The Enchanted Glade
The Robot Prince looked just like a real boy. He walked and talked like a real boy. He ran and jumped and laughed and played like a real boy. And nobody in his father’s kingdom ever thought he wasn’t one. Not even the robot prince.
The queen and the real prince had died in childbirth. The king was so lost in his grief, that he forgot all about being a good king. He locked himself in a room at the very top of the castle’s tallest tower, and wouldn’t talk to anyone, not even his closest and dearest friends.
To light a candle is to cast a shadow. All light has shadow. As death is a natural part of all life. As clever as he was, Aldhyrwoode could not save the lives of Queen Eleanor and her infant son. It was fully ten years before he had the knowledge and the power to create the robot prince.
An act of desperation by a desperate man, who wanted only to ease the suffering of his friend, the king.
Aldhyrwoode asked every boy he met what games they liked to play. What kind of food did they like to eat. What did they think and feel. What did they have in their pockets. What secrets did they hold in their hearts. All their hopes and dreams and wishes.
He worked all day and all night for a month, and when everything was ready, he said the magic words - And the robot prince sat up and breathed.
He blinked and looked around. He licked his lips and scratched his head. He could wriggle his fingers and touch his toes. He could cross his eyes and poke out his tongue. He could hop on one foot, and skip and dance and tumble. He could talk and sing and shout for joy. Everything a real boy could do, the robot prince could do.
But Aldhyrwoode knew it was not enough. People still remembered the queen and the baby prince who died. The king was still heart-broken. So the wizard cast a spell on every person in the kingdom to make them forget. He made them think the baby prince had lived and grown up strong and healthy. And they all believed it, because the wizard's magic was the most powerful kind of magic.
It was the magic of hope...
The Story begins.
Prince Robin was riding his pony in the forest one day when he came to a path he couldn’t remember exploring before. The path was narrow and so overgrown, Robin and his father King Roland must have ridden right past it many times but had taken no notice.
Certe, thought the prince to himself. This trail looks as if no one has used it for a very long time.
What say you bold Sir Butternut? He asked his pony. Are you as curious as I am?
Butternut nodded his shaggy head. The prince touched the heels of his felt slippers to the pony’s flanks, and they set off at a trot, to see what great adventures they might find.
The path led them deeper and deeper into the woods. Even in the forest’s green shadow the day was unusually warm, and Robin was sweating in his red velvet doublet and undershirt. His grey woollen hose were making him itch, and he wished he could wear the simple tunic other boys wore. One good tug on the rope belt around his waist and it would have been a simple thing to pull the tunic off over his head. But all the prince could do was unbutton his doublet.
And curse his itchy hose. Unless...
Faith, thought Robin. But who is there to see?
He wrapped his hose slippers and shirt in his doublet and folded them into a neat bundle he tied with his belt. Thinking Butternut might like to be more comfortable too, he unbuckled the leather strap holding his saddle in place and lifted it off.
He piled everything next to the trail.
They will be here when we come back, he said to Butternut.
He swung himself easily on to the pony’s back and they set off again. They came to an ancient oak tree where the path appeared to divide in two. He left Butternut munching on fallen acorns and walked a short way along the path on the left to see where it might lead. Robin was sure he could hear the sound of running water. He was thirsty and a small stream or brook would be welcome.
He hadn’t gone very far when the ground began to slope down steeply. The path turned into a muddy track. The prince lost his footing and fell on his bottom. He started to slide downhill. He couldn’t stop. He grabbed at saplings and small bushes to slow his descent, but he just kept going faster and faster. It was scary. But exciting too. And Robin was laughing.
The trees ahead thinned. He could see sunlight through their branches. The sound of water grew louder. The forest ended. He was heading straight for the edge of a cliff.
Then. Suddenly - He was flying through the air!
The water was an ice cold shock. He tumble-twisted and kicked for the surface and came up gasping. He was in a small clearing. A sun filled glade where a natural spring had formed a deep pool. He swam to the edge and climbed out and sat on a rock. The churning water had washed the mud off. He felt cool and clean and lucky to be alive.
Robin lay back on the rock exhausted.
I’ll just close my eyes for a moment, he thought to himself. Just for a moment.
He felt a shadow loom over him. Opening his eyes, Robin saw a flash of bright steel and rolled aside only seconds before the blade of a woodsman’s axe struck sparks off the rock where his head had been.
A giant of a man fully eight feet tall raised the axe over his head for another blow.
The giant roared, No one but the maiden is allowed to bathe in the most holy water!
The prince scrambled away saying, Good sir! I did not know!
But the giant followed him. Still swinging the heavy axe.
Robin crouched behind a tree. The giant swung his axe. It bit deep into the wood. So deep the tree began to fall. Cut clean through. It landed with a loud crash of snapping branches. Almost crushing the prince. He dodged and ducked and tried to stay well clear of the giant and his axe. But then he tripped on a tree root and one of the giant’s enormous boots pressed down on his shoulders, and pinned him to the ground.
The giant raised the axe again...
Robin looked up and saw a pretty girl no older than he was.
Your pledge is to guard me woodsman, she said. Not to murder children!
The giant bowed and said, My Lady. The axe dropped harmlessly at his side.
Back on his feet, Robin dusted himself off and bowed like only a prince can. He thought the maiden was the most beautiful vision he had ever seen. Her long flaxen hair was woven with wildflowers. She wore a chain of tiny white daisies on her slender wrist and twists of green ivy tied around her ankles. Her skin was pale and smooth, and as perfect as the finest porcelain from far Qin Xa. A land the prince had only heard of in the wizard’s tales. Her lips were a rosebud. Her blue eyes sparkled like starlight.
For sooth, he said. Tell me blithe spirit, are you real or faerie?
The maiden smiled. I am as real as you are, she said.
There was the clip clop of hooves and Butternut trotted into the glade. He must have taken the other path, thought Robin. So the path on the right really had been the right path!
It seems your pony has more sense than you, the maiden teased him.
Robin heard laughter behind him, and the woodsman draped a lambswool fleece over his shoulders saying, Forgive me young master.
It might have been the cold water of the spring, or relief at keeping his head, but Robin realized he was trembling, and pulled the fleece tighter around him.
Do you have clothes? The maiden asked. Where are they?
I left them on the trail, said Robin.
The maiden asked the woodsman to go and find the prince’s clothes and to bring them back. The woodsman bowed again and left the glade with his axe over his shoulder by the same path Butternut had followed.
Robin’s tummy rumbled. The maiden laughed. They feasted on sweet chestnuts and wild honey. They gathered apples and picked blackberries. Washing the sticky juice off their chins with cold water they drank from the other’s cupped hands.
Robin chased the maiden through the clearing. She seemed to float from blossom to blossom like an elusive butterfly. He caught her finally, and they rolled and tussled playfully in a field of flowering clover. She lay beneath him breathless. The prince became all too aware of their nakedness. Something that had never troubled him before, now made him blush bright scarlet.
The maiden pressed her body to his.
Would you joust with me sir knight? She teased. Your lance has found my shield.
As surely as love’s arrow has found my heart, said Robin.
The giant woodsman returned a short time later and found them lying together on the lambswool fleece. The maiden on her stomach. The prince on his back with his head resting on the maiden’s bottom. The sweat of his exertions cooling on his brow.
Faith, thought Robin. What bliss it was to lay with his head on such pillows. No Sultan of Pershia could wish for a more comfortable bed.
They slept. The shadows grew longer. It was almost sunset when Robin awoke.
He sat up with a jolt and looked for his clothes. He dressed quickly.
I must hurry, he said. My father will be wondering where I am!
Fret not, said the maiden. The greybeard knows where you are. He watches us even now.
The wizard? Robin asked. But - How do you know?
She held a finger to his lips. Hush sweet Robin, she said. And she silenced any more questions with a chaste kiss.
Robin looked around for his father’s friend the wizard, but could not see him anywhere. There was the ruffling of feathers and an owl peered at them from its high perch in a pine tree. A sly fox poked its whiskered nose out from under a nearby bush.
Ahhh, thought Robin. He should have guessed the wizard would have friends in the forest.
The maiden began to sing...
Oh noble steed
Of golden hoof
And silver mane
Old Gods pass
And new are born
Long the furrows ploughed
In the years of men
Yet none wear a crown
More wondrous than a horn
I need you now
As I needed you then
Will you bow to bridle
And serve again?
The prince watched wide eyed with amazement as sturdy little Butternut the pony grew taller on long powerful legs, and his shaggy grey coat paled to a smooth shining white. Then a spiral of golden horn appeared on his forehead. He suffered no cruel bit between his teeth, but wore a bridle of jasmine in full flower, and it filled the glade with its perfume.
Faith, said Robin. But never have I ridden so magical a creature!
The woodsman laughed. Robin blushed.
He’d meant the unicorn.
Of course he had.
Come again dear Robin, said the maiden.
You will always be welcome, said the woodsman.
I will, Robin promised.
No sooner had he climbed on the unicorn’s back than they were galloping away from the glade. He only had time to wave a quick goodbye.
Will you not come with me? He begged her.
I cannot leave the glade, said the maiden sadly.
I do not know your name.
Call me Annaed!
He reached the castle drawbridge in the blink of an eye. There was a flash of bright white light and Robin was suddenly bouncing up and down on his faithful little pony Butternut again.
He saw his father pacing back and forth outside the tower gate. The wizard stood nearby smiling calmly. The wizard only nodded as the prince approached. But his father the king threw his arms around Robin and hugged him so tightly he lifted Robin clear off his pony. His father swung him around in his arms. So happy was he to have his son returned to him.
Certe, thought Prince Robin. He would go back to the glade again, and again, for as many days as there were stars in the sky - But it was good to be home!
The Troublesome Troll
Prince Robin sat quietly at his father’s feet in the Great Hall. Burning logs spat and crackled in a round stone hearth in the centre of the room. He watched smoke from the fire drift up and out through a hole in the thatched roof. A sinuous black cat stalked sparrows nesting in the oak rafters. The cat was called Shadow. Shadow belonged to the wizard. If any creature as conceited and spiteful as a cat could be said to belong to anyone.
Prince Robin didn’t think he would ever be as good and wise a king as his father. But he did want to be the best king he could be. A good king was like the shepherd who tended his flock day and night. Summer and Winter. Not because people were sheep but...
He felt his father nudge him with the toe of his boot and sat up straighter.
You will be king one day, his father had told him. So listen and learn. An ordinary chair would serve the people better than a throne with a fool on it.
There was no throne as such in the Great Hall. King Roland sat on a large block of dark grey granite with a wolf skin thrown over it. The king had killed the wolf with only a hunting knife when he wasn’t much older than Robin.
I must have flour, said the cook. I cannot bake bread without it!
The miller and his family stood next to the unhappy cook.
There isn’t any flour, said the miller. We need water to turn the mill wheel to grind the wheat. But something or someone has dammed the river.
Faith, thought Robin. No bread? But no bread would mean no toast. And a breakfast with no toast was no breakfast at all. There’d be no crusts to soak up the runny yolk of his boiled egg!
And no honey! How could he have bread and honey if there was no bread?
No bread means the people will go hungry, said the wizard.
Aldhyrwoode could read the prince’s mind as easily as some people could read words printed on a page. Robin blushed and looked away from the wizard. He saw the miller’s daughter smiling at him. She was thought by some to be the most beautiful girl in the kingdom. Her hair was flaming red like a sunset. Curls framed her ivory face and tumbled to her waist. Her eyes sparkled emerald green.
Robin didn’t know why he might think of such a thing, but he imagined her lying naked on his bed, and he was licking sweet sticky honey out of her...
Beaver? The king wondered out loud.
Your pardon, Sire. Said the miller. But I have seen it with my own eyes. No beaver can stack full grown trees one on top of the other like firewood.
