Sunday, June 10, 2007

Final version, Chapter One

Alas, the sharp pen of the critic, but -- well thanks to the comments of a new friend -- I realized that I should post the entire first chapter, (including the little prologue piece), rather than the old version. Thanks Rebecca.

I tell the tale that follows because it is deserved. Great tragedies, great loves and hates, and great deeds deserve a telling, and an audience. How I came to know of these things, the loves, hates and deeds of these people, and their tragedy, is of no concern. It suffices that I know and that I tell the tale. Whether these things were true or these people lived real lives is of no concern as well. For what is truth if not the telling of a tale, one which is believed? Telling is creating, the making of truth and the dreams of truth. Read, now, and worry not. After all, life is brief, and always another tale waits to be told. So . . .

Two Arrows

. . . it began with a boy skipping rocks from the bank of a placid river.

Finn brought the sheep to water at the edge of the River Idara. He should have been watching, that none of them strayed in danger of drowning, but as boys do Finn tired soon of sitting. So he started the pebbles flying.

Where the sheep gathered, bumping and bleating and pushing against each other to drink, the bank of the river was shallow and muddied. On either side of this muddy shelf the bank rose to overhang the river by three or four feet, and on the left, twenty paces upriver, stood a small grove of abele trees. Under the shade of these trees lay a narrow strand of pebbles. Here Finn stood flinging his missiles.

On the grassy bank behind him sat a dog, Shar, one severe eye on her master, the other on the sheep. To Shar work was play and play, such as Finn was doing, was puzzling. But Finn knew that if any of the sheep strayed, or danger came near, his Shar would sound the alarm.

So, he could play for a while.

For a boy of eight Finn threw with remarkable accuracy and usually sent the pebbles skidding just where he wanted. What he lacked in strength was made up in sheer energy. One after another, pebble after pebble skimmed across the river, strings of ripples following, three and four and five. Finn chewed on his lower lip, squinting as he gauged the river and his chances to get six skips and a new high mark. Only four this time, but there were many more pebbles at hand.

Upstream the abele trees marched to the edge of the riverbank. Three men could hardly stretch to touch their hands around the largest of the smooth, pale grey trunks. Already the edges of their leaves browned and curled with the change of the season. One old tree, its roots undercut by the eroding riverbank, had fallen into the stream but the base of the trunk still propped on the lip of the bank. The angle of the overhanging bank and the trunk and branches of the abele made a shadowed eddy in the river.

Shar leaped up, pacing in a tight circle, yipping and flicking her nose back and forth between Finn and the sheep. Finn glanced over his shoulder.

“Okay, okay . . . coming.” But he reached down, grabbed a nice, flat stone. Time for one last throw and, this time, six skips for certain. He scanned the soft surface and the lazy current of the water with the eye of a connoisseur. He cocked his head, aiming at the dark angle beneath the fallen abele tree, where the river slowed even further and the water shimmered like black glass. Finn screwed up his face, one eye half-shut, the other wide-open under arching eyebrow, the little pink tip of his tongue twisted into the corner of his mouth. With all his strength he flung the stone. It skipped once, twice, through the angle, and with a thud stopped dead-plunk into the water.

At first Finn thought he had hit a branch—but it sounded softer, not like rock on wood. He climbed the bank, walked a bit upstream, watching the shadow in the angle under the tree trunk. Shar came to his side. He stood and walked toward the base of the tree, looking at the shadow on the water. Something dark floated in the water. Finn stopped, wide-eyed and Shar growled.

A dark thing floated in the water, caught against the far side of the abele trunk, now slowly turning in the eddy. Bobbing in the water, shining with long black streamers, a head turned in the current, a sodden, half-sunken hump of a back, a shoulder, arm and hand, a man face down in the river. Finn shifted, heart pounding, breath forgotten, and the man’s back turned into view. Shar barked mad frenzy. The shafts of two arrows protruded from between the drowned man’s shoulder blades.

Finn ran to find his father.

Every tree, every bush hid an assassin. He felt them drawing their bows, aiming their poison-tipped arrows at his back as he ran. His shoulders twitched, prickling between his shoulder blades in the dead-tingling spot where the assassins were aiming. Finn flung his eyes left and right and left, pumping legs and arms faster, harder. His heart drummed, drowning out the whistling signals of the assassin gang. He crashed through the forest ever faster, faster until his lungs would burst at his next step.

Sunlight, sunlight ahead through the trees. Finn thrust his body toward the light, smashing without care through the brush and into the open. He chanced a quick glance behind. The assassins had not followed, he was safe! As he turned his head back a strong hand clamped over his mouth, a powerful arm arrested his flight, pulling him backward into a man’s chest.

