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Excerpt for The Elder Stone Guardian (Fantasy FIction Series) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



THE ELDER STONE GUARDIAN

– BOOK I –

Godless Fantasy Series



A. K. Gallagher



Copyright © 2017 A. K. Gallagher

All rights reserved.

PAPERBACK ISBN: 1974347885

PAPERBACK ISBN-13: 978-1974347889


This book and any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, writing under the pen name A. K. Gallagher, except in the use of brief quotations in a book review. This is a work of fiction – names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental and may or may not be intended to placate or infuriate.


DEDICATION



For the one I love


CONTENTS


Acknowledgments

Map


There’s No Prison Like Home

A Piece of Parchment

Riverbend

Beodaw’s Dash

Brooms & Beggars

Of Gods & Giants

Roses are Red, Slugs are Slimy

Grey Rock Mountain

The Sleeping Draught

The Sword of Argoroth

The Beast Within

Keep Your Enemies Close

The Giant Slayer

The Wandering Tribe

The Ghosts of Beothain

Of Feathered Wings & Raven Kings

The Crescent Canyon

The Lady & the Lion

A Bitter Taste

Luthando

The Betrayal

Let the Rain Come

The Fortress of Calcar

Fire & Water

The Shadow Stirs

Ashes on the Wind

End Notes

About the Author

More in the Series


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS



Thank you to my darling child and my sisterhood tribe, for their unfailing encouragement, high tolerance for verbose writers, and for their wicked and generous senses of humour.




ONE

There’s No Prison like Home











ELiana Aravelo peered over her shoulder at the storefront windows and they stared back at her, offering no signs of life within, but he was watching – he was always watching.

Despite the chill in the early morning air, her brow beaded with sweat and her fingertips tingled and prickled with heat. She was nervous – she knew she was, and the sooner they left Havenport, the sooner she could escape her prison. Any moment now, Beodaw, her wizened grandfather, would appear and bark a reason for her to stay behind like he did every other time she tried to flee the confines of the seaport town’s high walls.

Elianna’s heart fluttered and she fidgeted with her hands as her sense of unease grew. Mathusal, her older brother, glanced at her while he tightened the girth straps on one of the horses. She shifted from one booted foot to the other while her trembling fingers wound around the strands of her long chestnut hair.

Mathusal laughed under his breath.

‘It’s not funny,’ she huffed.

‘It is.’ He laughed again and secured both horses to the old cart.

‘I’m glad for you that my distress is amusing.’

‘If you would rather stay, I’m sure-’

‘No, let’s just hurry up all right?’ she said, quickly, and he laughed again.

Where seventeen-year-old girls were concerned, in the Southern Empire city of Havenport, Elianna was not the most patient nor idle of them.

‘There, all done,’ he said at last, and dusted his long hands.

‘About time.’

The familiar sound of bells tinkling over the store door chimed across the town square and she cursed under her breath. Her grandfather, a respected apothecary and healer, stood in front of the store in his velvet robe with his lips pursed under a bushy grey beard. His blue eyes twinkled in response to her rumbling dissension.

‘No escaping after all,’ she grumbled, and her heart sank to her feet.

‘I just had a thought,’ he announced, and raised a pointed hand. The sleeve of his robe fell back and gathered at his elbow in many folds.

She let out a great gust of air, unable, or unwilling, to conceal her disappointment and inevitable insubordination.

He continued with a sly smile, ‘I need you to-’

‘No!’ she said, hotly.

‘Elianna,’ warned Mathusal of her disrespectful tone.

‘I’m of age now and I won’t stand for it any longer!’

The mountains of the wild called her. The world waited – and if she hesitated, if she faltered on the threshold of freedom and adventure, the only thing to call would be a marriage proposal and the life sentence to go with it. Her restless young heart panicked like an untamed animal in a cage, desperate for air, afraid the one who held the key to the lock would refuse her freedom on the cusp of release.

She was determined to go, and no chore Beodaw conjured out of thin air would stop her this time. There were greater things to do than marry one of the local boys, or become a priestess of the holy order, or dust shelves and mix potions in the stifling back room of Beodaw’s apothecary store. There was more to life than settling for mediocrity – Elianna was certain of it, but the Imperial law demanded a choice, marriage to a man or to their god.

With her arms straight as planks by her side, and her fists clenched tightly, she heatedly said, ‘you can’t make me stay.’

‘Are you quite finished, my dear?’ Beodaw enquired, and raised a curious eyebrow.

She blinked at him slowly and puckered her lips in reply.

Satisfied she had nothing more to add, he continued, ‘good! I was going to say, Mathusal’ – he gave her a rapid blink of his eyes to imply not all things were about her – ‘could you take this to Bethyl in Whitehall for me?’

He held a glass vial up and chanced a look at her flushed face. His beard twitched and an amused smile played on his lips.

‘Sorry Papa. I thought…’ and her words fell away in an ashamed mumble. She lowered her eyes to the cobblestones beneath her feet.

‘I know what you thought. You thought I’d change my mind and make you stay behind again.’

She nodded, ‘I did, I’m sorry, Papa.’

‘I do want you to stay behind,’ he said, matter-of-factly.

She opened her mouth to protest but his raised hand silenced her and he smiled kindly.

‘I do, of course! You’re my dearest granddaughter. However, you’re seventeen now, a grown woman by most counts, and I can’t avoid it forever. It’s time for you to put into practise what I’ve taught you or it’ll all be for nothing. I’d best get used to your absence anyway. You’ll leave me when a young man steals your heart!’

‘Or makes the highest offer for her hand,’ Mathusal teased. He knew it was precisely the reason for her tetchiness.

‘Aye, we could make quite a profitable exchange,’ teased Beodaw.

‘If it were me, I’d settle for a few chickens, or maybe a goat,’ Mathusal said, and struck a match for his cigar, which dangled from his lips. He puffed on it thoughtfully and smoke billowed from the side of his mouth.

‘Thankfully, you’re not in charge or I’d be sold off to Bert the cross eyed goat herder first chance you got!’ she said, and smacked him playfully on the arm.

‘Ha! You could do a lot worse than old Bert! Like Lord Sarrin’s son!’

‘Don’t even speak of it! I’d rather marry a street beggar from Argoroth. What a nasty, gangly boy he is,’ she said, and added a retching sound.