That, said the wizard, would depend on the size of the beaver.
The miller’s wife blushed.
The cook forgot how upset he was and started to laugh.
The miller scowled and said, This is serious!
The king raised a hand. He’d heard enough. He turned to the captain of the castle guard and said, Send out patrols. Find who or what is building these dams. And have your men clear away the obstruction, so the river runs freely again.
The captain of the castle guard bowed and said, I will see to it at once, Sire!
If it please you, Sire, said Roger, I can show the captain and his men where the dam is.
Roger’s hair was a darker red than his sister’s, and his eyes were brown not green. And he had freckles. Robin decided he liked Roger’s freckles.
He asked his father the king if he could go with the miller’s son to see the dam.
King Roland nodded. If you hurry, he said. Don’t keep the captain and his men waiting.
The wizard Aldhyrwoode said, I will go with them. Whatever "it" is might still be there.
The two boys raced each other to the stables. Robin told Roger there wasn’t time to saddle and harness two ponies. But you can ride with me, he said. Butternut won’t mind.
They galloped out of the castle gates, kicking up a cloud of dust behind them, and joined the column of mounted men at arms. The mill had been built on a bridge that crossed the river not far from the castle. And the dam was only a short ride beyond that.
What could have done this? Robin asked.
There weren’t just trees blocking the river. Someone or something had rolled huge boulders down the mountain side.
Roger could only shrug.
We should explore, said Robin. Perchance the villain has left us a clue!
Don’t go too far, said the wizard. And stay away from giant beavers.
They made their way back to the mill.
Nothing, said a disappointed Roger. Not a footprint. Or a scrap of cloth. Not even a broken twig.
Robin slid down off Butternut and handed Roger the pony’s reins. He took off his boots and hose and doublet and waded out into the mud of the river bed.
Roger said, Take care! If the captain’s men clear a channel you will be swept away!
I think I see something, Robin called back.
Suddenly there was the sound of rushing water.
The captain’s men must have broken through the dam.
The river raced towards him...
All Robin could see was a wall of white water!
The river washed over him. The cold made Robin gasp. He came up coughing and spluttering. He could see Roger pointing at the bridge from the river bank.
Roger was shouting, THE WHEEL! Robin! GRAB THE WHEEL!
Then he was under the bridge. The mill wheel was right there.
This is it, thought Robin. My one chance!
He made a desperate grab for one of the wheel’s wooden spokes. Lost his grip. Reached again. Caught another. And was hauled up out of the water by the turning mill wheel. His arm ached. The force of the river hitting the mill wheel’s timber paddles had almost wrenched it out of the socket. But he was safe. And still alive!
Faith, said Robin out loud to himself. Almost drowning is becoming a habit I should try to avoid in future.
He looked around. It was dark inside the mill. The boards under his feet were wet and slippery and the air smelled of rotting damp. The mill wheel creaked. The paddles turned. Robin saw a tangled mop of dark red curls. And then Roger was sprawled on the floor. Dripping. Trembling. Retching.
Robin helped him to his feet.
Roger spat out a mouthful of river water. Faith, he said. But I NEVER want to do THAT again!
Really? Robin asked. I thought it was fun!
Roger led Robin to the small room that was his and stripped off his wet clothes. He laid them out on his bed to dry and wiped himself with an empty flour sack. He gave another to Robin. The sack was coarse and it scratched. But it did take the mud off.
It was quiet in the mill. Too quiet.
The wheel, said Roger. It has stopped again!
They ran to see why. Robin thought he saw something hiding in the shadows. A shadow in a shadow. No. Not a shadow. But...
Robin pointed and said, There!
That? Roger asked. T’is only a cat.
Not just any cat, said Robin. It’s the wizard’s cat!
We thought it a stray, said Roger. My sister feeds it.
And very nicely thank you, said the cat.
Robin looked at Roger.
Roger looked at Robin.
You can talk! They said together.
Of course I can talk, said Shadow.
There were voices. Getting closer. Louder.
Shadow said, The Master comes. And he leaped on to a window ledge and was gone.
The wizard and the miller walked in through the mill’s open doors together. The miller’s wife and daughter were behind them. The miller’s wife had found Robin’s clothes.
Aldhyrwoode looked Roger up and down with an odd smile on his face and winked at Robin. The pen doesn’t stop to think whose is the ink well, he teased.
Never mind who’s been dipping their nib, said the miller. Why is my wheel not turning? The river runs! I don’t understand it!
He reached up and grabbed the edge of a broad paddle and tried using all his weight to pull it down. But the wheel didn’t move. He wrapped his arms around the vertical pole that was meant to turn the grinding stone and tried to shift it. But still nothing. He checked the gears and cogs where they fitted with the spindle. But there was nothing wedged anywhere that might stop them.
He swore and stamped his feet and tore handfuls of hair out of his already balding head moaning, Why? Why? Why?
Robin tugged on the wizard’s sleeve. Before, he said. When there was only mud. I thought I saw something under the bridge.
Aldhyrwoode looked puzzled. What kind of something? He asked. Man or beast? Fish or fowl?
None of those, said Robin. And all of them.
The wizard stroked his beard and said, Could it be?
What is it? Robin asked.
The wizard didn’t answer. He turned and strode out of the mill. Robin and Roger were right behind him. He stopped suddenly to draw his wand out of the sash tied around his flowing robe, and they almost bumped into him.
The wizard put his hands to his mouth and called, Curmudgeon! Is that you?
A voice called back from under the bridge, Who wants to know?
It’s your old friend - Aldhyrwoode!
You’re no friend of mine!
Not bloody likely! Who’s that with you?
Only a pair of rascals like you, said the wizard. Come out and see for yourself..
We’d very much like to meet you, called Robin politely. Not sounding at all like a rascal.
An ugly face appeared. It wasn’t human, or animal, but bits of both. It had a fish’s mouth. A pig’s snout. A ram’s horns on its head. Its upper body was a man’s. But its arms were too long like an ape’s. It had hind legs like a goat. And a spade tipped tail.
Roger swore. What is that thing?
A troll, said the wizard. And a tricksy one at that.
Do you know him? Robin asked.
The wizard Aldhyrwoode nodded and said, We’ve met before.
The troll put its thumbs in its ears and wriggled its fingers and stuck its long green tongue out and blew a very loud raspberry.
Then it turned around and bent over and shook its hairy wart spotted wriggly jiggly bottom at them.
You forget your manners, said the wizard. He pointed his wand at Curmudgeon’s impertinent posterior and blasted it with a bolt of blue lightning.
Curmudgeon yowled. And he and his still smoking bottom disappeared.
There’s more, warned the wizard. If you don’t come out now!
The troll was back. Hanging upside down from the keystone at the top of the arch that supported the bridge by curved toes that looked like eagle’s talons.
What do you want? Curmudgeon grumbled.
An answer, said Aldhyrwoode. Nothing more.
Then ask, said the troll. And bugger off!
Why are you up to your old mischief again?
Why not? It’s what we trolls do.
What will make you stop this nonsense?
A kiss, said Curmudgeon. From the miller’s daughter.
Ewww, said Roger. Why would anyone want to kiss my sister?
That is my price, said Curmudgeon. It is not too much to ask!
Indeed, said the wizard. She is very beautiful.
We are still talking about my sister, right? Asked Roger.
I will arrange it, said Aldhyrwoode. She will come to you at dawn tomorrow, and you shall have your kiss.
I’ll be right here waiting, leered the troll.
She won’t do it, said Roger.
She must, said the wizard.
The rising sun painted the morning sky with streaks of orange and lavender. The miller’s daughter stood at the edge of the river. There were bubbles in the water. Then the troll was right there. Dripping slime and draped with foul smelling weed. He spread his arms and smacked his lips and made rude smooching noises.
Lay it on me baby!
She cupped his horrible face with her hands and pressed her lips to his.
Then, two things happened...
The miller’s daughter threw up.
There was a puff of luminescent green smoke. And Curmudgeon the troll started to shrink. Smaller and smaller. His eyes bulged. His skin changed from dark and hairy to smooth and slippery. His short stumpy legs grew longer. His fingers and toes were webbed.
He croaked once. RIBBBBBIT!
And jumped back into the river with a splash.
The miller’s daughter looked shocked and disappointed at the same time.
A FROG? She said again. But I thought... No handsome prince? Really? You mean I did all that for a frog? A FROG! URRRRK!!!
The wizard shrugged. Sorry, said Aldhyrwoode. But life is not always a fairy tale.
The mill wheel was turning again. There was more than enough flour to bake bread for everyone to have buttered crusts to dip in their boiled eggs. Or thick sliced sandwiches dripping with honey. The cook was happy.The miller and his wife were happy. The miller’s daughter was still recovering.
But a frog is better than a toad.
Robin swung himself easily into the saddle. He reached a helping hand out for Roger to climb up behind him, and they rode away from the mill on Butternut.
The miller’s wife called after them, Your Highness! Your clothes!
Keep them, said Robin. No suit suits me better than the suit I am wearing.
Roger laughed. And mine, Mother.
The miller’s wife threw her hands in the air and said, Boys!
The miller put his arm around his wife and said, Will always be boys. And the good Lord love and bless them for it.
Where are we going? Roger asked.
To see a giant, said Robin. And to swim with a water nymph. And we might even ride a unicorn!
The Blood Red Knight
Prince Robin was half blinded by the sweat stinging his eyes. Everything was a blur. Everything but the curved fangs of the wolf snarling so close to his face. Too close. He stepped back. Stumbled. Lost his balance. And fell.
He tried to scramble away on his hands and heels. But holding his sword in one hand, and with his shield strapped to his other arm, it wasn’t easy. His chain mail was like a lead weight slowing him down. He couldn’t move fast enough.
The wolf’s menacing shadow loomed over him...
Someone yelled, Get up!
Somebody else shouted, Fight boy! FIGHT!
But then the wolf lunged forward...
And held out a gloved hand.
The miller’s son, Roger, thrust the point of his wooden practice sword into the sand and sawdust of the barracks yard and raised the fearsome visor of his helmet.
He smiled at Robin. Here, he said. Let me help you up.
Robin returned Roger’s smile with one of his own. Wider and brighter. Roger helped Robin to his feet. The two friends laughed and embraced each other.
His sword play is much improved, Robin said to his father.
King Roland nodded and said, Indeed!
We’ll make a knight of him yet, said the captain of the castle guard.
Roger had never dared dream such a thing might be possible.
Faith, he said. A knight! Really?
The soldiers who’d stopped to watch went back to their own training.
Robin’s father told him to have the kitchen maids heat water for a bath.
But it’s only Thursday! Robin said. And my bath day is not till Sunday!
Then go dunk your heads in a horse trough, said his father. Or swim in the moat. Just be sure to come to tonight’s feast cleaner and smelling better than you do now.
Robin thought a swim in the castle moat was an excellent idea.
Roger wasn’t so sure. The wizard says there are catfish in there big enough to swallow a man whole!
Come on then, said Robin. We can bathe in my rooms if you like. The only thing there that can swallow a man whole is the chamber-maid. Or so the guards say.
In his rooms in one of the bailey’s four towers, Robin sent his servants away saying, We can wash ourselves, thank you.
They bowed and left. Robin helped Roger with the buckles and straps of the armour plate he was wearing. Roger helped Robin out of his heavy chain mail. Robin’s new boots came halfway up his thighs and fit him so well, Roger had to use two hands to tug and twist them off. Robin wriggled his toes.
Certe, he said. That’s better!
Roger’s thick undershirt of grey felt was next. Then his boots and leggings. Then Robin’s padded vest. Both boys had started following the new fashion of binding a long strip of linen around their waists and between their thighs instead of a codpiece or hose. Although a loincloth wasn’t as quick or as easy to remove, Robin thought it was a lot like unwrapping a present.
