kind of you to write down your ideas here.”
“These are more than ideas Lord Lund, it’s vital that something is done. At this present time, we understand our weaknesses, and if we are aware of them, others will be too,” Bard insisted.
“I think we should be cautious not to become alarmist, the Mill Lands are still well protected and we have no cause to fight for,” replied Lund.
“My dear Bard, it has been hard for you, I know, losing your father. Your ascent to the Lords Elect of the Council from managing your father’s estates near Ferian has been a change, a challenge even. It will take some time, I am sure, for you to appreciate the nuances of your role and the responsibilities of the office you now hold.”
“I, I don’t understand, my role is to ensure the borders of our lands are defended and at the moment, they are not. Should the Haatchi be so inclined they could ride to Pelonastra in five days. If they chose to do so, how many men are under arms to defend the city. Do you know?”
Lund smiled his poisonous smile once more.
“Please Bard, indulge me.”
“Less than three hundred. The Haatchi would slay them in an afternoon. It would require at least ten times that number of men to hold them off.”
“The Mill Lands cannot be protected by force of arms, Bard,” replied Lund, “...there is a reason why the skies do not grow black with clouds of Haatchi arrows and it had nothing to do with men under arms. Do you know what it is?”
Bard stared grimly at Lund.
“Indulge me,” he muttered.
Lund, sensing his victory was at hand, flexed his fingers together and looked at Bard in the way that a sympathetic but slightly disappointed mentor might look upon a misguided student in need of tutelage.
“Bard, the Haatchi are a wise and astute people, they understand gold as well as they understand iron. Their kings became richer than they could have imagined when the Swithicks settled these lands. Yes we seized the valley from them, yes we settled where their people once lived, and yes we once forced them back across the River Shay. But once they realised that Swithicks are people of coin, the making of wealth and prosperity runs in our blood, they understood how they too could prosper. We brought that to them you know, we taught them the way of riches. Our nobles only buy Haatchi stallions, our apothecaries buy the blossoms, the oils, the bark that the Haatchi know how to harvest. Our huntsmen wear Haatchi leather, our tanners use Haatchi dyes. Why would they throw that away? It would be madness for them to wage war against us, even if they won, they would lose.”
“So, my Lord, we must live in the hope that our one time enemies recognise all they would sacrifice if they went to war with us,” Bard replied.
“Yes,” said Lund, “...and the Haatchi are a sharp eyed folk, they know very well when their neighbours grow stronger, when they sharpen their swords. Preparing for a fight that isn’t coming might just be the thing that turns friends into the enemies that we fear in our imaginations.”
“And what of the Firg in the West, my Lord.” asked Bard. For most of Bard’s adult life, not a single Firg, the giant folk of the Orne Mountains, had been seen in the Mill Lands or anywhere else.
“The Firg have been perfect neighbours to the Swithicks, Bard, more than ideal. Our coal is deposited at their borders, they leave gold by way of payment for the coal masters of Mont Inaer and our interactions are limited to one monthly anonymous exchange, a state of affairs that could not be more perfect if the Keeper himself intervened. Why would you seek to disrupt that?”
“If one day the Firg come to take the mines where their beloved coal is dug, who will stop them?”
“Nobody, Bard, nobody at all. Not twenty thousand men that you might hope to raise from the farms and the towns of the Mill Lands. Put simply Bard, there is no defence one can make against an army whose soldiers tower twice the size over the stoutest warrior we might put in the field.”
“Your belief then,” said Bard, “...is that the goodwill and wise counsel of our neighbours is our greatest defence.”
“That is exactly how the council sees things, yes.”
“Perhaps you are right, my Lord, and if you are then please excuse my concerns. In order for the Mill Lands to remain safe, however, you must always be right and our neighbours must always be wise.”
Lund was silent for a while, assimilating the prince’s final point.
“Indeed,” he finally said. Bard nodded and took his leave, recognising that the matter had been dismissed.
Bard was not so easily dissuaded, however. His first encounter with Lund had taught him a valuable lesson; taking a seat as one of the Lords Elect of the Council was little more than a ceremonial facade and the real work of bringing about any kind of meaningful change within the chaotic polity of the Mill Lands had to be done far away from the view of Lund and his fellows.
Bard was happy to see Castermayne when the Master of the King’s Barbican edged his way into the Anyrien Chamber, the seat of the Lords Elect of the Council and centre of the government of the Mill Lands. The usual interminable discussions regarding the taxation of salt and ale, the maintenance of order in the city of Hayl and the navigation of the River Shay filled the hours. Very little that Bard had to contribute seemed to register at all, and he always attempted to keep his contributions down to the bare minimum. A decade of these meetings, once every ten days had been a valuable if tedious education for him in how to navigate the everyday obstructions the council created, and how to pursue ones own agendas in secret.
“Your Highness,” said Castermayne, “...I have a matter that may be of great import, I beseech you sire to attend with me now.”
Recognising that, if nothing else a valuable opportunity to stop listening to Lord Lund had been presented to him, Bard rose from his seat.
“My lords, I must take my leave, an urgent matter has arisen,” he said simply and curtly. There had once been a time when he would have waited for Lund to acknowledge his departure and release him from his duty, but that had long since passed. As he departed the chamber with Castermayne, the Master of the King’s Barbican spoke softly.
“There is a girl sire, she has travelled from the north, from a village near Drake, there is something coming out of Drake that you must see, something secret that is being hidden from us.”
“Show me,” whispered Bard, “...and fetch Chancellor.”