She glanced at the lord’s residence across the town square on the north side. The grand hall of many marble pillars was an ostentatious building, out of place in their humble harbour city of thatched rooves and wattle and daub houses – a shameless display of the riches Lord Sarrin had pilfered from the hardworking souls of Havenport, of which he had left them little.

The thought of marrying Lord Sarrin’s son, and enduring a life of domestic enslavement, sent chills up her spine. To stay a child forever would be a better course, but immunity from time had eluded her, and she turned seventeen only a few days ago.

Her limited choices in the eyes of the Empire were bitterly unfair in Elianna’s opinion, however, marrying their god Arku seemed more agreeable when faced with the chore of choosing a husband.

Rumour around town had it Lord Sarrin’s son, Gordy, was keenly preparing an offer for her hand. This news made her even more ill-tempered than usual and their departure from Havenport all the more pressing. It would not bode well for their family if she refused Gordy’s offer (which she had intended to do, because he was an arrogant boy, who she detested venomously).

‘And what one of these men would be worthy?’ Beodaw said, and held his arms out dramatically, ‘not one in all this place!’

His voice echoed across the town square, directed at Lord Sarrin’s towering compound across the way. A few townsfolk, who went about their morning business, looked up from their chores. Elianna giggled and implored him to stop, else he lose the Lords favour and gain a hefty tax increase.

‘Morning, Errol!’ Beodaw said to the farrier, who passed by, leading a horse. Errol offered them a glare of disapproval over his bulbous nose.

‘Going cheap, will swap sister for chickens, goats, or even a goose,’ Mathusal said, when the farrier scurried away.

Beodaw chortled into his beard, ‘at least bargain for a better horse Mathusal! The nags are getting on a bit now.’

The nags in question, Nellie and Ruby, a mature pair of bay horses, glowered at him from under their long lashes and looked decidedly put out by his remark.

‘Don’t you listen to him, ladies,’ Elianna clucked, and gave the mares each a hearty pat, ‘he can’t talk, can he? He’s older than the hills.’ Ruby nickered softly and her wobbling lips nibbled at Elianna’s ear affectionately.

‘You have three sun circles yet, to make up your mind. I have taught you as much as I can. It’s time for you to leave the walls of home and see what you make of the world, and what it makes of you.’

Elianna smiled warmly at him. By no means was Beodaw a wealthy man, but he was comfortable enough to refuse any handsome offers for her hand for the time being so she could learn more about the family business.

Murmurs around town suggested Beodaw was waiting for a proposition from Gordy. Why else would he refuse other reasonable offers for his average granddaughter? No one in Havenport considered he might be holding out so she could practise healing because it was frowned upon for a woman to choose an occupation over a betrothal.

Beodaw’s attention drew back to the vial in his crooked fingers, ‘give this to Bethyl. Three drops, twice a day with water. It will keep the fever down.’ He fixed his grandson with his sharp eyes. Mathusal reached for the vial, and Beodaw held it fast, a grim expression on his face.

‘Sunrise, sunset,’ he repeated, sternly, ‘if you forget, even once, the fever may take hold and there’s no telling what could happen then.’

Elianna rolled her eyes. It bored her when they waffled on like this, and she was far too eager to leave to waste more precious time.

‘Sunrise, sunset, he gets it Papa!’ She snatched the vial from him and gave it to Mathusal, ‘can we please go now?’

Mathusal stored the vial in his breast pocket, under his long leather coat and nodded at Beodaw.

‘Very well, then!’ Beodaw chirped, and lifted his mood considerably, ‘get going before your old papa makes a crying fool of himself.’

Elianna’s green eyes unexpectedly welled up with tears and she blinked to keep them at bay. She was preoccupied with the thought of him not letting her go; she had given no real thought to actually leaving. They would not return until the end of autumn, and it was now only three weeks into spring – he would be alone for months.

What if something happened to him? Who would run to the market to get his tobacco when his pipe was empty? Who would cover him with a blanket when he fell asleep in his favourite chair by the fire? A pang of guilt twisted her stomach while she examined the deep wrinkles on his smiling face. From her earliest memory, she had lived with Beodaw and her brother in the two-storey house behind the store in the town square. She had no memory of any other home but the one her grandfather had made. She could not recall her mother, who died during her birth, or even her father, Beodaw’s son, who was killed during the Great War1 when she was just two years old.

Beodaw had always been there to protect them, to provide for them, and had cared generously for them. Yet, he was growing old, and his bones did not move as nimbly as they once did.

Catastrophic thoughts seeped into her mind, and she fidgeted and wrung her hands, while her insides quietly did somersaults. He was really letting her go this time.

‘Come with us, Papa!’ she blurted, and threw herself into his arms. She embraced him tightly, loathe to leave him behind.

‘Oh, my precious girl, if only I could,’ he said with a sniff, ‘there’s much to do here, many are sick and need me. You’re my emissaries to the west, it’s up to you and Mathusal to care for those who are too far to reach us, but need us nonetheless. Besides, you would never forgive me if I made you stay.’

‘I’ll miss you dreadfully every day, Papa,’ she babbled through her streaming tears. She gave him a watery smile and embraced him again. She had been thoughtless and mean. She focused only on his worst traits leading up to this morning and had disregarded his gentle and kind nature completely.

‘I have something for you,’ he said, and smiled. From his pocket, he withdrew an amulet on a thin leather cord, ‘a talisman to protect you.’ She gasped with surprise and her eyes widened. At the end of the finely plaited cord, was a black stone shaped like an arrowhead.

‘Really, I can have it?!’ she breathed with awe. She could hardly believe he would part with it. She had always wanted it, yearned for it since her earliest memory – mostly because he refused to let her have it.

She took it from him and eyed the glistening stone greedily. Etched into the flat of the stone, in writing so small, it was near impossible to read, was a song from the days of the Great War, one Beodaw had sung to her as a child. She did not need to read it though, she knew it by heart and recited it:


Once there lived a mighty king,

who built a lofty house, on flaming wings.

A covenant with gods, a kingdom made,

moves swift as sand under swinging blades.

Raven wings do naught but fly,

and fly they did, through darkened sky.

Down came the house of lofty halls,

to the ruin of the king, to his own downfall.

Within the shadows, the king will weep,

bound by sorrow, while the fire sleeps.

Under stormy skies, the broken will sing,

calling forth the long lost king.

Beyond dark clouds, the child will call,

Save the king! Save them all!

From the ashes, a new dawn will rise,

from the hand of death, delivered the ruler of seven tribes.”