The rolled copper bath was in a corner of the room, under an arched and mullioned window. The water was just right. Hot but not too hot. And there was a tall pile of neatly folded towels on a low stool next to the tub. There wasn’t a lot of room in the bath for two. But Robin and Roger could sit at each end comfortably enough, if Roger tucked his knees up under his chin with his feet together between Robin’s legs.
The old lady who came on Sundays to scrub behind Robin’s ears and between his toes had found a new recipe for making soap using goats’ milk and olive oil. It was gentler on the skin and smelled much better than the old lye soap she’d always used before.
There was lots of laughing and splashing about.
The wizard Aldhyrwoode found them clean and dry in Robin’s bed. He raised an eyebrow at the puddles of soapy water on the floor, but only smiled the same odd smile he always smiled when he saw the two of them together.
I’ve been talking with your father, he said to Roger. About your coming to live in the castle.
But who will help in the mill? Roger asked.
Your father has agreed to take an apprentice, said Aldhyrwoode. A farmer’s son. You can have your own rooms. Or sleep here. With Robin. If that is your wish.
Robin was so happy he sat up and hugged the wizard.
Faith, he said. I’ve never had a friend sleep over before!
Aldhyrwoode laughed and said, That’s because your friends come from the stables and all smell like horse shi... Uhm... Yes. Well. Anyway. It’s time to get dressed. The feast is about to start. Your father and our guests are waiting for us in the Great Hall.
Dressed in their best clothes, Robin and Roger sat at the high table with Robin’s father, King Roland, and the wizard, Aldhyrwoode. Next to the king sat Don Sebastian. And next to the duke sat his son, Alejandro. The duke’s son was dark skinned with short cropped black hair and cold blue eyes. He was only a few years older than Robin, but Alejandro had already killed his first man in armed combat. He had a scar on his left cheek to prove it.
Robin thought him handsome. Like a prowling black panther was handsome. And dangerous.
He saw Alejandro looking at him.
Do you joust? Alejandro asked Robin.
I ahhh no. I mean yes, Robin stammered.
Then you ride in the tourney tomorrow?
The duke’s son walked around the far end of the high table. He stopped in front of Robin and slowly tugged at the black leather glove he wore on his right hand. One finger at a time. Then he slapped the glove down on the table. Hard enough to spill the king’s wine.
Robin heard his father growl deep in his chest.
The wizard put a restraining hand on the king’s arm.
Roger had turned an even whiter shade of pale under his freckles.
Don Sebastian watched his son the whole time. But said nothing.
Robin calmly picked up Alejandro’s glove and tossed it to one of the dogs waiting for scraps.
You accept? Alejandro challenged Robin.
I do, said Robin. Verily.
To the death?
No. No. No! First blood only, said the duke. We are guests here. Do not forget your manners!
It’s a bit late for that, said the king.
Robin didn’t sleep that night. Roger asked too many questions. All of them beginning with the words, But what if... ?
The ground shook as horses and riders wheeled and charged. The crowd cheered loudly. There were tents and pavilions set up everywhere. Small and large. Some round. Some square. All brightly coloured. Striped or checked or zig zagged. Their owners’ pennants flying above them. There were ladies and page boys and knights and their squires. And horses. Lots of horses!
Robin’s helpers were three of his friends from the stables and Roger. They were all he needed. No Butternut this time. The prince rode his father’s enormous grey war horse called D’Argent.
The oldest and tallest of the stable boys handed Robin a lance and said, Good luck!
We know you won’t need it, said Roger.
King Roland sat in the royal stand between Aldhyrwoode and Don Sebastian. Robin rode past and saluted his father. Roland only nodded in reply. It was enough. Robin found comfort in his father’s quiet confidence.
Crowds lined both sides of the course ten rows deep. A familiar bearded face towering above everyone else called out, Young Master Robin!
It was the woodsman from the glade. The giant waved a long chain of tiny white daisies. My Lady asked me to give you this!
He tied the maiden’s favour to D’Argent’s saddle.
Tell her thank you, said Robin. And I shall come to see you both on the morrow. If I can.
I do not doubt it. Not for one moment, said the woodsman with a smile and a wink.
Robin spurred his mount into a canter. At the far end of the field he could see Alejandro doing the same on the other side of the rail.
The Duke of Navarre's son rode a snorting black stallion. His armour was the colour of blood. His shield was the same deep crimson but with a black crown of thorns painted on it. Another crown of thorns cast in silver encircled his full faced helmet.
Robin’s armour had been polished until it shone like a mirror. His shield was white with a golden sun. He too wore a crowned helm. A prince’s crown. Of gold.
Trumpets sounded the charge.
D’Argent snorted. His ears flattened.
The big horse had been trained to joust. To run in a straight line. Right for the other horse and rider. And not veer away. And that meant Robin didn’t need to worry about anything else but hitting the target.
He urged D’Argent to a full out thundering gallop. He couched his lance. Holding it firmly in the crook of his elbow with the shaft resting on the saddle and the point aimed at Alejandro’s shield.
There was a loud CRACK!
Both their lances splintered on the other’s shield.
The crowd roared.
Robin rode to the end of the course and reached for another lance.
The crowd roared again. Robin looked around to see why.
Alejandro had already turned his horse and was racing back towards him.
He hadn’t even paused to snatch up another lance!
The duke’s son had drawn a two handed sword. He charged at Robin. Swinging the long heavy blade over his head as easily as a farmer scything grain.
Faith, thought Robin. Is he mad? A sword. No matter how long it was. Was no match for a lance!
I will unhorse him, Robin thought to himself. And that will be an end to it.
But a heartbeat before the tip of Robin’s lance could lift Alejandro out of his saddle, the duke’s son somehow shifted out of the way, and slammed the hilt of his sword against the side of Robin’s helmet.
Robin saw stars. He hit the ground - Hard!
Someone in the crowd yelled at him to, Get up!
Somebody else shouted, Stay down!
Robin didn’t think he could get up. Even if he wanted to. And he wasn’t all that sure he wanted to.
The black stallion reared on its hind legs. Its two front hooves pounded the ground only inches away from Robin’s helmet. Robin tried to roll away. Out of danger. But Alejandro followed him on the snorting black stallion. Its steel shod hooves getting closer and closer to crushing Robin’s skull.
Cry mercy! The duke’s son shouted at Robin.
Robin shouted, NEVER!
D’Argent was back. The big dappled grey shouldered the black stallion away from Robin. Biting the stallion’s neck. And then trying to bite Alejandro.
The duke’s son cursed and swore.
Robin was able to roll over on his stomach.
He got to his knees.
Then to his feet.
The crowd cheered.
Robin drew his sword.
The crowd yelled at Alejandro to, Get off!
Fight like a man!
Then they started booing.
There weren’t any rules in jousting. But there was a code of honour. Of chivalry. There were some things you just didn’t do.
The crowd knew it.
Robin knew it.
But did Alejandro know it?
In the royal stand, Robin’s father the king was furious.
It would seem your son has forgotten his manners again, he said to the duke.
Don Sebastian saw the anger in Roland's eyes and wondered if he and his son would leave the tournament alive.
Your Majesty, he said. My son is young and hot tempered. But I promise you he is neither a fool nor a villain. He will do the right thing!
Someone in the crowd threw a cabbage at Alejandro. It might have been the giant woodsman. Robin wasn’t sure. But whoever it was they had a good arm, because it knocked the duke’s son off his horse!
The crowd laughed and cheered.
Alejandro tore at his helmet and tossed it away. The scar on his face stood out white against the red of his flushed cheeks. His blue eyes burned brighter than the sun on Robin’s shield.
Certe, thought Robin. If looks could kill, then...
There was no time for that.
Alejandro swung the two handed sword at Robin’s head.
Robin blocked the blow with his own sword.
Steel rang on steel.
Robin used his shield to knock Alejandro’s blade away and stepped inside his opponent’s reach. The two handed sword was useless now. There was no room to wield it. Alejandro used its weighted hilt to hammer at Robin’s helmet instead. Robin smashed the edge of his shield into Alejandro’s unprotected face. And heard the CRUNCH of his flattened nose breaking.
The duke’s son fell backwards.
FIRST BLOOD! The crowd roared. FIRST BLOOD!
It was true. Alejandro’s face was a pulped and bloody mess.
He dropped to his knees. The two handed sword still gripped in his white knuckled fists.
Cry mercy, said Robin.
Alejandro spat a mouthful of blood at him. Fuck you!
Robin’s boot caught him flush on the jaw - And knocked him out cold.
There was another feast that night. Robin sat next to Roger at one end of the high table. Don Sebastian and Alejandro sat at the other. The king and the wizard sat between them.
Alejandro stood up. He walked around the far end of the table. All eyes in the Great Hall watched him. Even the wizard’s cat Shadow. Looking down from the rafters. But this time he didn’t stop in front of Robin. Instead he kept walking until he was standing behind Roger.
He tapped him politely on the shoulder. Excuse me, he said. But can I sit with you?
Roger made room on the bench seat.
Alejandro squeezed in next to Robin.
He had two black eyes and a plaster over his broken nose.
But Robin still thought him handsome.
Butternut the pony trotted happily into the glade with Robin on his back.
The maiden Annaed was waiting for him at the edge of the crystal clear spring.
Dear sweet Robin, she said. My Robin Redbreast returns.
She stroked his cheek tenderly with her soft fingers.
Redbreast? Robin asked.
Annaed smiled and said, Your doublet.
Oh. Uhm. Right.
Robin took the chain of tiny white daisies from around his neck and placed it over the maiden’s bowed head. Then he put a finger under her chin and gently raised her face until her eyes met his.
He leaned in...
And kissed her full on the lips.
The Crown Without A King
The wizard’s staff struck the flagstoned floor of the Great Hall.
THE KING IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE KING!
Prince Robin could feel his own blood flowing before he felt the cold sting of the pointed blade pressed against his throat.
Son of a worm infested dog! Hissed a voice in the darkness. Am I not enough for you?
Now. Now. Soothed Robin. There’s no need for...
Silence! How dare you speak to me as if you were my equal. I am a QUEEN!
Yes, your ahhh... Majesty. But aren’t you forgetting something?
Your uncle. The Maharajah.
The Princess Saavi arched a perfectly plucked eyebrow. That old fool?
That old fool, said Robin, was wise enough to send you away before you could smother him in his sleep. Or prick him with your needle.
You! You are no better than a sun baked pile of maggot infested camel dung!
Sticks and stones, laughed Robin. Realizing his mistake when the stiletto’s tip dug deeper.
With the wizard’s magic, Robin had grown from a child to a young man. As tall as any man, and with a man’s strength, and he caught the Maharanee’s wrist and pushed her hand holding the dagger away easily.
What did you mean by “Am I not enough?” He asked her.
I saw the way you looked at my lady-in-waiting.
I’m sure she’s a wonderful person, said Robin, but the scrubber of your royal chamber pot has a face that could strip varnish.
Anything else he might have said was cut off abruptly by a kiss.
But not just any kiss. As kisses go, this one was a tropical monsoon. Hot and wet and incessantly persistent.
Aldhyrwoode the wizard repeated his message for Robin a third time, and then had Orpheiu say it back to him, to be sure the raven remembered it correctly, word for word.
You are needed here, quoth the raven. Your father lies in state. The crown has no king. Ride like the wind. Or all might yet be lost!
While he had a vague idea where to find Prince Robin, Aldhyrwoode couldn’t be more precise than the city fortress of Jal Naghrahar. Far to the East.
Just look for trouble, he told Orpheiu. If I know Robin, he won’t be far away.
