Chapter 1: It Begins in Darkness
ffigies of the Earth King festooned Castle Sylvarresta. Everywhere they could be seen—hanging beneath shop windows, standing upright against the walls of the city gates, or nailed beside doorways—any place where the Earth King might find ingress into a home.
Many figures were crude things crafted by children—a few reeds twisted into the form of a man, often with a crown of oak leaves in its hair. But outside the doors of shops and taverns were more ornate figures of wood, the full size of a man, often elaborately painted and coifed in fine green wool traveling robes.
In those days, it was said that on Hostenfest Eve the spirit of the Earth would fill the effigies, and the Earth King would waken. At his wakening, he would protect the family for another season, and help to bear the harvest home.
It was a festive season, a season of joy.
On the Eve of Hostenfest, the father in the home would set gifts before the hearth. Thus at dawn, adults received flasks of new wine or kegs of stout ale. For the young girls the Earth King brought toy dolls woven of straw and wildflowers, while boys might get swords or ox carts carved from ash.
All of these bounties represented but a token of the Earth King’s wealth—the vast “fruits of the forest and of the field” which legend said he bestowed on those who loved the land.
So the homes and shops around the castle were well adorned that night, on the nineteenth day of the Month of Harvest, four days before Hostenfest. All of the shops were clean and well stocked for the autumn fair that would shortly come.
The streets lay barren, for dawn was approaching. Aside from the city guards and a few nursing mothers, the only ones who had reason to be up so late in the night were the king’s bakers, who at that very moment were drawing foam off the king’s ale and mixing it with dough so that the loaves would rise by dawn.
True, the eels were running on their annual migration in the River Wye, so one might imagine a few fishermen to be out by night, but they had emptied their wicker eel traps an hour past midnight and had delivered their kegs of live eels to the butcher for skinning and salting well before the second watch.
Outside the city walls, the greens south and east of Castle Sylvarresta were dotted with dark tents, for caravans from Indhopal had come north to sell the harvest of summer spices. The camps outside the castle were quiet, but for the occasional braying of a donkey. The walls of the city were barred shut, and all foreigners had been escorted from the merchant’s quarters hours ago. No one moved on the streets at that time of night—only a few scavenging ferrin.
Thus there was no one to see what transpired in a dark alley. Even the king’s far-seer, who had endowments of sight from twenty people and stood guard on the old graak’s aerie above the Dedicate’s Keep, could not have spotted movement down in the narrow streets of the merchants’ quarter:
But in Cat’s Alley, just off the Butterwalk, two men struggled in the shadows for control of a knife.
Could you have seen them, you might have been reminded of tarantulas in battle: arms and legs twisting in frenzy as the knife flashed upward, scuffling as feet groped for purchase on the worn cobblestones, men grunting and straining with deadly intent.
Both were dressed in black. Sergeant Dreys of the King’s Guard wore black livery embroidered with the silver great boar of House Sylvarresta. Dreys’ assailant wore a baggy black cotton burnoose in a style favored by assassins out of Muyatta.
Though Sergeant Dreys outweighed the assassin by fifty pounds, and though Dreys had endowments of brawn from three men and could easily lift six hundred pounds over his head, he feared he could not win this battle.
Only starlight lit the street, and precious little made its way here. Cat’s Alley was barely seven feet wide, and homes stood three stories tall, leaning on sagging foundations till the awnings of their roofs nearly met a few yards above Dreys’ head.
Dreys could hardly see a thing back here. All he could make out of his assailant was the gleam of the man’s eyes and teeth, a pearl ring in his left nostril, the flash of the knife. The smell of woodlands clung to his cotton tunic, as fiercely as the scents of anise and curry held to his breath.
No, Dreys was not prepared to fight in Cat’s Alley. He had no weapons, and wore only the linen surcoat that normally fit over his ringmail, along with pants and boots. One does not go armed and armored to meet his lover.
He’d only stepped in the alley a moment ago, to make certain the road ahead was clear of city guards, when he heard a small scuffling behind a stack of yellow gourds by one of the market stalls. Dreys had thought he’d disturbed a ferrin as it hunted for mice or for some bit of cloth to wear. He’d turned, expecting to see a pudgy rat-shaped creature run for cover, when the assassin sprang from the shadows.
Now the assassin moved swiftly, grasping the knife tightly, shifting his weight, twisting the blade. It flashed dangerously close to Dreys’ ear, but the sergeant fought it off—till the man’s arm snaked around, stabbing at Dreys’ throat. Dreys managed to hold the smaller man’s wrist.
“Murder. Bloody murder!” Dreys shouted.