‘How you ever slept by that, is beyond me! What a miserable tale it is,’ said Mathusal. He shook his head and packed the rest of the crates into the back of the cart and secured a canvas tarp over the load.

‘It’s a talisman, to protect you on your journey and bring you home safe, if Arku wills it,’ Beodaw said, and glanced at the sky.

‘Thank you, Papa,’ she said, happily, and she tucked the precious stone under her white linen shirt, beneath her woollen dress. ‘Be well and eat enough please!’

‘There are plenty to keep me company and feed me. Don’t fret little one.’

‘I know how you get when you’re working. You forget everything, especially food!’

‘Come on yer big baby!’ said Mathusal, who grabbed her arm and yanked her from Beodaw’s grip. Mathusal all but threw her onto the cart – he was not much for sentimental scenes.

‘Silly girl! Doesn’t know what she wants. Stay or go, go or stay! Impatient to leave, then blubbering when it’s time to!’



Beodaw placed a firm hand on Mathusal’s shoulder, and turned his back to Elianna, who settled into her seat. He offered up another vial, the same as the other, though the liquid within was thick like honey.

‘Take two vials, just in case. This one’s ten times the concentrate, use much less, you understand, but if something should happen’ – he glanced over his shoulder at Elianna – ‘to set her off, use one drop of this, two if you must.’ Mathusal nodded and took the extra vial.

They both looked up at Elianna, now distracted by conversation with Mrs Norbanathy, their plump, rosy cheeked housekeeper, who had come out onto the street to fuss over her and say farewell. Cold dread chilled Beodaw’s skin while he studied his granddaughter.

‘Who knows what might provoke her,’ Beodaw said, and sighed deeply.

‘You should just tell her about the Elder Stone and be done with it,’ Mathusal said in a hushed voice, ‘how long are we to live this lie and worship the false god Arku? Eventually, she must learn the truth about the stone, her gift, and the ones who gave it to her.’

‘Gift?’ he spluttered, ‘it seems a cruel joke played by those pesky Elder Seven gods and goddesses to grant such a “gift” to an innocent girl.’

‘The more you suppress her power, the worse it will be.’

‘No, she must never know who she really is,’ he said, and choked on his words, ‘I can’t bring myself to tell her what blood is in her veins. Absolutely not! She should never know. Let her be, to have what normal life is left to her away from all those prophecies and war. And there’s to be no talk of the Elder Seven or the stone.’

‘You’re only delaying the inevitable,’ Mathusal warned.

‘Make your way swiftly and return her to me safely. She can have her adventure, then she will marry your friend, Reyden, if she’s willing.’

Mathusal’s eyebrows peaked.

‘It will keep her safe. She can have a normal life. What else would you have me do?’

‘I could take her to Chief Rashaan.’

‘NO!’ His voice bounced off the cobblestone and startled Elianna and Mrs Norbanathy. He lowered his voice to an urgent hiss, ‘stay within the Imperial borders and steer clear of the Masiri lands.’

‘But Papa, Rashaan is your oldest friend.’

‘And that’s precisely why you mustn’t take her there. The old rascal will fill her head with his Elder Seven worshipping nonsense and revel in unravelling my plans!’

‘He could help her. Rashaan will know if her destiny is set. Maybe the course of her fate has changed. Rashaan will know what to do, will know how to help her, and teach her to use this power.’

‘And fill her head with his wishy washy nonsense about the septet of gods the Masiri are so fond of. No thank you very much. It’ll do no good in the end if she gets those ideas in her head.’

Mathusal sighed, wearily, and conceded to Beodaw’s request.

‘Make haste where you can and be safe! Keep an eye on the stone, it may… change her now she has it close to her skin. Take care of her and yourself my dear boy.’

His insides twisted with despair and Mathusal’s expression softened when he said, ‘it’s a well-used trading route and during spring, it’s no more than a pleasant ride through rolling green hills. We’ll be back before you have a chance to miss us.’

Beodaw sighed heavily, ‘don’t go further than the Western Slopes. And stay well away from the Western Desert. King Raman might sense her.’

‘You are haunted by nothing more than the ghosts of the past. The King of Argoroth has been dead for fifteen years. The Empire destroyed him at the end of the Great War and unless Raman has power over death, then you’re only chasing shadows, Papa. She has come of age. She must go. Let her breathe for once, at least before she has to get married.’

‘Do you have weapons?’ Beodaw asked, suddenly.

‘Aye. sword and crossbow.’

‘Good, good,’ he answered, distantly, and glanced at Elianna again. She beamed down at him and he offered her a smile as best he could, despite the worry on his mind.

‘You can’t keep her prisoner forever. No more than you can stop a flame from being fire.’

‘It’s the fire I fear the greatest. Never let her out of your sight,’ he said, with wide pleading eyes, and gripped Mathusal’s coat tightly.

‘Honestly, you worry too much!’

‘I shall miss you both!’ he cried, and embraced his grandson.

‘Don’t get all mushy on me, old man,’ mumbled Mathusal, awkwardly.


Elianna watched the intense but muted exchange and eyed her brother smugly.

‘Softy,’ she snickered.

Mathusal, six years older than her, thought himself to be rather worldly these days, having travelled all about the Empire on Beodaw’s business since he was sixteen.

‘Shut it,’ he ordered, ‘we have a long way to go and a long way until home again. Don’t start getting all lippy or I’ll send you straight back to Beodaw!’

He climbed aboard the cart and Elianna handed him the reins, vowing to be on her best behaviour. Nellie and Ruby started forward slowly, and the wooden cartwheels groaned. Beodaw walked beside the cart and looked up at her.

‘Have everything you need, my dear?’ he asked.

‘Aye, Papa.’

‘Water? A book? Blankets? Your coat?’ he said, and rattled off a long list.

‘I packed and unpacked my trunk a hundred times over by your list,’ she told him, exasperated.

‘Best behaviour, Elianna,’ reminded Beodaw, his eyes firm under bushy brows, with a waggling finger pointed at her.

‘Of course,’ she said, with a serious nod, though her grin was broad.

She reached her hand out for him and he took it. His eyes were wet and filled with worry. The horses picked up their pace and the cart clattered along the cobblestone.

‘Be good to all, be kind to many, and watch that smart mouth of yours,’ he said, and quickened his step to keep up when they gained speed, then let go of her hand. She swivelled in her seat and kept her eyes on him.