The duke’s army was camped less than a day’s march from the kingdom’s southern border.
We ride the minute I hear from Bjern Bearskinner, Don Sebastian told his generals.
The jarl of the northern raiders had already sailed with several hundreds of longships. He would burn them where they lay beached. Let the runes fall where they may. There would be no retreat.
That Alejandro and his father had argued was no secret. Prince Robin was Alejandro’s friend. He thought they should wait for Robin to return. Anything other than that would be dishonourable.
And while we pretend to mourn? The duke had asked his son. What? Others will claim the crown for their own! That’s what! We cannot wait!
The kingdom is not yours, Alejandro had told his father, and nor will the crown ever be!
And who is going to stop me? The wizard?
No, said Alejandro. I will.
If I must.
You would see me in my grave? Your own flesh and blood?
I would see my friend succeed to that which is rightfully his!
I do not doubt, said Don Sebastian softly, that you mean what you say. But I warn you... This old lion still has his claws!
The captain of the castle guard didn’t command legions. But the men in his service were well trained and well armed, and they had sworn an oath to defend the realm and protect its people. Loyal to the old king, they loved Prince Robin.
We will fight to the last of us, the captain told Aldhyrwoode. There will be no surrender.
Such a noble sacrifice might not be needed, said the wizard. My agent at the court of Don Sebastian tells me the Marshall of Navarre is on our side.
The blood red knight? But that is excellent news!
The duke would snatch the crown in a heartbeat, if he wanted it for himself, said Aldhyrwoode. But a throne of cold hard rock is no seat for arthritic bones. And no matter how pretty the bow, an unwanted gift might just as well be an empty box.
The duke wants the kingdom for his own son? Asked the captain.
He does. Aldhyrwoode nodded. If Alejandro would accept it. Which he will not.
And the raiders from the north?
Are still at sea. And the ocean can be... Unpredictable.
So we pray for a storm?
A prayer, said Aldhrywoode, is a waste of breath. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.
Bjern Bearskinner had skinned more than his fair share of bears, but that wasn’t how he’d earned his name. The bear was Bjern’s totem animal. He always wore the grizzled pelt of an enormous brown bear into battle. He bore no shield, and carried no sword nor axe nor spear. He could break a man in half with his bare hands. Or tear one from limb to limb as easily as a monk might tear a sheet of parchment. Bjern was a berserker.
He was also gut wrenchingly sea-sick.
Bring me more ale! He roared. And row faster! Blow in the bloody sail if you have to, but get this floating turd onto something more solid than...
More solid than what he didn’t say.
He was too busy puking into Harald the Hard-arse’s helmet.
Do not look now, said the Princess Saavi, but there is an ugly bird on the window ledge.
It’s not your lady-in-waiting is it? Asked Robin. Who then did exactly what he was NOT supposed to do, and looked. Orphieu!
You know it?
Certe, said Robin. I know him well.
What news? He asked the raven.
When the bird had delivered its message, Robin sat on the floor of the Maharanee’s private quarters and wept unashamedly. Firstly for his father. Secondly because he would have to leave the princess, whom he loved. And thirdly because he couldn’t see how he was possibly going to return to the kingdom, his kingdom now, in time to save it.
Do not fret so, said Princess Saavi. There is a way. The rug under the bed, can you drag it out? I will summon the guards to help you.
The bed was a huge monstrosity carved from teak, and weighed nearly as much as an elephant, but huffing and puffing, Robin and a dozen of the palace guards were finally able to lift it just enough for two more guards to haul the dusty old carpet out from underneath it. As soon as the rug was free, it rose into the air, and floated all by itself!
Being as familiar with magic as he was, Robin wasn’t surprised, or at least not as surprised as the guards were. And seeing that the carpet was large enough to carry two comfortably, he swept the princess up in his arms and spun around the room, his mouth planted passionately on her equally fervent lips.
Faith! He exclaimed, when he could speak again. I’ve met giants and nymphs and trolls and unicorns, but I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would meet a girl with a flying rug!
Thunder and lightning. Howling gales. Waves taller than a ship’s mast. Bearskinner and his fleet of piratical pillagers are driven further and further south. None are lost or sunk, that’s not a part of the wizard Aldhyrwoode’s plan. He needs them to still be a threat when they finally land, somewhere, though the raiders don’t know it, on the western shores of Don Sebastian’s dukedom.
The rider didn’t bother to dismount, but charged straight through the open flaps of Don Sebastian’s campaign tent.
My Lord! He cried. We are invaded!
My Lord! Roger was yelling, when he skidded into Aldhyrwoode’s workshop. They’re here!
Robin’s here? Already? But...
What would have taken Robin and the Princess Saavi weeks by ship, or even months on horseback, was shortened to only a day and a night of flying first class on the magic carpet.
There’s a girl with him, said Roger. And you should see her rug!
Eh? What? I don’t... Girl’s rugs aren’t... Robin’s here?
Yes! Roger laughed. Come on!
For an old man, Aldhyrwoode had no trouble keeping with the young knight, and even shouldered past him as they ran up the turret’s stairwell to the courtyard, where a company of the Castle Guard were struggling to keep the carpet grounded.
My Prince! My Prince! The wizard wept tears of joy. Throwing his arms around Robin, and even dancing a little jig. You are come! Oh, my boy! My dear sweet boy!
Robin shared his friend and mentor’s happiness. As pleased to see Aldhyrwoode as the wizard was to have his Prince home.
My father, said Robin. Where is he?
Oh! Yes! You must... He is... Forgive me, said Aldhyrwoode, for an old fool... Of course you... And here am I... But come... And you M’Lady... So beautiful you are... We must... But later...
In the captain’s quarters, a small group of squires listened, all ears, to the story of how the late king had fought, and won for himself, every rock and tree and river and valley from the towering snow-capped mountains to the endless forests.
In those days, the lands of Don Rafael, the duke’s older brother, had stretched as far as the horizon in every direction. In the third year of the great famine, a horde of savage tribesmen rode out of the plains on their unshod ponies. They were like a plague, destroying everything in their path. Leaving nothing behind them but the dead.
The frontier outposts were the first to fall, one after the other.
Rafael’s brother, Sebastian, was there too. Brawling with the best of them. Up to his knees in the mud and the blood and the shit. But a blow on the helm knocked him out cold.
Of all the Don’s men, none were braver, or fought more valiantly, than Rafael’s young squire. And just as a heathen spear was set to spill the duke’s guts...
Who was there to save his life?
The boy who would be king! The squires all shouted as one.
The tribesmen were first rate fighters. But they had no discipline. No order. And the tide of battle soon turned in the duke’s favour. They were wiped out, down to the very last of them. No more than a stripling. A child. But no sword or lance could touch him.
There was some kind of force, some sorcery, protecting him. That no blade could breach.
We could be here all day, Roland D'Arturian called to him, and every day until world’s end. But I have better things to do. Will you share a skin of wine with me?
I will die of thirst before I surrender!
A truce, then! Called Roland. There’s no disgrace in that, surely!
On your honour?
On my word. One friend to another.
We are not friends!
Not yet. But we could be. What say you?
Don Rafael, being relieved to still have his innards, bade his squire kneel and knighted him right there on the spot.
Arise, Sir Roland. A servant no more, but a king in your own right!
And who did D'Arturian choose to help him rule his new kingdom?
None other than the feral boy.
The last of his tribe.
The necromancer’s child - Al Den Whyr.
King Roland was laid out on a tall block of black marble. He’d been dressed in a simple blue tunic with a belt of gold, and his silver hair and beard had been brushed. He wore no jewellery other than a plain band of bronze on one wrist. As forthright and unpretentious in death as he had been in life.
Holding his father’s hand, Robin kissed him on the unwrinkled brow. There were no words to express how he felt.
I wish you could have met him, he said to Princess Saavi. You would have liked him. And he you.
He would have loved you, said Aldhyrwoode.
They hadn’t even been formally introduced yet, but the wizard could clearly see for himself how much Robin thought of Saavi. And if Robin loved her, that was enough.
Robin looked at Roger and said, Bring him his crown. We will bury him with it.
No king should be without a crown. Or a crown without a king.
But, my Lord. You are king. How are we to... ?
The kingdom is all the crown I need, said Robin, and the people more precious than any metal or gems.
A Prince Among Men
King Robin saw his young son knocked out of the saddle by a helmless and unarmoured man, on foot, swinging a broken lance.
The boy sat up and shook his head as if dazed.
Are you hurt? Called King Robin.
Only his pride, said the wizard, Aldhyrwoode, beside him.
Robin was accustomed to the wizard silently appearing with no warning, and wasn't startled, but he did wish his old friend would clear his throat...
Your pardon, Sire. Said Aldhyrwoode. The northmen have arrived.
Who are you, little man, challenged Bjern Bearskinner, to want to poke me with your needle?
My father's son, Rhowyn. Prince of Rhealmyrr. And if you had a neck, my needle would strike your ugly melon head clean off!
The berserker laughed long and loudly. A prince, is it? I eat them for breakfast! Come then, Prince Rhowyn! But mind you don't bend your puny needle... Others will need it to sew you back together!
Men of the castle guard elbowed and slapped one the other on the back where they watched from the walls and towers. While in the courtyard below, Robin ran at the mighty warrior, his sword raised over his head in a double-handed grip.
Bjern Bearskinner stood fully seven feet. As broad across the shoulders as he was tall. He had battering rams for arms, and fists like hammers. He had a neck, of that Rhowyn was certain, somewhere under the thick grizzled beard that flowed into the weave of coarse russet hair covering the giant's body.
Still some distance from the man mountain, Rhowyn threw his dull edged practice blade away and leaped into the air. The Bearskinner caught him easily, his massive arms almost crushing the breath from the boy's body, and swung him around like nothing more than a child's straw dolly. Roaring with laughter.
Uncle Bjern! Uncle Harald!
Setting Rhowyn back on his feet, Bjern Bearskinner kissed the boy's dark curls and then roughed them vigorously. King Robin and Bjern clasped forearms in fond greeting. And Harald Hard-arse curtsied, grinning like a loon.
Harald Hard-arse had lost all but three of his teeth, his right eye, most of his right ear, and three fingers off his left hand. Some called him Lucky Harald. Or Half Harald, because his mind was only half there, they said, but Harald only played the fool. The true fool was any man who doubted Harald's wits. Or his skill with a sword, axe, or spear.
Aldhyrwoode and the helmless man stood several paces away, looking on and smiling. The man's dark skin and short cropped black hair glistened with sweat. He wore a sleeveless tunic of crimson dyed wool, embroidered with a black crown of thorns, and cinched at the waist with a knotted black cord.
Winking at the blood red knight with his one good eye, Harald said, We kicked your father's arse.
The Marshall of Navarre raised a sceptical eyebrow. Really? That's not what I heard.
Bjern Bearskinner guffawed.
King Robin hid the flicker of a smile.
Don Alejandro stepped closer to Rhowyn. He draped both arms over the young prince's shoulders, his hands clasped in front of the boy's chest. Such an open display of affection wasn't rare. But Alejandro's love for Rhowyn had never stopped him from being a hard taskmaster. Hence the undignified exit of the young prince from his saddle, to rattle his teeth and bruise his posterior when he'd landed on the hard baked clay of the training arena.
Rhowyn lifted Alejandro's scarred knuckles to his lips and kissed them.
Oaks from acorns grow, said the Bearskinner to Rhowyn. Harald tells me tomorrow is your name day.
Rhowyn nodded. My years will number two and ten, my lord.
Old enough to marry! I have four daughters. I'll even let you choose.
Girls? Asked Rhowyn.
Aye, said Harald, and each one the spitting image of her father.
Not all girls have beards, Aldhyrwoode teased Rhowyn.