A spy! he thought. I’ve caught a spy! He could only imagine that he’d disturbed the fellow in mapping out the castle grounds.
He thrust a knee into the assassin’s groin, lifting the man in the air. Pulled the man’s knife arm full length and tried to twist.
The assassin let go of the knife with one hand, rabbit-punched Dreys in the chest.
Dreys’ ribs snapped. Obviously the little man had also been branded with runes of power. Dreys guessed that the assassin had the brawn of five men, maybe more. Though both men were incredibly strong, endowments of brawn only increased strength to the muscles and tendons. They did not invest one’s bones with superior hardness. So this match was quickly degenerating into what Dreys would call “a bone-bash.”
He struggled to hold the assassin’s wrists. For a long moment they wrestled.
Dreys heard deep-voiced shouts, “That way, I think! Over there!” It came from the left. A street over was Cheap Street—where the bunched houses did not press so close, and Sir Guilliam had built his new four-story manor. The voices had to be from the City Guard—the same guards Dreys had been avoiding—whom Sir Guilliam bribed to rest beneath the lantern post at the manor gate.
“Cat’s Alley!” Dreys screamed. He only had to hold the assassin a moment more—make sure the fellow didn’t stab him, or escape.
The Southerner broke free, punched him again, high in the chest. More ribs snapped. Dreys felt little pain. One tends to ignore such distractions when struggling to stay alive.
In desperation, the assassin ripped the knife free. Dreys felt a tremendous rush of fear, kicked the assassin’s right ankle, and felt more than heard a leg shatter.
The assassin lunged, knife flashing. Dreys twisted away, shoved the fellow. The blade struck wide of its mark, slashed Dreys’ ribs, a grazing blow.
Now Dreys grabbed the fellow’s elbow, had the man half-turned around. The assassin stumbled, unable to support himself on his broken leg. Dreys kicked the leg again, for good measure, and pushed the fellow back.
Dreys searched frantically in the shadows for something to use as a weapon, perhaps some cobblestone that had come loose from its mortar. Behind Dreys was an inn called the Churn. Beside the flowering vines and the effigy of the Earth King at its front window sat a small butter churn. Dreys tried to rush to the churn, thinking to grab its iron plunger and bludgeon the assassin.
He pushed the assassin, hoping the smaller man would go flying. Instead the fellow spun, one hand clutching Dreys’ surcoat. Dreys saw the knife blade plunge.
He raised an arm to block.
The blade veered low and struck deep, slid up through his belly, past shattered ribs. Tremendous pain blossomed in Dreys’ gut, shot through his shoulders and arms, a pain so wide Dreys thought the whole world would feel it with him.
For an eternity, Dreys stood, looking down. Sweat dribbled into his wide eyes.
The assassin had slit him like a fish. Yet the assassin still held him—his knife arm up to the elbow in Dreys’ chest, while his left hand rifled Dreys’ pocket, groping for something.
His hand clutched at the book in Dreys' pocket, feeling it through the material of the surcoat. The assassin smiled.
Dreys wondered, Is that what you want? A book?
Last night as the city guard was escorting foreigners from the merchant’s quarters, a man from Tuulistan had approached Dreys, a trader whose tent was pitched near the woods. The fellow spoke little Rofehavanish and had only said, “A gift—for king. You give? Give to king?”
With much ceremonial nodding, Dreys had agreed. He’d glanced at the book absently: The Chronicles of Owatt, Emir of Tuulistan. A thin volume bound in lambskin. Dreys had absently pocketed it, thinking to pass it along at dawn.
Dreys hurt so terribly now that he could not shout, could not move. The world spun; he pulled free of the assassin, tried to turn and run. His legs felt as weak as a kitten’s. He stumbled. The assassin grabbed his hair from behind, yanking his chin up to expose Dreys’ throat.
Damn, Dreys thought, haven’t you killed me enough? In one final desperate act, he yanked the book from his pocket and hurled it across Cat’s Alley.
There on the far side of the street, a rose bush struggled up an arbor near a pile of barrels. Dreys knew this place well, could barely see the yellow roses on dark vines. The book skidded under them.
The assassin cursed in his own tongue, tossing Dreys aside, and staggered after the book.
Dreys could hear nothing but a dull buzz as he struggled to his knees. He saw movement at the edge of the street—the assassin groping among the roses. Three larger shadows came rushing down the road from the left. The flash of drawn swords, starlight glinting off iron caps. The City Guard.
Dreys pitched forward onto the cobblestones.
In the predawn, a flock of geese honked as it made its way south through the silvery starlight, their voices sounding to him for all the world like the barking of a distant pack of dogs.