‘And whatever you do, don’t get distracted!’ he cried. He raised his hand in a solemn farewell and the chilly morning sea breeze rustled the many folds of his robe.

They trotted through the town square and she waved at Beodaw who grew smaller when they pulled away.

From the Lord’s compound, a gangly young man, with pasty white skin and copper hair, stepped out into the town square – it was Gordy, Lord Sarrin’s son. Elianna stopped mid wave and knew he had caught sight of them. The cart turned a corner, and regretfully Beodaw was lost from her sight, but thankfully, so was Gordy.

She stared down the narrow street behind them for a moment, and a sob caught in her throat. She had never left home before, however, she was glad to escape the leering interest of the Lord’s son.

She plonked herself on the cushioned bench and wiped the corners of her eyes with the hem of her dress. Her heart ached and sunk deeper into despair with each brittle turn of the cart’s wheels.

‘He’ll be fine,’ said Mathusal, reassuringly, and he stubbed out the remains of his cigar on the underside of the bench seat.

‘You’re used to being away from home,’ she said, dully, and looked over her shoulder again.

Mathusal glanced at her tear stained face and his expression softened a little, ‘adventure lies ahead, Ellie. Home will be the last thing on your mind, you’ll see.’

She smiled uncertainly in reply and focused on the road. The West Gate approached and loomed over them like the slack jaw of a giant beast intent to swallow her whole. She played with the stone and turned it in her fingers. Now she was come to it, she was not entirely convinced she wanted to leave – if only to stay behind and care for Beodaw. He would not cope without her, still, Gordy skulked about and she could not outrun him indefinitely if he made an offer.

She just had it in her mind to tell Mathusal to stop the cart, when he pulled up before the gates.

‘Alright Mathusal?’ said one of the local guards who manned the gates. It was Mathusal’s childhood friend, Reyden.

‘Aye, Reyden,’ he replied, casually.

Elianna peaked around Mathusal and Reyden looked surprised, and then laughed.

‘Morning, Miss Elianna, you seeing your brother off again?’ His eyes twinkled at her from under his silver helm. It would have been so easy to climb off the cart, like she always had when they reached the gate. Her memory flickered to all the times she stood here and watched her brother disappear on another adventure. And all the times she waited at the gate for him to come back. She secretly suspected Reyden kept a close eye on her at Mathusal’s request whenever he left town, because he seemed to hang around her a lot. Though, she did not mind and in turn spent many hours with him when he was on gate duty to keep him company.

‘No, she’s coming with me this time,’ Mathusal said.

‘Aye is she!’ said Reyden who smiled at her, ‘you finally got your wish, I’m glad for you. Now you don’t have to stand at the gate with me for hours pining for your brother to come home.’

‘I never pined. I just wanted the presents he bought for me,’ she said, and Mathusal huffed.

‘I’ll miss your company, nonetheless and watch out for you to come home.’

‘Don’t look out for me for too long,’ she said, and glared at Mathusal, ‘I might never come back if Mathusal has it in his mind to marry me off to Gordy.’

Mathusal and Reyden exchanged a meaningful look, followed up by a smirk from Reyden.

‘Which way are you headed?’ Reyden asked.

‘The Western Road,’ replied Mathusal.

‘Alright, off with you then, stop blocking my gate,’ he patted Ruby on the backside and the cart rolled forward.

‘May Arku bless the road at your feet.’

They pulled away and the gates zipped over her head. She looked back at Reyden who smiled and gave her a quick wave, then went back to his work. If she had to marry, she quietly hoped Reyden would be the one to make an offer. That would be a tolerable match, but she was not sure he had even considered it, she was after all, just Mathusal’s little sister.

When they moved on, her determined resolve to leave Havenport dissolved quicker than Mrs Norbanathy’s shortbread biscuits in a hot cup of barley tea.

From the inside, the walls seemed an unyielding barrier to the outside world, which denied her a life of adventure. Yet, as they pulled away from the only place she had ever known, those walls unexpectedly seemed a refuge, a sanctuary, safe from the perils of the unknown.

‘Wait!’ she cried, and her heart jolted.

‘What now!’

‘I forgot to say goodbye to the sea,’ she said, desperately, and stood in the footholds, hoping to catch a glimpse of it before they headed further inland. There was nothing to see but the receding walls of Havenport and the tops of trees or rolling hills.

‘Oh, for the love of,’ sighed Mathusal.

‘I’ve never left it before. I just want to see it one last time, you know how I love water.’

‘There’ll be plenty of rivers along the way, sit down before you fall off.’ He tugged at her arm and pulled her back onto the seat.

‘It’s not the same,’ she sighed.

When the road curved around a hillock to the northwest, Mathusal nudged her gently with his elbow and pointed. To the east, the rolling green pastures, dotted with lines of trees and farm houses, sloped away into Havenport Harbour, where the tall sails of many trading ships, from near and far, filled the docks. Beyond the foggy harbour, the ocean reached out to the pale morning sky before it fell over the horizon. Beside the harbour, nestled into the bay, was Havenport and its many thatched rooves looked unimpressive from afar and its walls less unscaleable. It seemed so small from a distance; it was hard to believe she had spent her whole life there.

‘Home,’ she said, quietly.

‘Home,’ he repeated, ‘remember it, Ellie, because you will long for it in the end despite all your grumbling about it now. Whatever grand adventures you go on, you’ll see, there’s nothing quite like the sight of home.’

Elianna stared at her brother bewildered by his sentimental comment. He gave a laugh and shrugged his shoulders.

‘Will you look at that,’ said Mathusal, with a hint of disappointment in his voice, which distracted her from the thoughts of home and sea.

On the side of the road a short sturdy man in a worn green jacket, and a thin wispy fellow with scraggily blonde locks, wandered down the road away from the gate. They were singing loudly and incoherently, having a marvellous time.

Their legs, unreliable, staggered back and forth in front of the cart, away from the cart, into each other, and then in front of the cart again. Mathusal slowed the wagon when they drew near the two bumbling men. The blonde man tipped his floppy hat at them. The short man tripped on a rut in the road and stumbled into Ruby’s side. The mare jerked with surprise and shooed the man with a nudge of her long nose. The drunken man refused the dismissal and threw an arm over the horse’s neck and cooed at her. Elianna pressed her lips together and stifled a laugh.

‘Stop harassing my horse, Jotha, you drunk fool,’ said Mathusal, tersely.