Certe, agreed King Robin. And even fewer have magic carpets.
Aldhyrwoode the wizard and Don Alejandro were waiting in the Great Hall. With them stood the captain of the castle guard, and an archer dressed all in green, leaning on his longbow. Don Sebastian was also present.
The Bearskinner saw the duke and glowered. What's that old scorpion doing here?
This concerns him and his as much as it does all of us, said King Robin.
He looked at the hooded archer and nodded.
The archer straightened and cleared his throat. He approached the table where Aldhyrwoode had unrolled a map of the known world. A world that, if the archer was right, was in dire peril.
The others gathered around to see where the archer was pointing.
Here are the mountains that mark the northern border of the kingdom, he said. Beyond them are the wastelands. Nothing and no one lives there...
Or so we believed.
We were wrong, said the wizard.
What, exactly, are we talking about? Asked Don Sebastian.
Spiders. Said Aldhyrwoode.
Hard-arse harrumphed. Are we maids to piss our pants at a few creepy crawlies?
These were the size of mammoths, said the archer. And they had riders. Others were with them, on foot. An army of others.
How many others?
Tens of thousands.
Ten or ten thousand, said Hard-arse. All men bleed the same.
The archer looked at King Robin.
These were not men, said the king. Or, at least... Not as we know them.
What followed the captain of the castle guard through the door of an adjoining antechamber into the Great Hall had to stoop so as not to hit its head on the stone lintel. Taller than the Bearskinner, it was slender and long limbed, with an elongated skull. The distorted features of eyes, nose, and mouth were recognizable as such. But that was where any resemblance to men ended.
The eyes were narrow shards of polished obsidian, seemingly without iris or pupil, and heavily lidded under a high brow. The nose was flat and shapeless with slits for nostrils. The wide mouth had no discernible lips. Holes in either side of the head served as ears. And the head, face, and neck were covered in irregular, iridescent-green scales. There were five finger-like appendages on each hand, and five toes on each foot, but instead of nails there were curved, wickedly sharp, black claws. Close-fitting armour plate of carved greenstone over some kind of leather that might have been rhinoceros hide protected the body from sternum to knee. But what fascinated the assembled lords more than anything was the sinuous, tapering tale that scraped on the flagstone floor.
My old mother whelped seven bastard sons to seven different fathers, said Hard-arse, but none of them were... What are you?
I am Skraaal.
The Skraaal are an ancient race, said the wizard, Aldhyrwoode. They were old when men were still swinging through the trees and scratching their hairy ars -
This is Saaal Soool, said the archer. Soool is his name. And Saaal is his title. We would say ‘Prince’.
What else is he? Asked Don Sebastian. A prisoner? A hostage? A spy?
Our guest, said King Robin. Though one with limited freedom.
And this army you speak of?
Hasn’t reached the mountain passes, said the archer. Yet.
But they will, said Alejandro. It is only a matter of when. Not if.
The duke shrugged. So, stop them there. They cannot come through in any number large enough to breach the defences. These passes are fortified, yes? Walls? Towers? Gates?
We... The king paused. We didn’t think it was necessary.
They are watched, said Aldhyrwoode, nodding toward the archer in green.
Oh? I suppose that's all right, then! Said Don Sebastian sarcastically.
The archer hooked a thumb at the Skraaal. No one gets through.
Saaal Soool tapped the table with a claw. There is one, he rasped, with more freedom than I.
His words were followed by a soft THUMP from under the table. Which was followed by a muffled OW! And the captain of the castle guard dragged Prince Rhowyn out of hiding by the ankles.
Don’t tell me, smirked Harald, you were tumbling a pretty maid. One from the kitchens, maybe. But then you put her down and couldn’t remember where. So you were under there looking for her. Am I right?
Everyone laughed. Even Saaal Soool. Everyone but the sour faced duke, Don Sebastian.
Rhowyn was allowed to stay to serve his mother, Queen Saavi, who had joined them. The queen was behemothly pregnant with a baby brother or sister for Rhowyn. He brought her a chair and helped her to sit. He poured her a cup of iced water, and chose the plumpest, sweetest fig for her from a platter piled high with a selection of fruits from the castle's own orchards
There were more platters lining a sideboard. One had thin slices of toasted bread, brushed with olive oil and rubbed with garlic, arranged around a leg of beef, marinated in red wine and mustard before being roasted on a spit, and served with a rich gravy flavoured with juniper berries. On another were quail stuffed with rice and dates, honeyed pheasant, quarters of apricot glazed duck, and fried chicken the cook had first battered and then coated in cornmeal, cracked red pepper, lemon zest, and powdered chilli. A third platter held cream cakes and sweet pastries, nuts, dried fruit, and honeycomb.
There were jugs of iced water. Others of wine. And a small oaken cask of barley beer. Which the Bearskinner and Harald bade Rhowyn leave at their end of the table.
Aldhyrwoode asked Rhowyn to do the same with the platter of cream cakes and pastries.
When presented with the roast meats, Saaal Soool politely declined.
The Skraaal do not eat of the flesh, he said, but might he trouble the young Saaal for a norange? Slicing it neatly into segments with a claw, he ate them without removing the pith and bitter peel.
Rhowyn returned to stand beside his mother's chair.
Don Alejandro found another for his father, the duke. Don Sebastian didn't refuse, but grumbled at his son to, Stop fussing.
Old age had silvered the duke's hair and beard, and the cold made his bones ache. His teeth had been replaced with dentures of walrus ivory. He needed a polished glass to read. He complained about the weather constantly. The iced water was too cold. The wine too sour. The meat too tough to chew. And he griped and scowled at anything anyone had to say.
But when Rhowyn knelt to rub his aching feet for him, the old curmudgeon softened enough to stroke the boy's hair with an arthritic hand.
How is your training at arms? He asked Rhowyn. Do you joust?
Yes, your Grace.
I remember your father could couch a lance better than anyone. Even mine own son.
To Alejandro the duke said, Did you tell him about that? Somebody threw a cabbage at you. You refused to yield. Robin broke your nose.
Rhowyn looked at the Marshall of Navarre. Now the Queen's Guard.
Really? He laughed. A cabbage?
Remember your duties, his father the king, told him, somewhat sternly.
Aye, said Harald Hard-arse. Bring us yon bit o' cow. But leave the crusts.
Above them, in the rafters of the Great Hall, Ovidieu the raven preened his sable feathers. Keeping a cautious eye out for Shadow, the wizard's black cat and familiar.
Beyond the sun baked salt plains men called the wastelands, Saaal Soool told them, were steep sided canyons created by rivers, fast and shallow in places, slow and deep in others. The rivers watered fruit trees, and fields of corn and squash. The Skraaal made their homes in caves and deep crevices they shared with their spiders. A Skraaal's wealth was measured by how many spiders he had, and how large they were.
The Skraaal do not give birth to live young, he said, but lay clusters of eggs which hatch by themselves when they are ready. The hatchlings are cared for by a collective of older females called the Skruuuliim.
What do the spiders eat? Asked Aldhyrwoode.
Their young, answered Saaal Soool. A female can lay hundreds of eggs in a spawning. We separate the biggest and the best of the spawnlings, and feed those we do not wish to keep to the adults.
Sounds idyllic, said Don Sebastian. So, why leave this paradise of yours?
The rivers, said Saaal Soool. They are rising. More and more with each season. Soon they will flood our fields, and the trees will die. Ours is not an army of invasion, marching to conquer your lands, but refugees. A people in exodus. We ask only for safe passage.
A swarm of locusts, said the duke. And how do you expect to feed yourselves? Our farmers will not give up their harvests and let their children starve to feed your hordes.
His Grace does not speak for me and mine, said King Robin pointedly.
More fool you, then! Spat the duke.
What? Don't 'father' me, boy. The Navarre do not bend the knee!
More fool you, then. Said Bjern Bearskinner.
There was nothing weak or infirm in how quickly Don Sebastian stood up and drew his sword.
His Pompousness might find it easier, snarled the raider Harald Hard-arse, if he stood on a ladder.
Two such insolent saplings are as easily felled as one, said the duke.
Enough! Said Alejandro, taking his father firmly by the elbow. Put your sword away.
Your Grace, said Rhowyn, reaching for the duke's other hand and holding it in his own. Please?
Anger flared in Don Sebastian's eyes and, for a moment Rhowyn believed the old man might wrench his hand free and slap him.
King Robin hadn't moved. He stood at the table. Stone faced. Implacable. And stared the duke down.
Let us withdraw, said Aldhyrwoode, to consider. We will meet again on the morrow.
Prince Rhowyn woke in Alejandro's bed. He stretched and yawned. The bedclothes were tossed back and the sheet cool. Alejandro stood naked at a window, pissing noisily into a chamber pot.
Today is my name day, said Rhowyn. Do you have something for me?
Alejandro returned to the bed and leaned in to kiss Rhowyn full on the lips.
Is that all? Asked Rhowyn.
What more could a spoiled brat like you possibly want?
It was the second of Prince Rhowyn's name day feasts. A banquet in the Great Hall. The first had been that day, a riverside picnic for every child from the town and its surrounds. The duke did not attend.
Nor was he there at the banquet, sending a squire with Rhowyn's gift, a pricked-eared, wild-eyed prancing palomino named Skull-crusher. Horses were the duke's passion, and the coursers and chargers of Navarre were the finest to be found anywhere.
He is young, your Highness. The squire said to Rhowyn. And headstrong. His Grace wishes you both to grow and learn together.
Please thank his Grace for his most excellent gift.
The squire bowed before King Robin and Queen Saavi. Your Majesties. His Grace apologizes for his absence, and begs your forgiveness.
His Grace is a sour old grump, Saavi whispered to Robin.
The Great Hall was filled with light, and the rafters rang with music and merriment. Lords and ladies from all across Rhealmyrr had come bearing gifts for the young prince. They ate too much. Drank too much. And had a good time doing so.
Bjern and Harald were there. So, too, was Alejandro, seated to Queen Saavi's left at the high table. King Robin sat on her right. Then Aldhyrwoode. Then Rhowyn. Then Saaal Soool, who'd been allowed to attend as Rhowyn's guest.
I do not have a gift for you, young Saaal, I am sorry. But perhaps I can sing for you?
If it's a song you want, roared Harald drunkenly, I know one about a whore with a wooden leg!
The Great Hall fell silent as Saaal Soool made his way down from the dais to stand before Prince Rhowyn.
In a strong, if rasping, voice he sang...
When the stars were young
There were Skraaal
When the world was new
There were Skraaal
Before sky fall were we
Before dragon doom were we
Before the first grass were we
Before the first flower were we
No tree yet grew in The Garden
No harvest yet ripened there
No men yet spilled their seed
No women yet bore their fruit
After the last leaf dies will we be
After the last child weeps will we be
After the last mountain is dust will we be
After the last gods are slain will we be
When the world turns no more
There are Skraaal
When the sun and moon fade
There are Skraaal
Well? Demanded Don Sebastian.
The council had gathered again in the Great Hall.
King Robin and the duke stood glaring at each other across the table.
You ask too much, said King Robin.
I'm giving you Navarre!
In exchange for our son, said the queen.
You have mine, Don Sebastian countered.
The wizard Aldhyrwoode cleared his throat to say something.
One look at Queen Saavi's face was enough to change his mind.
I won't dishonour Alejandro by asking him to recant his vow to serve you, said the duke. I have ten more years, at best, and Navarre needs an heir. One the noble families will accept.
And Rhowyn is that heir?
Don Sebastian nodded. After he marries the youngest daughter of Montoya, yes. I will adopt him as my grandson.
And Alejandro? Asked King Robin.
Must be seen to support Rhowyn's claim. But... If my son should ever marry and have a child, then the dukedom will be that child's to inherit.