Hand on his hips, Mathis Stonebow surveyed a small field just harvested of turnips and carrots. He turned a critical eye at the sky, the harvest not to his liking; though these plants had come in nicely enough, they had not grown as well as could be. A tight hedge screened the wind around the edges of the field, but water was the problem. This field lay on the boundary of the farm and too far from the river for irrigation. It should have rained more. Why had the old rites had not worked so well this season?

Grumbling about the vagaries of the weather Mathis reached for his hayfork. The day before, with the farm wagon, he had dropped a rick in every field, to spread to rot under the winter’s snow. But a crashing sounded behind him, behind the hedge, as if an animal fled panicked through the woods. He stepped into the shadow of the hedge. A flurry of skinny arms and legs erupted from the brush. Mathis leaped forward, grasped the intruder, pulled him back and off balance. He spun his captive around.

“Finn! What are you doing?”

Finn collapsed into his father’s arms, leaning with his hands on his thighs, gasping for the breath to speak.

“You are trembling, are you hurt?” Mathis’s concern grew as he saw the frightened look on his son’s face. He bent down on one knee and held the boy, more gently, by the shoulders. “Are you being chased?”

“There is . . . a man . . . in the . . . in the river.”

“A man, who?”

Finn drew a deep breath and looked, wide-eyed, at his father. “A dead man.”

“Did you see anyone else?”

Finn shook his head.

“Are you sure? No sign of anyone?”

A nod, fantastical assassins aside. “No one.”

Mathis stood, thought for a moment. “Show me this man.” Finn started, as if to run once more but his father dropped a heavy hand on his shoulder. “No son, we can walk. If he is dead, then he will wait, and on the way you can tell me about this man.”

When they reached the river, they found Shar watching over the sheep. By some instinct she knew that there was no danger from the body in the river, but that the sheep needed watching. Shar came to Mathis when he whistled. He reached down and scratched behind her ears.

“Take them home, girl.” Mathis gave a different whistle and Shar moved off to round up the sheep and herd them back to the farm.

“Okay,” he said to Finn, “let us see what there is to see.”

But Finn hung back as his father approached the bank. Mathis crouched, peered into the angle beneath the tree for a long moment. He walked a few paces back along the bank, and jumped down onto the pebbles. Still holding the hayfork Mathis waded into the water at the upper edge of the shoal, then he bent and reached forward with the fork.

The body wedged on one last branch, sodden heavy, only a hand, the back of the head and the shoulders above the water. Shafts of arrows and swirls of long hair in the water punctuated the man, as if testifying that what floated there was no log of wood. Mathis caught the hayfork in a fold of cloth and pulled the body to the beach. Any man, under any circumstances, deserved a decent burial. But this man died shot in the back with a pair of arrows. Questions needing answers. When and why he was slain, and by whom? Mathis turned the man onto his side. He was a soldier of Arras, a clansman from far to the northwest, and by the look of his light leather armor, a scout or messenger. But the arrows drew Mathis’s gaze, fear crept through the hollow of his stomach.

“Finn, come here.”

The boy hesitated, then stepped forward slowly to the verge of the bank. His father knelt on the pebbles, fingering the shaft and fletching of one of the arrows.

Without looking up, Mathis spoke deliberately, “you will have to run again. Go to the house and tell Ford to bring the team and the small wagon. Tell your mother to pack some food and,” he hesitated, “and tell her to lay out my arms and gear.”

He looked up at Finn, “hurry, son . . . and be careful.”

The city of Adan lay far-flung on the plain of Querlao beside a foaming blue-green sea. The heart of the city, the Citadel, stood on the rocky shoulders of a high promontory where the River Edara flowed into the sea. Six graceful bridges spanned the Edara and the first, the King’s Bridge, landed hard at the foot of the Citadel Gate. Through iron and oak gates a wide road climbed in two steep loops to the top of the promontory. There the road passed through another gated wall into a courtyard. Cream-colored marble spires towered above walls of pinkish-grey granite and this fortress commanded the entire city. Up from the foot of the Citadel, the temples, markets, theaters and villas of the Adanae unfolded along the banks of the Edara. Boats of all types, and at all hours, sailed the river, for pleasure, for commerce, or simply to move the people from place to place. But Adan was not a city like those in which later men suffer, cramped, crushing against each other without enough air or sunlight. Beyond the banks of the river the villages, homes, orchards and gardens of the Adanae scattered about the plain and between these settlements stretched open woods and fields, if not entirely wild, then not completely tamed either.

The city in spring blazed red and white, pink and yellow, for roses grew wherever the Adanae made their homes. The fall swathed each track and road and garden path in petals. But the Adanae, loving this flower greatly, long ago bred vines that bloomed also in winter so that when the rest of the world languished in ice, Adan still was garlanded in roses, with white snow below scarlet vines. Other kinds of roses the Adanae created for themselves. Some flowered only at night, scented blooms perfuming courtyards and lover’s bowers, others withered slowly when picked, still vital after months in the vase, and still others made immense blooms greater than the span of a hand spread from fingertip to fingertip. Everywhere that they lived the Adanae made a paradise.