Jotha swung around, pirouetted on his feet, and lost his balance. His lanky companion caught him under the arms but with neither having any sense of equilibrium, they toppled over and into the mud. Jotha’s small black eyes squinted at them, and then his face broke into a lopsided smile

‘Mathusal, you old dog! Doin’ the rounds again, eh?’ he slurred, through his scraggly, black beard.

Despite his garbled speech, Elianna picked his accent, which was harsh and biting, unlike the smooth accent of Havenport.

‘Aye, are you heading home to Iron Gorge?’

‘Aye. I came in on an ore run but me master’s headin’ to the Capital by ship and I have to make me own ways home.’

‘We can take you to Whitehall. Climb aboard.’

Elianna gawked at her brother, aghast he would entertain the idea of having this drunken buffoon join their journey. Nellie and Ruby both turned their heads and glared at Mathusal. Elianna sensed even the horses were unimpressed about carting more folk around, especially such a sturdy fellow like Jotha.

‘Much obliged, old friend,’ said Jotha. He waved his drunken companion farewell and the wispy man wandered off into a field, and swayed his way toward a farmhouse over a nearby hillock.

After four wobbling attempts, Jotha finally heaved himself off the cartwheel, and over the side railing. He swayed dangerously when he squeezed between the crates in back and sidled up behind Elianna. The pungent odour of ale and fish wafted past her nostrils and she gagged.

‘Ullo,’ Jotha said, surprised to see her sat there, ‘who’s this then?’

‘Jotha, Elianna,’ said Mathusal.

Jotha wiggled his eyebrows suggestively and added an unattractive leer. He went cross eyed, and then pursed his lips to blow kisses in her direction. He closed his eyes and rubbed his stomach, then a gurgling sound rose within him. He let out a long burp and grinned at her, expecting her to enjoy his unexpected eructation.

She turned her back on him and scrunched her face up with revulsion, ‘disgusting.’

Mathusal finished his introduction with a stern warning in his voice, ‘Elianna, my sister.’

Jotha looked even more surprised and cleared his throat. He tipped his head politely and wobbled dangerously on his knees.

‘A pleasure to meet you kind lady,’ he slurred.

‘It’s all mine, to be sure,’ she grimaced.

Jotha gave a deep laugh and Mathusal smiled.

With their new companion on board, they set out on the unpaved Western Road, which would first lead them to Riverbend, then onto the crossroads at Whitehall along the Western Ridge.

The mares picked up pace and the cart rattled through the muddy ruts. She took one last look over her shoulder, and Havenport faded into the morning mist, like a grey shadow. They came down the other side of a cresting hill, and she took a deep breath; Havenport was gone.


TWO

A Piece of Parchment











The bells tinkled over the shop door. Beodaw looked over his pipe through a curl of smoke and returned the quill to its inkpot.

Beodaw had been busy scrawling on a piece of parchment to document the most severe case of rotting foot fungus he had come across in his career. The foot fungus itself was not unusual in the remote marches, south of town, but this case was unique. The patient in question, a withered old man, had mushrooms sprouting from the toes of his boots.

It was late afternoon when the man with keen black eyes and silky movements entered the store, bringing with him a heavy sense of purpose. Beodaw’s eyebrows lifted with surprise when his gaze fell upon the insignia of the Holy Order, emblazoned in fine golden thread across the chest of a fitted charcoal surcoat. The mark was unmistakable – the creation star of Arku – the mark of the Emperor’s high priests.

Beodaw swallowed hard and the priest scanned the cluttered shelves of potions, ointments, trinkets, and scrolled parchments with amused interest. Through the grimy bay window of the store, Beodaw spied a group of Imperial soldiers from the Capital pull up on their steeds. The sun glinted off their bronze armour, which diminished the presence of the Holy Order priests beside them in their long black garbs.

It had been many a year since Beodaw had seen Imperial’s from the Capital, who rarely visited this deep in the southern parts of the Empire. The Emperor preferred to leave the area and its business in the hands of Lord Sarrin, who delivered local and foreign taxes every year to the Capital treasury.

Beodaw smiled politely, ‘good morning, holy brother, can I help you?’

The priest pinned Beodaw with his dark eyes and approached the counter with a steady stride. A broad sword clanked at his side. It was a nerve rattling sound. The muscles in Beodaw’s neck twitched and his eyes flinched with each clank. The priest was young, in his early twenties, and though he offered a serene smile, his eyes had a determined look, not unlike a bull about to charge. Beodaw cowered, just a little, when the man’s formidable stature loomed over him.

‘I do hope so,’ the priest said, serenely, and added a kind smile.

He recognised the accent and Beodaw’s insides withered – the soft drawl was unmistakable; this priest was definitely from the high order of Arku in the Capital, and the last thing Beodaw needed was the Emperor’s priestly minions snooping around Havenport when his grandchildren had just left the city.

‘I’m Draven, High Priest of the Imperial Holy Order of Arku, and as you can see,’ he said, and glanced deliberately at the crest emblazoned on his coat, ‘I’m here on important holy business on behalf of our divine Emperor.’

He cleared his throat and offered a pleasant smile, ‘aye, of course. How may I be of assistance to you on your matters of great importance for his Imperial Majesty, the divine lord of our land?’

‘You’re the one they call Beodaw Aravelo?’ he asked.

Beodaw considered Draven for a moment and decided there was no point lying when the sign above the store clearly stated it was, “Aravelo’s Apothecary”.

‘I am he,’ he said, after a slight pause.

‘You’ve been summoned by his Imperial Majesty,’ said Draven, and he leant on the counter casually.

Beodaw feigned delighted surprise even though his insides twisted with alarm. What could the Emperor want with him after all these years? He did not wish to know the answer.

‘Have I really?’ he replied, with strained elation, ‘what a great honour indeed. I’m of course grateful beyond measure to hear as much from one of his high priests, you honour me.’

‘The honour is all ours, I’m sure,’ he drawled, and surveyed the store once more with a smile. ‘Havenport is a quaint place, its people known for their devotion to our blessed God Arku.’

‘Praise be upon Him,’ Beodaw said, reverently.

Draven smiled appreciatively and bowed his head slightly. He withdrew a small scroll from his coat and handed it to Beodaw and when he reached for it, Draven held it away playfully.

‘Interesting though, isn’t it?’ Draven said, slowly, and twirled the scroll in his fingers, ‘the Emperor should be keen to see a man of your status? I mean no offence of course’ – he raised his hands apologetically – ‘it’s just rather odd is all.’