There was a long silence.
Don Sebastian grew tired of waiting. It's not as if you'll never see him again. In return I will cede our southern frontier to the Skraaal. The land there is very much like their own.
And strengthen your borders by several thousands, said Harald. You're smarter than you look.
I wish I could say the same for you.
Aldhyrwoode cleared his throat again.
This time Queen Saavi nodded. Go on. You've had a face like a constipated goat for the last... I don't know how long! Just say it.
It's Rhowyn's future we're talking about. I was only going to suggest we ask him what he thinks.
All heads turned and looked at the twelve year old prince.
It's not, though, is it? Said Rhowyn. I have my friends and my family. I don't need a crown or a throne to make me happy. What's important... What really matters... Is helping Saaal Soool and his people. And not just the Skraaal, but the people of Navarre. I know what others think of his Grace, I've heard what they say about him. Don Sebastian does what he truly believes is best for those who depend on him. He isn't always right. But he cares. Really cares.
Just like you, Father. Or you, Uncle Bjern.
Did you know that the cook tastes everything he prepares before it leaves the kitchens? Or that the miller grinds his flour twice? Or that Korm the stable boy mixes honey through the oats he feeds the horses? Just because they like it?
A crown without compassion is an empty promise.
Your Grace, said Rhowyn, kneeling at his feet and taking both of Don Sebastian's hands in his. I would be proud to call you Grandfather. And if I were the duke, I would try to be the very best lord I could be. Rich or poor, noble or low born, merchant or blacksmith or scullery maid, I would care for each of them equally.
But do not think me soft! He said, rising to his feet and looking at each face in the room in turn. I would punish the wicked. And hammer those who mean to harm. I would be strong, yet forgiving. Righteous, yet fair. Brave, yet prudent.
A man should be all of these. And more. They are the qualities that raise us up. The giants on whose shoulders we stand. Without them there is no hope of ever being all that we could be... All we might be.
A good man. A wise man. That man is a prince among men.
The Spiders Of Skraaal
Prince Rhowyn and his father, King Robin, were riding as far as The Greenwoode to meet the Skraaal elders. With them rode the archer and two other wardens of the north, Saaal Soool, six knights, and twelve men of the castle guard. The roads of Rhealmyrr were seldom troubled by robbers, but the north was a wild place, and there had been some rumbling among the hill clans about the Skraaal, who they called the Dragonfolke.
King Robin had never been a "king-ly" king. He didn't wear a crown, or ermine, or jewels. He liked clothes that were comfortable and practical, and for their journey he was dressed in a plain brown leather tunic, cinched at the waist with a bronze studded sword belt, over black woollen hose and knee high black boots.
Prince Rhowyn's boots were buckskin. He wore a white cotton shirt under a padded linen doublet of sunflower yellow and a kind of loose fitting trews, called jodhpurs. Before the queen was the queen, Rhowyn's mother had been the Maharanee of Jal Naghrahar, a fortress city far to the east, where their gods were monkeys with blue faces and eight armed elephants. And where, she had told him, everyone wore jodhpurs. Even the blue faced monkey god, Khasheem.
Sir Roger and our men should have started bringing the Skraaal through the mountain passes by now, the archer in green told King Robin.
Roger the miller's son was Robin's boyhood friend, and was now Sir Roger of Delthemyrr.
He would be waiting for them at Torstone on the river Tor.
And cursing my name as we speak, said King Robin, for giving him such a difficult task, no doubt.
He gave me the impression of being more than able, said the archer.
Rhowyn thought the archer gave the same such impression. Tall and lean with short cropped grey hair, the archer spoke softly and seldom, but when he did speak, the king listened. An ease of familiarity between the two made Rhowyn wonder who the hooded warden might be. But so far his father had refused to answer any of Rhowyn's questions. Saying only that the archer's story was his own to tell, if and when he wanted to share it with Rhowyn.
Sir Roger had chosen a white mill wheel on a blue field for his coat of arms, and it was his banner bearing te same that they spied first, flying over the twin gate towers of Torstone.
A stone bridge spanned the river. On the opposite bank sprawled Torstone itself, a hamlet of timber and daub houses with straw thatched roofs.
I don't see any Skraaal, said Rhowyn. Where are the spiders?
On the other side of that low hill, the archer told him. The people of Torstone aren't especially fond of them.
Saaal Soool couldn't understand why. They are no more dangerous than cows in a field, he said.
You've never been kicked by a cow, laughed King Robin.
I'd like to see somebody try to milk one, said a castle guard.
Sir Roger and four of his men at arms in blue surcoats met them in the shadow of the twin towers. With Sir Roger was the Sheriff of Torstone, a keg of a man whose brow was furrowed by a perpetual frown.
The sheriff was most pleased to see Saaal Soool. Possibly because it meant the none to soon absence of thousands of enormous spiders from the hills around his home.
I was told King Robin was coming, said the sheriff, shifting from foot to foot and side to side to look past the horsemen in front of him, as if the king might yet be coming down the road behind them.
When Sir Roger bowed to the ordinary looking fellow on a tall, but also rather ordinary looking horse, and said, Your Majesty, the sheriff looked dumbfounded.
Eh? What? Him?
Yes, said Robin, hiding a smile. Me.
Better late than never, the sheriff doffed his feathered hat and tripped over his tongue.
Oh... Ah... Um... Your Royal Highness.
That would be me, teased Rhowyn.
Eh? What? You?
My son, said King Robin. The Crown Prince.
Oh... Ah... Eh?
Best quit now, Sir Roger told the sheriff, while you still have your head.
Lining the one and only street to welcome their sovereign, the people of Torstone were as confused and befuddled as the sheriff.
Where is he, then?
I think that's him.
Him on the horse.
They're all on horses!
He don't look like no king I ever saw.
How would you know? You've never seen one.
His beard needs combing.
Good Sheriff, called Rhowyn, your city is as splendid as we at court have heard.
At which the good sheriff puffed up and positively beamed. Eh? Ah... Thank you, Your Er...
Royal Highness, prompted Sir Roger.
Oh... Um... Yes. Your Royal Highness.
Having left the sheriff to peacock, the knights, guards, and Sir Roger's men at arms were told they could luncheon at a nearby tavern, while Saaal Soool took Prince Rhowyn the see the spider herds, and King Robin and the archer went with Sir Roger to meet the Skraaal elders.
Would the young Saaal like to ride a spider? Asked Saaal Soool.
Yes! Said Rhowyn.
He began to have second thoughts when he saw his first arachniim.
Faith! He exclaimed.
Rhowyn never said things like Faith or Certe. Well, almost never. Ye Olde Words were only for Ye Olde Folk.
A young male, the spider's body was the length of a hay waggon, and easily the height of two full grown men on it's eight, slender legs.
Females, Saaal Soool told him, could grow three times as large.
The young male's abdomen and legs were the reddish brown of rusting iron. Its thorax was darker, the colour of dried blood, and striped like tortoise shell. The pincered chelicerae and two pedipalps, for holding down its prey, were a deep bottle green. And the orbs of its four eyes polished onyx.
How... How do I mount it? Asked Rhowyn.
The Skraaal herder who'd guided the spider to them by tapping it with the end of a long, thin pole made a back of the throat sound, like he was hawking up a gob of phlegm, and the spider kneeled on its four front legs.
They don't bite, do they?
The Skraaal laughed his rasping laugh and said, No. They wrap their food in silk, while it is still alive, leave it to die a slow lingering death, and then, when the body has begun to rot, they pierce it with a tube-like tongue and suck the corpse dry.
But they only eat other spiders... Right?
Yes, said Saaal Soool. Mostly.
The plan King Robin and Sir Roger outlined to the Skruuuliim was this:..
South as far as the Sylverne River.
There they'd put as many Skraaal as they could on Bearskinner's longships. The rest could follow the river south-west with their spiders.
At the border with Navarre, King Robin and Prince Rhowyn would leave them and return to Castellayne.
The longships would sail home to the islands of Greyshale.
Sir Roger would stay with them until they reached the city of Kaldiz.
Where the duke's men would be waiting to escort them the rest of the way to the southern marches.
And the green man? Asked an elder.
My duty is here, replied the archer.
How do we know the Navarre will not kill us all? Asked another.
We have something the duke wants, said King Robin. My son.
Robin found Rhowyn riding his spider with Saaal Soool sitting behind him.
Father! Called Rhowyn, bright eyed and cheek flushed. This is Nibbler! Can I keep him?
The Island Of Bones
Prince Rhowyn had seen the world turn through four full seasons and fully four again. His years numbered four and ten on the eve of his wedding. The Lady Caitlyn Louisa was an elfin faced child of eleven. A rose still yet in bud.
It was sooner than anyone had expected.
A raven of ill omen had reached Castellayne. The duke's health was failing. A cancer of the blood, thought his Grace's physician.
Prince Rhowyn's coronation would follow immediately after the marriage. A bitter sweet occasion, followed as it would be by Don Sebastian's funeral. Of that, his Grace's physician had written, there could be no doubt. It was only a matter of how soon after.
Rhowyn and Alejandro had been at the court of Kaldiz for some six months. There had been a short tour of the nearest of Navarre's noble houses. Others had made the journey to meet and speak with Rhowyn. Still others wouldn't get their first glimpse of the future duke until the wedding.
The Skraaal settlement of Navarre's southern frontier, an expanse of flat-topped mountains and river gorged canyons, populated by nomadic tribes of goat herders who grazed their flocks on thorned acacia trees, hadn't gone as well as some might have hoped.
The Skraaal were accused of abducting small children to feed to their spiders. It wasn't true. Yet the rumours and superstitions persisted.
No blood was spilled. The Skraaal numbered legion. The goat herders fewer than five hundred, armed with stones and sharpened sticks. Goat herders they might be: Stupid they were not.
The Skraaal built low walled dams, channelling the rivers to irrigate their fields and new planted orchards. Come first harvest, they shared the fruits of their labours with the mountain tribes.
All this Saaal Soool told Prince Rhowyn at the wedding feast.
Did it help? Asked Rhowyn. Who'd never been a fan of vegetables.
The prince was dressed in the sunflower yellow of Rhealmyrr. His bride wore the red and white of Navarre. With them at the high table sat the archer in green.
None of the guests seemed surprised by his being there. Certainly not King Robin or Queen Saavi. And not the duke, or his son, Alejandro.
Knowing he would get no answers from his father, Rhowyn nudged the wizard, Aldhyrwoode.
What's going on? He asked, nodding toward the far end of the table and the warden of the north.
Have you tried the roast swan? Said the wizard. It's delicious. Not too dry. I don't like dry swan.
Before Rhowyn could press any further, Bearskinner and Harald were pounding their tankards on the table.
A toast! A toast!
To the happy couple!
TO THEIR ROYAL HIGHNESSES!
Don Sebastian rose unsteadily to his feet. To my grandson and his beautiful young wife!
TO THE DUKE AND DUCHESS!
There was music and dancing. Queen Saavi chose that moment to put the two year old Princess Marisanne to bed. The archer came and stood behind Rhowyn's chair, his hands on the newly crowned Duke of Navarre's shoulders.
Rhowyn invited him to sit. My mother will not return, he said.
You're wondering why I'm here.
You're welcome, of course, said Rhowyn graciously. But, yes.
Now is not the time, said the archer. Look for me on the island of bones.
And with that he stood, bowed to Prince Rhowyn and the Lady Caitlyn, bowed to King Robin, spoke to Aldhyrwoode, said something to Don Sebastian and Alejandro, that was for their ears only, and was gone.
The seasons passed, and passed again, as seasons do. Rhowyn grew tall and straight, his shoulders broadened, his chest deepened, and the first shadow of a beard gave Lady Caitlyn cause to complain that his stubble scratched her whenever they made love. Which they did often.