But a pall hung over the city now.

A rumor spread and grew, horrified whispers of dark news. Guardsmen closed the gates of the Barbica, a strange thing in a time of peace. Though they were to watch for threat from without the city, the guards continually turned to glance at the Citadel in the distance. Until, at about five hours in the afternoon, a cloaked man on a grey horse approached the gate riding alongside a rustic cart. A boy drove the cart.

The great gates of Adan pierced an ancient wall of massive stones cut and laid in a time beyond memory, with a skill unknown and unmatched in later years. Pink-grey granite walls rose above a base of black stone, or metal, or some amalgam of both—the secret of its making lost forever. Impenetrable, the Wall betrayed no sign of age or weakness, not the slightest crack or chip. The Edara passed through the Wall beside the gates, through a wide trough guarded by portcullises. The Great Road, descending from the Citadel and winding through the city over the six bridges, sloped down into a long tunnel under the Barbica and out of Adan.

As the man on the grey horse and the boy driving the cart drew close to the Barbica two soldiers, one armed with a wicked pike, and the other with flashings of rank on his arm, confronted them. The rest of the guard remained watchful at the gate or dealt with other traffic. The officer held up a hand and called for a halt.

“Well met.”

“Well met, my friend,” replied the man on the grey.

“Dismount and state your business in the city.”

The cloaked man stepped down and handed the reins to the boy. As he did so the cloak parted and below shone a corner of a breastplate and the hilt of a sword. The officer looked at the quiver and an enormous bow, already strung, strapped to the man’s saddle. He signaled to the pikeman to stand ready.

“Your business . . . friend?”

“Captain,” the man answered gravely, “my business is serious, I assure you.”

“So you say,” the captain narrowed his eyes, “but only those with the most urgent matters have leave to enter the city today. Serious or not, you must state your business or turn your cart around.”

The cloaked man thought for a moment and then spoke in a lower voice. “I, or rather, really my son,” he motioned toward the boy, “made a discovery yesterday.” The man hesitated and lowered his voice even further, “he is in the cart.”


“He, captain, he. Come and look.”

A long bundle lay in the cart, covered by a cloth of rough-spun wool. The man reached in, grasped the cloth and drew it up so that none but the captain could see underneath. Beneath lay the body of a man in the armor of Arras, on his side, glassy eyes staring up at the captain.

“What is your name?” the captain asked, now lowering his voice as well.

“Mathis Stonebow.”

“I thought you had a familiar look about you. I fought at Qettering,” he nodded, “and I heard of a man that could draw a bow with such power that it could drive an arrow into solid stone. I even saw you do it once. Still, I think you had better explain . . . this.”

Mathis dropped the cloth. “Look at his back.” He circled the wagon and the captain followed. Mathis raised the cloth on that side and the officer stepped back in shock. Then he stepped forward again and reached into the cart to touch one of the arrows still protruding from the dead man.

“What is happening in the city—why are the gates closed?”

“Yesterday the king, Prince Otheron, and Prince Cenith rode out with a small company to hunt in the forest beyond the Waymeet,” said the captain, barely above a whisper, yet still staring at the arrows. “I was on duty here when they returned, but the king could barely keep to his mount. Prince Otheron rode beside him, holding him in his saddle.”

The captain withdrew his hand from the cart and looked at the face of Mathis. “It was obvious that the king had taken some harm. I ordered my men to speak to no one about it. But there were many here besides my men, and you know how tongues run . . .”

Mathis finished the saying, “. . . faster than a hunting hound, yes. Yesterday, you say?” He glanced back at the cart. “The same day my boy found, him, in the river.” He looked up at the towers of the gatehouse, the parapets, the banners whip smart in the breeze. He looked at the carvings of rose vines in bloom climbing the posts of the gates, arching over the mouth of the tunnel, and he looked at the Wall stretching away in the distance, adamantine, invincible. And he turned again to the cart, with his son Finn sitting there, watching and listening, the body of the Arrasti soldier lying in the back. “The same day . . .”

The captain flicked his eyes from Mathis to the cart and back, gauging, deciding. “There cannot be a connection,” he shook his head, “the king went nowhere near the Idara. I am sure of that. Within an hour of the king’s return word came to close the gates.” The captain squared his shoulders and made up his mind. “You must come with me to the captain of the Citadel Guard. Harm or no, this,” he gestured to the cart, “must be brought to the king.”

But at that moment a single, muffled bell sounded over the city. From a high tower at the Citadel Gate it rang once. When the echoes grew faint over the quiet city, from the westernmost watchtower of the Wall came a single toll in reply. In succession, twenty-six times around the Wall, a bell rang once from each tower. As the last toll faded no sound could be heard for a heartbeat, then thousands of voices cried out at once.

The king was dead.


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