‘Perhaps his imperial majesty didn’t think it wise to let the help know his every thought?’ said Beodaw, casually.

The muscles in Draven’s jaw rippled under his short beard in response to Beodaw’s contemptuous comment. He held Draven’s stare firmly, unperturbed by the priest’s gaze. Draven’s face broke into a wide grin and he relinquished the scroll. The red wax was set with the Imperial seal, but Beodaw decided not to open it for the moment and placed it on the counter under his left hand.

‘Aren’t you going to open it?’ Draven asked, curiously, and glanced from the scroll to Beodaw.

‘There’s no need when you’ve delivered the message already, brother Draven.’

Draven looked nonplussed and leant over the counter. His dark eyes searched Beodaw’s face for an explanation to his resistance. Beodaw held his gaze firmly, certain Draven was astutely aware of his thoughts, and after a few tense seconds, Draven leant back with a smile on his face.

Beodaw breathed deeply, then said, ‘I look forward to making the journey to see his divine greatness just after I tend to the sick in Havenport. It was kind of you to drop by, brother Draven. Good day.’

Draven gave a derisive snort, and said, ‘one doesn’t simply dismiss a high priest or the request of the Emperor. The Emperor isn’t going to wait I’m afraid, he requests your presence in the Capital immediately.’

‘It’s my duty to serve the frail, the weak, and the ill, to fend for those who can’t fend for themselves. Would you have me shirk my healer’s oath? An oath taken in the name of Arku?’

It was just then, the bells chimed again and broke the tension between them, averting an inevitable argument. The door swung open wide and an Imperial soldier, with a bright face and broad shoulders, entered the store.

‘Dray you old rascal! This is where you’ve got to!’ said the man, exuberantly, ‘and I told you to wait for me. It’s just like you to disobey orders for your own purpose.’

Draven smiled, ruefully, ‘forgive me, I thought to speed things up while you attend to Lord Sarrin.’

‘Indeed, did you?’ said the man, and laughed softly. The newcomer had a kind face, with bright brown eyes and wavy dark hair.

‘Beodaw, how good it is to see you again!’ he said. He took Beodaw’s hand and shook it vigorously.

Beodaw searched his memory and scanned the smiling face. The firm jaw, etched with stubble, the wavy black hair, none of it registered – he had no recollection of him, though he was most grateful for his presence at this precise moment in time.

The man laughed at Beodaw’s blank expression, ‘ha! You don’t remember me do you? I’m not surprised. I couldn’t have been more than five the last time we met. But I’ve never forgotten you,’ he tapped his temple, ‘or your family.’

‘These lands are far from the heart of the Empire indeed, if you don’t recognise the General of the Imperial Army,’ Draven said, amused.

Beodaw’s jaw dropped and the young General smiled widely, with a keen glint in his eyes.

‘Luthando?’ wheezed Beodaw, and nearly fell off his stool.

‘At your service,’ he answered, with a quick bow.

Beodaw was speechless. He had not seen Luthando since he was a boy, that night in the Capital, a night Beodaw would rather forget.

‘Your Imperial Highness,’ Beodaw said, and bowed his head low, ‘has so much time passed, you’re now a grown man?’

Time had moved swiftly, not just in Havenport it would seem. Elianna was just two years old the night Beodaw had met with Faedrich the First, Emperor of Oriánna.

‘It’s not since the end of the Great War have we seen you in the palace, that has to be, what, a good fifteen years now, and I confess it’s my first time in Havenport, though it seems a shame of my part, now I’m here.’

Beodaw’s head reeled. He had lived behind the walls of Havenport so long he almost forgot the rest of the world existed. He convinced himself it was all an imagined threat and nothing would ever come of his constant paranoia. The Emperor, the Great War, the Raven King of the West, had just become words muttered without meaning, illusions created from thin air with no plausible substance. The past Beodaw had denied rushed in on him like the breaking of a dam wall.

Elianna was in trouble.

Luthando, unaware of the barrage of confused memories flooding Beodaw’s mind, continued the conversation, ‘I never understood why the Emperor let such a great healer wander so far away from the Capital.’ Draven nodded in agreement. ‘We could certainly use you there. But now having come to Havenport, I see it’s a comfortable place, free from all the intrigue of old men and politics, eh?’

‘I suppose,’ mumbled Beodaw, distantly, ‘it’s a simple life, a quiet one.’

‘One blessed by the great god Arku,’ added Draven, reverently.

‘That’ll be all Draven. You can wait outside with the others,’ said Luthando. Draven looked from Luthando to Beodaw with obvious disappointment.

‘We have work to do in the name of Arku,’ Draven muttered to Luthando.

‘Ease up, Dray, I’d like to enjoy Havenport a little before we attend to holy business. And besides, you should visit the local temples first. I’m sure they’d be honoured to receive you.’

‘As you wish, my lord,’ drawled Draven. He glanced at the parchment still under Beodaw’s hand before he left the store.

‘He’s a very pleasant man for a high order priest,’ said Beodaw, carefully.

‘He’s very loyal to the Emperor and the Empire and has been my friend since childhood,’ Luthando said, and he watched Draven join the others through the foggy panes.

‘He has many admirable qualities to be sure.’

Luthando gave a harsh, derisive laugh, ‘he’s painful and annoying. You know how these priests can get, obsessed with everything Arku. This is a sign, that is a sign, Arku this, and Arku that, but one must respect the Holy Order I suppose.’

‘Forgive me, my lord, your visit has taken me by surprise. It’s a rare occasion to have such a distinguished guest in Havenport, or even a high priest for that matter. And I’m left wondering what on earth you’re doing here.’

‘Are you really? You of all people should know why I’m here,’ he said, and searched Beodaw’s face.

Beodaw, normally quick witted and never lost for words, was just that.

‘I mean you no distress,’ Luthando said, kindly.

‘Distress?’ exclaimed Beodaw, with a nervous chortle, ‘I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.’

He fumbled with the parchment and Beodaw’s elbow bumped a neatly stacked pile of glass vials on the counter. Several rolled off the table and shattered on the stone floor.

The Imperials glared into the store alarmed and Luthando waved them off. Mrs. Norbanathy scuttled in from the back room and stopped short when she caught sight of Luthando. She wiped her hands on her apron and attempted to straighten her grey flyaway hair, and then curtseyed deeply.

‘Is everything-’ she began.

‘Aye, everything’s quite all right, Tilly,’ replied Beodaw, sharply.