And why not? They were young. The passions of youth are seldom quelled. Time did not shamble decrepit for them, like the old man some believed it to be, but sped, winged of foot, always a step ahead in the dance.
Of the archer there was no word. He did not return to Navarre. And his duty in the north kept him away from Castellayne. If Rhowyn still wondered at the mystery of the hooded man, he did so rarely, and never for long. No one had heard of an island of bones. Not even Bjern Bearskinner, who had sailed as far north as the snow bear glaciers, east to the jade palaces of Qin Xa, south until the leopard men of Zuul haunted verdant jungles, and west to where ochre and clay striped warriors drove herds of strange beasts over the edges of cliffs.
But then came the rising.
Reft of a crown:
He yet may share the feast.
Heard ye the din of battle bray;
Lance to lance and horse to horse?
Long years of havoc urge their destined course... *
Down from the mist shrouded mountains skirled the clans and their chieftains. United in revolt. The wardens of the north, who numbered less than five score and ten, couldn't hold them. Towns and hamlets and homesteads all along the river Tor were put to the sword. Wheat to the scythe. The Sheriff of Torstone died defending the two towers. Fractious lords and knights who'd chafed at King Robin's rule joined their arms to the clans.
King Robin assembled his forces. Five hundred men of the castle guard and five hundred knights of Rhealmyrr rode north from Castellayne under streaming pennants of swallow-tailed sunflower yellow. With them were a thousand of Navarre's finest, led by the young duke, in surcoats of quartered red and white on matching caparisoned mounts. First and foremost of these was the blood red knight and Marshall of Navarre, Don Alejandro.
The Skraaal were farmers, not soldiers, and yet Saaal Soool had brought fully seven hundred spider lords to Robin's cause.
Seven hundred more in blue, men armed with pikes and crossbows, marched with Sir Roger of Delthemyrr.
The two armies clashed in a field of meadow flowers. Not far from The Greenwoode. King Robin was lost in the clamour and clang of the melee.
Clansmen hewed through the spiders' legs with swords and axes. And the great beasts were felled. Their riders hacked to pieces.
Vermin flensed the flesh from the dead and the dying. Carrion crows stabbed with sharp beaks, squabbling over the choicest parts. The corpses piled higher and higher. Stacked one upon the other...
An island of bones in an ocean of blood.
Rhowyn saw Saaal Soool cut in half by the vicious sweep of a scythe.
Alejandro was the last to die. Skewered through the neck by a spear.
Rhowyn found him later, cradled in the arms of the green archer.
Who are you? He asked. To mourn him so? You hold him like a father would hold a son.
No father, said the archer. An uncle. Sebastian was my brother.
Why are you the duke and not I? There was a woman, once. A long time ago. We both fell in love with her. We quarrelled. I knew if I stayed that one of us would kill the other. So I sought solace in exile.
You foresaw this... This island of bones. How? In a dream?
The archer shook his head. A nightmare. It is my curse.
Rhowyn went down on one knee and held Alejandro's hand.
I loved him, he said.
King Robin came stumbling, leaning on Sir Roger.
He had lost his helm, and his face was a mask of blood.
Gore splattered his armour.
But he was alive.
The day was theirs.
* The Curse Upon Edward
The Hooded Man
The Duke of Navarre was still a young man when he died. Thrown from his horse while out hunting, a broken rib had pierced a lung, and Don Rafael had drowned in his own blood.
Because Rafael had never married, and had no children, most thought his younger brother Sebastian should be the next to wear the thorned crown of the Navarre.
There were those who disagreed.
Don Sebastian, they said, was too wild. Too fond of chasing skirt. Too often in his cups. Too impulsive. Too headstrong.
But the youngest of the three brothers, Matteo, was still a child. Sebastian's years numbering one and twenty to Matteo's nine.
Better a child, insisted Don Antonio Vicarrio, than a drunk.
The boy is moon touched, argued Don Thiago Los Gabriel. These visions he has are better suited to the priesthood. Send him to the Temple.
Don Emilio De Santiago spat on the floor to show what he thought of that idea. The boy is an innocent. He said. If we give him to the ball cutters they'll soon have him singing soprano in their choir.
Sebastian is a blade new forged, counselled Don Emanuel Di Campo. He needs only to be tempered. He should be married as soon as possible. Nothing knocks the wind out of a man's sails like a wife.
What of the ball cutters? Asked Don Emilio.
Let them find their song birds among the beggar boys, said Don Javier Des Montoya. Matteo will stay at the royal court to continue his training.
Don Emilio cleared his sinuses one at a time into an oversized handkerchief.
The Montoyas were the wealthiest and most powerful of Navarre's noble families. And Don Javier favoured Sebastian.
Her name was Isolde. Her hair was raven-wing. Her skin and her kisses lingered on the lips like salted caramel. Matteo loved her desperately. His first, last, and only love.
She was promised to his brother Sebastian.
Who also loved her.
Deeply. And dangerously.
Why him? Why not me? He's an old man!
He's only thirty, said Isolde. That's not so ancient.
Only thirty! He could be your father!
Do you really hate him that much?
No, said Matteo. I love him. My hatred I save for the weavers of fate. The ones who would deny me everything that makes me happy.
We cannot unravel life's threads. Nor can they be cut, though they have no more substance than gossamer. They bound Isolde to Sebastian as surely as any iron chains. The two would be wed come the spring, in a chancel of white cherry blossom. And when the red poppies graced green fields, their union would be blessed with a son.
All this Matteo dreamed. And more...
A toddling Alejandro picking wildflowers to give to his smiling mother.
Alejandro again, though older, maybe ten or eleven, gathering more flowers. This time to leave at his mother's grave.
Sebastian gifting the boy his first suit of armour and shield. Both enamelled a glowing, ominous, crimson.
Why that colour? It was the colour of blood.
It coated the dagger Matteo thrust repeatedly into his brother's heart in a fit of jealous rage.
He woke up screaming. Trembling. Sobbing. NO!
He loved Sebastian.
He could never...
It was unthinkable.
That he might...
That he would ever...
Oh, but Isolde!
He would leave Navarre.
He must leave!
In the dark of night.
No one would see him go.
There could be no goodbyes.
He would never see her again.
He would forget her.
Could he forget her?
Matteo had never been so cold. He begged a cloak from the young king of Rhealmyrr and the queen returned with a bundle of mottled green. The wool was thick, yet soft, and the cloak surprisingly light when she draped it over his shoulders.
Where will you go? The king asked him.
Matteo didn't know. North... Maybe.
It doesn't get any warmer, the queen told him kindly, pinning the cloak with a skilfully crafted silver pine-cone, and reaching around with both hands to lift the fur trimmed hood over his head.
Your horse is spent, said the king. Leave it here and take a fresh one from the stables.
You can. And you will.
It broke Matteo's heart to know the birth of the child the queen was carrying would kill them both.
Years passed. As is their custom. Matteo returned to Castellayne. He'd heard no word of the king remarrying, and yet, there was a boy. A prince. But how?
His dreams had never been false before.
His name is Robin, said the wizard Aldhyrwoode. And he's perfectly real. In fact, he's perfectly perfect. Don't you think?
Is he... Adopted?
Robin is everything a prince should be, said Aldhyrwoode. Everything a father's heart could ever wish for.
Matteo saw the look in the wizard's eyes and asked no more questions.
Later that day, he and Robin gathered armfuls of wildflowers to lay at the queen's memorial. A tall, square column of polished pink granite inside a walled garden filled with perfumed roses that had been underplanted with blue forget-me-nots. There was no inscription.
The king's parting gift when Matteo rode north again was a handsomely constructed longbow carved from yew wood and a quiver of grey goose-feathered arrows.
What do you make of Robin? The king asked, leaning in close so no one else would hear.
He's perfect, said Matteo. Perfectly perfect.
The two men clasped forearms. Don't get lost in the forest, said the king.
Matteo grinned. I'll try not to.
The Rumour Of War
The archer in his hooded cloak of faded mottled green embraced his nephew after the funeral service for Robin's father. Don Alejandro had forsaken his crimson armour for a mourning suit of black and sombre grey.
I thought Sebastian might have marched on Castellayne with an army, said Matteo. I remember he wasn't too impressed when Rafael gave away half the dukedom to his squire.
Jarl Bearskinner and his raiders were supposed to do my father's dirty work for him, said Alejandro. But found themselves storm wrecked and stranded on the coast of Navarre instead.
Matteo looked at Aldhyrwoode. So I heard.
I stood with Robin, said Alejandro. I stand with Robin.
I heard that, too.
What else do you hear?
Matteo shrugged. Many things, he said. But mostly the wind through the trees.
Come to Kaldiz with me. Father would like to see you.
Would I be welcome? Asked Matteo. Would you?
His bark is worse than his bite. And I thought that...
Now that your mother has passed.
Why open old wounds?
To drain the poison, said Alejandro. It's the only way they heal.
Why the blood red knight? Matteo asked Sebastian. That armour. You might as well have painted a target on his chest.
Isolde's stone coffin had been carved in her likeness. The two brothers stood beside it in a transept of the duke's private chapel.
It's a hard world, said Sebastian. You have to be hard to survive.
And there are none harder than you.
I make no apologies for that.
Does it irk you? Said Matteo. That there's a man inside the steel?
No. And do you know why? Because he's his own man. I was never prouder of my son than I was when he threw a kingdom back in my face.
It didn't stop you from trying to take Rhealmyrr anyway.
And why not? Asked Don Sebastian. Have you been chasing squirrels so long that you've forgotten who you are?
I haven't forgotten.
You serve King Robin.
I serve no one. Robin is a friend, as his father was before him.
Who is this boy? That both my son and my brother would choose him over Navarre?
That's a very good question, said Matteo. And one you should think on.
When do you return to Rhealmyrr?
Are you so eager to be rid of me?
Don Sebastian stroked his late wife's alabaster smooth arm.
Not at all. I thought I might ride with you.
A ram's horn sounded from the battlements of the tallest gate tower.
Navarre had come to Castellayne!
Don Sebastian rode at the head of the column, between Matteo and Alejandro. Behind the thorned crown streamed the banners of the most noble of the noble families. A wolf's head for the Montoyas. The sea-horse of the Di Campos. Santiago's golden hind. The inverted cross of Los Gabriel. Vicarrios. De Silvas. Montenerros. Capulettes. Rodrigos. Las Verdes. And there, too, the clenched gauntlet of the D'Arturians, who were Robin's father's family.
Each Don had brought no fewer than a score of knights and men at arms. The bright sun flashing off polished steel. Helm and breastplate. Sword pommel and spear point. Their horses were enormous. Head tossing. Eye rolling. Nostril flaring. Iron shod to cave in an enemy's skull and shatter bones.
Pride o' bleedin' peacocks. A castle guard told the man next to him. Only thing bigger 'n' a Navarre's horse is his ego!
Aye, grimaced the other. And the only thing quicker 'n' their tempers is their blades.
And their tongues, added a third.
The Dons favoured needle thin moustachios and chiselled beards. Puff sleeved shirts under tight laced vests. Striped pantaloons and boots that reached mid thigh. Twinned scabbards held slender but lethal rapiers, and stilettos that were weighted for throwing.
They flaunted precious stones the size of scarab beetles on their gloved fingers. And pierced their ears with shimmering pearls and rings of silver or gold.
Ostentatious and arrogant, biting sarcasm came as easily to their lips as venom to a viper's fangs. When they weren't snapping and snarling, they scowled and sneered and signalled their displeasure with the flick of an eyebrow. But upon being presented to Queen Saavi their glib tongues were as well oiled as their blades. They charmed and flattered and marvelled at her beauty.
They bowed to King Robin. Nodded curtly at Aldhyrwoode. Praised the height and thickness of the castle walls. The width and depth of the moat with it's narrow drawbridge and iron portcullis. But they did not, and would not, feign bend the knee.
For the tourney that followed the feast, the Dons selected a champion each to ride in the lists against Rhealmyrr's best and finest. Their smug conceit took a battering as, one by one, their favourites were unseated by King Robin or the Marshall of Navarre.
Don Emilio De Santiago was heard to wonder just whose side the blood red knight was on!
The highlight of the jousting saw King Robin splinter three lances on the Duke of Navarre's shield before Don Sebastian's fourth caught him flush between shield and helm to sit Robin flat on his arse in a tumbling of wood shavings and sawdust. Alejandro fared no better. Nor did Sir Roger. Or Sir Barrett, captain of the castle guard. And at the end of the day, only Don Sebastian was undefeated.
If you want something done right, he said to Matteo afterwards, you have to do it yourself.
The Wardens of the North were men and women who, for whatever reason, had chosen to live in the wild wood forests and windswept mountain glens, where the only company they kept was their own.
It had been Aldhyrwoode's idea to employ them in Robin's service as the eyes and ears of the kingdom's northern frontier.
Some, like Matteo, had run from their pasts. Others were hiding from the present. More than a few were outcasts.
Walt the Wall-eyed was a doom-sayer.
Mushroom Meg had ended her husband's drunken rages by pinning him to a barn door with a pitchfork.
Old Tom Treadwell was a crofter who'd grown tired of trying to scrape a living from the stony soil.
Alfryd All-thumbs was a failed cut-purse and picker of pockets.
No-thumbs Ned was an ex-soldier.
Holly Halfling had been a feral child, abandoned in the wilderness by her father because of the fits of palsy that left her foaming at the mouth.
A boy called Frog the Hop was a runaway.
Ben Twist was a hunchback.
Fenn Footsore was a wandering minstrel.
All of them had one thing in common; The Greenwoode.
It was Old Tom Treadwell who first caught sight of the Skraaal and their monstrous arachniim. He told Mushroom Meg, who told Frog the Hop, who told Matteo. He gave Frog his horse and bade him ride to Castellayne and fetch the wizard Aldhyrwoode.
Old Tom guided them over the mountains by way of a steep and narrow path that, Aldhyrwoode said, aspired to be a goat track.
As the fates would have it, Saaal Soool was searching for a way through the same snow capped peaks. The four of them found the Skraaal huddled, half frozen, in the hollowed out abdomen of his dead spider.
Matteo wrapped Saaal Soool in his woollen cloak of mottled green, and Aldhyrwoode magicked a fire from pine needles and a coarse black powder he poured from a small flask he rummaged out of his satchel.
They were able to communicate using hand signals and the language of the hill tribes. When Matteo asked Saaal Soool where the Skraaal had learned it, he held both hands to his temples with the first fingers extended.
From the horned men, Tom told Aldhyrwoode. I've never seen one. Only heard stories of them. The Petroans call them fauns.
Frog the Hop was sent hopping back the way they'd come.
Wait for us at Torstone. And not a word to anyone who doesn't need to know, Aldhyrwoode warned the boy.
As soon as Saaal Soool had recovered he led them to where the Skraaal were camped on the shores of Wolf Lake. Where Aldhyrwoode spoke with the Skruuuliim. Leaving Matteo to guide the spider people as far as Claw Crag, where Sir Roger would meet them, Aldhyrwoode and Old Tom returned to Torstone, and then on to Castellayne to inform King Robin.
Oak and elm, maple and yew, spruce, pine, and cypress, bracken, fern, and berry. All could be found in the forest. There were spotted deer and wild boar. Fish swam in the ice-melt streams that tumbled down from the mountains. A brace of pheasant or capon could be traded for the small, round loaves of oat-bread baked by the hill tribes, or the drinker's fill of ale at the few and far between roadside inns.
It was in The Drowned Duck that Matteo heard his brother Sebastian had died.
It was painless, Aldhyrwoode told him. His Grace's physician saw to that. Your brother rests in his private chapel, next to Isolde. I didn't know if you had ahhh... seen it.
Matteo shook his head. I hadn't, he said. Thank you for coming to find me.
The wizard gathered up his hat, staff, and satchel, and left Matteo to his grief. Saying only, Don't be a stranger.
Matteo might have returned to Castellayne, or journeyed as far as Kaldiz, if talk of the clans whetting their axes and rattling their spears hadn't kept him at Holder's Dyke. The Dyke was an earthen defensive wall built by the ancients, so legend said, stretching between The Greenwoode and the coast, and what was now Delthemyrr, south of the river Tor.
The clans had been fighting among themselves for centuries. Rival chieftains were always butting heads. And there were blood feuds going back ten generations or more. No one thought for a moment that the clans would moot, or that Balon O'Byrne would forge an army large enough to march into Rhealmyrr and threaten Castellayne itself.
Outnumbered a hundred to one, Matteo and the other wardens had vanished into The Greenwoode, to fight a guerrilla war that, at best, could only slow the advancing clansmen...
But it bought King Robin time enough to summon his own forces.
What the fates weave cannot be unravelled. No matter how desperately Matteo fought to reach Alejandro in the press of battle, before the fatal spear thrust that would take his nephew's life...
He was always going to be too late.
The Snow Bear Cub
The Marshall of Navarre's armour was polished steel plate intricately embossed with swirls of deepest emerald. His shield had been enamelled the same green and, entwined with the black crown of thorns was a wreath of holly leaves picked out in lighter green and silver. From his shoulders fell a cloak of green wool.
Beside Don Matteo rode the young duke, Rhowyn, Prince of Rhealmyrr, Hammer Of The North, a Saaal of New Skraaal, and after a recent visit to Petros, an honorary Patriarch of Pellii. It was a lot for a youth whose years numbered only seven and ten. He wore a three-quarter suit of golden chain-mail. His white cloak was the finest lambswool, bordered by a red check, and lined with sunflower yellow silk. More silk, a turban of azure blue, covered his black curls. And slung from his sword-belt was a curved blade of Jal Naghrahar, a gift from his mother Queen Saavi. The sword's hilt had been carved in the likeness of the eight armed elephant god, Rhaju, from solid silver, and set with smooth, elliptically cut sapphires.
On anyone else the combination might have been too much, almost comical, but Rhowyn had the presence and bearing to carry it off. Even if, upon greeting his son, King Robin proclaimed he wouldn't be seen dead in such an outfit!
That's because you have no sense of style, Queen Saavi teased him.
The queen herself dazzled in layered saris of saffron and magenta.
Dismounting inside the bailey, in Navarre it was known as the patio de armas, Matteo and Rhowyn gave their horses to a pair of waiting pageboys. They were the sons of Balon O'Byrne who, given the choice of swearing fealty to Robin or suddenly becoming shorter by a head, had wisely opted for the former.
Robin had no need of hostages. Every male from four and ten to two score years had marched in the uprising. Less than a quarter of those had still been alive after the battle in the wildflower meadow. It would take another hundred years for the clans to be strong enough to cause any more trouble. And Robin planned to marry off the surplus of young widows to men of Greyshale’s fjords long before then. Reinforcing the kingdom's northern borders with friends and allies.
The five year old Princess Marisanne appeared in a tunic of unbleached wool, brown hose, and sensible boots.
This one, said Queen Saavi affectionately, is her father's child. What's wrong with that? Asked Robin. It's just the thing for mucking out stables!
To his daughter he said, That's where you were, right?
Marisanne shook her tumble of ebony curls. I was with Woodie.
Matteo looked at Rhowyn. Woodie?
That would be me, said Aldhyrwoode, stepping out from behind the young princess and embracing both men warmly.
You look ridiculous, he said to Rhowyn.
And you don't look a day over three score and ten.
That's because I'm not... Until the morrow.
Leaving Castellayne three days and a hangover to beat all hangovers later, Rhowyn and Matteo journeyed through The Greenwoode to Delthemyrr, where Sir Roger greeted and feasted them. And where Harald Hard-arse entertained everyone with the ballad of Pegleg Peg.
She were round like a keg
But brazen and bold
Rich men or poor
Could knock on the door
Of the whore with a heart of gold
She were takin' a trip
On a whalin' ship
When they say
Peg lost her leg
Bitten off at the knee
By the cap'n's monkey
'N' no pardon did he beg
She were round like a keg
But brazen and bold
Pauper or king
All flung their fling
With the whore with a heart of gold
Trouble 'n' strife
I made her me wife
Her skirts I can fumble
'N' it costs me nowt to tumble
The only lass that ever gave me a splinter
She were round like a keg
But brazen and bold
Lads or old goats
Can still sow their oats
With the whore with a heart of gold
Harald was waiting at Delthemyrr to take them to Bjern Bearskinner's langhus on Greyshale. It would be Matteo's first sea voyage. And he wasn't looking forward to it.
What if we sink? He asked Harald.
I haven't lost a ship yet.
But what if we do?
In all that armour? Said Harald. You're fucked.
Should I change?
Into what? A seal? A fish? A raven? I knew a girl who could shape-shift into a raven.
As real as I'm standing here. I had to clip her wings before she'd let me pluck her.
She were round like a keg
But brazen and bold
Even with her prosthetic
Was the whore with the heart of gold!
Freya was typical of the raiders' longships. She was forty feet in length and eighteen across the beam. Shallow drafted. Cedar planks nailed to the outside of an oak frame. No cabin or deck, only benches where men and women worked the oars, as many as a score on each side. A single mast for the square cut sail to be hoisted. Her forestays were carved in the likenesses of helmed warriors. And her arched prow was not a dragon's head, but a snarling snow bear.
Cast 'way fore!
Cast 'way aft!
Piss, shit, or puke. All go over the side.
Stand or sit, Harald told Matteo and Rhowyn, but stay the fuck out of the way.
How far is it to Greyshale? Asked Matteo.
How long is a length of rope? If you want to get there quicker, start rowin'.
Harald threw back his head and laughed. Rhowyn rowin'!
The ship has a sail, Matteo pointed out.
Eh? Harald looked surprised. Fuck me! So, it has!
They were in the open water of the harbour entrance by then, The crew at the oars relaxed. It only needed four of them to raise the sail.
The Bearskinner's four daughters all had their father's height, but not one of them had a beard. Statuesque amazons, most of their length was in their legs. Each wore her wheat-husk blonde hair in a thick braid. And if their faces were too angular to be called beautiful, their arctic blue eyes could stop a man's heart.
Rhowyn wondered why they hadn't been able to find husbands.
When he remarked on it to the Bearskinner, Bjern shrugged and shook his head. They're too wild. No man can tame them.
If I'd known how striking they were, said Rhowyn, I would have taken you up on your offer.
The Bearskinner laughed. Any one of them would've eaten you alive! Still... A grandson on the granite throne of Rhealmyrr, eh? Imagine that. It's not too late. Do you think her ladyship would mind?
Rhowyn said he thought the Lady Caitlyn Louisa might. And if she didn't, the noble families of Navarre almost certainly would.
The Bearskinner snorted his derision. A lot of poncing windbags, he said.
A shield-maiden in her youth, Bjern's wife Merethe was as stunning as her daughters. But unlike them, her high cheekbones and solid jaw were oft tempered by a smile that was never far away from her lips, and her candid, sonorous laughter.
According to Harald, Bjern's oldest daughter, Freya, could wrestle a wolverine.
After a night in her bed, Matteo could believe it.
You've given me a child, she said, as she lay with her head on his shoulder, her blunt-nailed fingers stroking his chest.
Eh? Said Matteo. Already?
A boy, she said. I can feel it.