‘I told you this morning, sir, to let me light the brazier. It’s frightfully cold in ‘ere. Especially for those crooked old hands of yours.’ She shook her head and clicked her tongue. ‘He’s got the rheumatism you see, sir. He’s getting on a bit.’

‘Thank you, Mrs Norbanathy. That’ll be all, if you please.’

‘Aye, of course.’ After another deep curtsey, she scurried away into the house at the rear of the store.

‘The Emperor wishes to see you, if you’ll allow it?’ Luthando said.

Beodaw scoffed, ‘allow it? Does one have a choice when it comes to such invitations?’ Beodaw flashed a dark look at Draven who was persistent with his window peeping.

‘Don’t let Draven get to you, he’s not all bad, just devoted to his calling and Emperor and it makes him a little… tense. The Emperor is keen to see you again. He feels it’s been far too long since you last paid him a visit.’

‘Aye, it’s been fifteen years as you said. It’s unexpectedly welcome of course, mind you.’

One of Luthando’s eyebrows raised a little. He knew it was a lie as much as Beodaw did.

‘Good! Good,’ said Luthando, a little distracted, and he peered over Beodaw’s shoulder into the dark corridor where Mrs. Norbanathy had disappeared.

‘And the Lord of Havenport, he’s expecting you also?’

Luthando furrowed his brow thoughtfully, ‘to tell you the truth Beodaw, Lord Sarrin wasn’t told. We arrived by ship only an hour ago and judging by the commotion over there, his household is now running amuck at the sight of us. He’ll be a bit annoyed I came to see you first.’

‘You honour me, though I can’t understand why? Are you unwell?’

‘Fit as a fiddle. The Emperor requested I seek your counsel and support before seeing Lord Sarrin.’

Beodaw huffed, ‘I can’t imagine why he would? I’m just an old man and a healer.’

‘And a humble one it would seem,’ he said, with a sardonic smile, ‘it’s well known the folk around here seek your counsel long before they ask for Sarrin’s.’

‘I’ve a friendly ear is all,’ replied Beodaw, dismissively, and thought the Emperor knew an awful lot considering he had never visited Havenport in his life. It was also odd Luthando had arrived so soon after his grandchildren had departed.

‘I don’t see why you would need my support to visit Havenport?’

‘I’m here on behalf of the Emperor to make sure Sarrin’s on the right path as it were.’

‘The right path?’

‘He’s a little too fond of the Havenport treasury and there are concerns Lord Sarrin may be jeopardising the security of the Empire with his loose trading laws and affiliation with these southerners. We can’t have them poisoning the minds of our people.’

‘You mean with the ancient Elder Seven gods and goddesses?’

Luthando nodded reluctantly, ‘rumour has reached the Emperor that Sarrin’s taken up this Elder Seven notion in secret and he doesn’t want this nonsense filling the heads of the good people of our Empire.’

‘And what do you want?’

Luthando looked like he might have a lot to say on the topic but held his tongue.

‘You speak too freely, Beodaw. I’ll take stock of Havenport and deal with Lord Sarrin, then we’ll sail with you and your family to the Capital.’

‘My family?’ Beodaw stammered, and wrung his hands around the parchment.

‘Aye, your family,’ said Luthando, and fixed Beodaw with a firm stare. Luthando glanced over Beodaw’s shoulder again, expecting the family he spoke of to materialise at their mere mention.

‘That’s quite impossible. My grandchildren are away, working.’

‘Both of your grandchildren?’ he asked, soberly, and his handsome face grew dark.

Beodaw nodded, and swallowed hard – now they had come to the point at hand, Lord Sarrin was a sideshow, an excuse to distract him from the real intent of Luthando’s presence in Havenport.

Luthando looked troubled by this news and paced beside the counter. After a moment, he stopped, straightened his back, and met Beodaw’s eyes.

‘That complicates matters,’ said Luthando, gravely.

‘Let’s speak plainly,’ said Beodaw, sternly. He had grown tired of mincing words and dancing around the topic, ‘I sense your words don’t reveal your true purpose here. The fact you sought me out before Lord Sarrin indicates another matter entirely. Why are you really here, Luthando?’

He considered Beodaw for a moment, and then exhaled loudly, ‘it’s a terrible thing to have a duty. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to but have no choice in the matter.’

‘How much do you know?’ Beodaw asked. There was no sense in skipping around the subject on both their minds.

‘I know a little of this and a little of that,’ he replied, offhandedly and waved his hand casually.

‘How much do you know about my granddaughter, Elianna?’ Beodaw asked, and he almost choked on his words.

Luthando stood still as stone at the mention of her name, then spoke in a low voice, ‘everything. At least, as much as the Emperor was prepared to reveal about her.’

Beodaw nodded solemnly, ‘then you know she has turned seventeen?’

‘Aye.’

‘I gather you’re not here to make an offer for her hand then.’

Luthando smiled, ruefully, ‘the Emperor felt it prudent to tighten security under the circumstances.’

‘And your men, do they know?’

Beodaw looked over Luthando’s shoulder at the Imperials hanging about the front of the store.

‘Only the Emperor and I know the secret you have kept safe all these years, unless you’ve revealed it to another?’

‘Never uttered a word about it to anyone.’

‘Then I’m here to be of service, to be on call should there be need to’ – he paused to find the right words – ‘handle the situation, if things get out of control.’

Beodaw’s heart filled with despair, and grew heavier than a woollen blanket soaked in water. ‘I’ve handled the situation, as you put it,’ – he nodded graciously at Luthando – ‘for fifteen years, and as you can see, all’s well in Havenport.’

Luthando smiled sympathetically, ‘the situation has slipped through your fingers. It was my understanding she wasn’t to leave the city walls.’

‘Aye, it’s true. It was one of the conditions set down by the Emperor.’

‘And you agreed to this condition?’

‘I did,’ Beodaw said, with a heavy sigh, unable to maintain eye contact.

‘And yet she’s gone. It appears you’ve failed in the duty you were charged with.’

‘I’ve protected her, kept her safe, it was my duty.’

‘And who is keeping us safe from her?’

Beodaw shifted in his seat uncomfortably. His hands searched for something to fidget with on the counter and found the parchment, while Luthando evaluated him.

‘If you knew her as I do,’ Beodaw began, slowly, and his voice trembled slightly, ‘you would understand how difficult it’s been to keep her confined for so long.’

‘Is her power difficult to control?’ he asked, alarmed.

‘No, no, my dear man,’ he said, and shook his head, ‘she’s a sweet girl and her heart is filled with love for the world and adventure. She wants to travel the Empire, see the world and heal the sick. She’s quite remarkable you see, in fact, she’s a rather gifted healer.’

‘It’s an admirable trade, but still, it’s unwise to leave her unattended.’

‘I haven’t released her, like an animal into the wild. She rides with her brother and I trust no other to keep her safe.’

‘The agreement remains broken nonetheless, and I must report as much.’

Luthando’s face, however, betrayed his thoughts and Beodaw understood he had no plans to report anything to the Capital just yet. Beodaw stood and his old bones creaked from too many years bent over books and mortar and pestle. Elianna’s secret had weighed heavily on him for fifteen years, and now things were coming to a head for good or ill.

‘I’ll save you the grief and go to the Emperor myself and explain, just as I did when you were a boy.’

‘There’ll be no need for that yet,’ Luthando said, thoughtfully, and his eyes glinted with amusement. The corners of his mouth twitched with a smile. He knew his bluff had been called.

‘Then I’m afraid I can’t help you. My grandchildren won’t return until autumn. You’re most welcome to wait of course. Then you can see for yourself she’s of no danger to anyone, in fact quite the opposite.’

Luthando gave him a fleeting look of sympathy and weighed up words unspoken. A shadow fell across his face and his eyes hardened under a silent resolve he made with himself.

‘The child was not to leave these walls,’ he said, abruptly, and glanced out the window at his men, ‘I’m sorry Beodaw, for you and your family, but I must follow my orders. I can’t go back to the Capital without her, you understand. The Emperor wants to see her in the flesh.’

‘Or for a pound of it,’ Beodaw added, viciously. Luthando’s steady stare confirmed his assumption.

‘That’s not for me to decide. The Emperor will judge what’s necessary for the greater good.’

‘And who is he to judge what is good?’

‘Her power could be used against us,’ said Luthando, seriously.

‘She would never! She doesn’t even know she has it.’

‘What?’ Luthando said, and his head jerked with surprise, ‘are you telling me she’s never used her power?’

‘No, I felt it prudent to protect her from it. The burden of it is too great.’

Luthando sighed heavily, and his brow knitted tightly, ‘then the matter’s all the more pressing now she’s seventeen, before something unfortunate happens.’

Beodaw’s shoulders collapsed. No words of diplomacy would change Luthando’s course.

‘You’ll go after her?’

Luthando nodded, confirming Beodaw’s worst fears, ‘I have no other choice. The Emperor has ordered it. Considering she’s running about the Empire clueless about her power only makes the matter all the more urgent.’

Beodaw opened a counter drawer and retrieved a vial. Its contents a dark honey colour.

‘They headed south this morning,’ he lied, ‘if you find them, you will need this. Sunrise, sunset, one drop with water. It’s the only way to hold back the power and give her any chance of a normal life. Use it carefully and she’ll remain placid. Without this, who can say what will happen to her, but I fear it above all things.’

Luthando took the vial and turned it in his fingers. He held it up to the window for light.

‘That’s like sealing a volcano with a cork,’ he said, and shook his head, disappointed, ‘how long do you expect it to last now she’s seventeen?’

‘The serum works, of that I’ve no doubt.’

‘What is it?’ he asked, and he examined the sparkling serum, which swirled with golden flecks like fiery jewels in the sunlight.

‘It’s a complicated compound and it would take a week to educate you on its ingredients. And it’s the only thing saving her from what she may become all because of those damn Elder Seven beings masquerading as gods, may Arku strike them down!’

Luthando stared hard at the vial and his forehead pinched at the brow, then he whispered, ‘fire and water.’

‘What did you say?’ asked Beodaw, confused.

Luthando shook his head, ‘nothing. You’re certain this controls her?’

‘Aye, it’s potent and for all I know it may have diminished her power all together. I can only hope.’

‘You’re an arrogant man to believe as much.’

Beodaw moved from behind the counter and placed a hand on Luthando’s shoulder, and spoke softly, ‘you seem a good man, Luthando. I beg you, please don’t hurt her. She’s head strong and regrettably, she speaks her mind when she shouldn’t. She’s good through and through, I assure you.’

‘Pray to Arku I find her, before she hurts anyone,’ said Luthando, and he stashed the vial in his arm guard.

The General of the Imperial Army turned on his heel and left Beodaw alone with his rattling thoughts. Beodaw hurried to the door and locked it. He placed the closed sign on the door and moved to the window box where he saw the Imperials come to attention when Luthando re-joined them. Luthando and another Imperial, a burly fellow with a bushy auburn beard, mounted their steeds. Draven spoke to Luthando, who was now seated on his white stallion, which stamped the ground eagerly, ready to go. Draven, flanked by his priests, exchanged heated words with Luthando and it seemed Draven lost the argument because he looked decidedly put out. Luthando placed his helm on and pulled the reins tight, then he and his companion tore away in the direction of the Western Gate, scattering town’s folk before them who rushed to get out of their way.

Beodaw’s heart sank into the floor. It was over for them. Surely, no good would come of this. If Luthando went south, it would not take him long to realise Mathusal and Elianna had not gone that way. The rest of the Imperials rallied and moved along to the tavern across the town square. Draven trailed behind them and his long coat flapped about his ankles in the afternoon breeze.

Beodaw looked down at his hands, he still clutched the parchment from the Emperor. With trembling fingers, he broke the wax seal and unrolled it.

His eyes burned with tears and a ball of hot dread churned in his stomach. The parchment held no words – it did not need to, for the pair of black raven wings drawn upon it said far more than words ever could.


THREE

Riverbend











Elianna scribbled furiously on the bound parchment Beodaw had given her. With an inkpot held precariously between her knees, she dipped the quill once more.

‘What are you doing?’ Mathusal asked, in a patronising tone.

‘Writing a letter to Papa,’ she replied, while the nib scratched away frantically over the parchment in her long loopy writing.

‘Honestly, we’re not even a day out. What could you possibly need to tell him already?’ asked Mathusal, who shook his head with a smile on his face.

‘Mathusal…’ she said, slowly while she wrote, and threw a disapproving glare in his direction, ‘has… been… naught… but… sullen… and… boring.’ She examined her words and gave them a satisfied nod. Then she quickly added Jotha was with them, who smelt of fish and ale, and slept the entire day snoring like a drunken pig.


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