Free Taste of Duilleog

Duilleog eBook Cover August 2016_GOLDFor everyone’s reading pleasure I am pleased to offer the first few chapters of Duilleog, a New Druids novel, Volume One. Enjoy.

Enjoy.

Duilleog

Part One: Beginnings

Chapter One

South of Jaipers, 900 A.C.

THE HARD, SHARP edge of the iron knife pressed against my neck froze the blood in my veins. I went as still as I could, held my breath and waited to feel the blade slice across my flesh in a fiery line. Every nerve in my body screamed for me to fight and flee but he held me from behind in a vice–like grip that I couldn’t hope to break. His breath, foul and rotten, washed over me in waves, and I could feel his chest rapidly expanding against my back. I knew he had been running before he snatched me, still asleep, from the ground. He towered over me and his arms held me with strength beyond my own. Despite my struggles, I knew with a certainty that there was no escape. Time seemed to slow to a crawl.

The man had the fingers of his right hand painfully entwined into my hair, forcing my head back and exposing my throat. As a result, my mouth was forced open and now it was as dry as an old bone. He held me tilted back against him and where he moved, I was forced to follow. The knife in his left hand moved slightly and dragged across my neck and I felt coldness from the blade’s caress. Immediately, pain shot from my skin and I cried out in shock. Panic gripped me.

Here it comes! Not now! I can’t die!

My eyes darted over my small camp – still dimly lit against the night by a small fire – to search for anything that could help me. My meagre fire warmed a beaten tin pot suspended by a hook from three branches draped over the flames. The pot contained a soothing tea made from herbs I had gathered the day before as the sun had just started to set. A small, dented, and scratched tin drinking mug sat on one of the rocks that surrounded the fire. A couple of feet away, my pack lay next to my sleeping roll, but it contained nothing more than some extra clothing, some food and the herbs that I had carefully bundled and sorted in the way I had taught myself over the years. I couldn’t forget my other possession; which was the small, sharp and pitted iron knife that was now pressed against my own neck.

I was on foot with rags wrapped around my feet and I wore pieces of crude cloth hand sewn into a functional, patchwork tunic with matching pants that I had tied to my waist with a cord. There was nothing that could help me escape and I had nothing that I could trade with this man that could purchase my freedom. The cold and fear seeped into my flesh and I started to shiver uncontrollably. I was ashamed to hear a whimper escape my lips.

My single valued possession was buried in the soft dirt directly under my sleeping roll and I knew that this man couldn’t possibly have knowledge of it. He could not have seen me with it or using it – I was far too careful for that to have happened. I knew it was safe, at least for now. It was worth more than my life and I would never exchange it. I immediately dismissed it as an option. My mind raced in circles as I tried to figure out what he wanted from me. Here I was: destitute, and barely scraping a living from the woods and hills that surrounded the nearby town of Jaipers. I had nothing to offer him for my escape. And so I waited. I waited to feel the knife open my throat from ear to ear. I waited for him to say anything – anything at all to break the fear and apprehension that mounted within me for every labourious second that passed.

I was quickly losing my efforts not to cry out and I could feel tears streaming freely down my cheeks. My heart pounded painfully in my chest and loud in my ears. I was only sixteen years old and too young to die. It wasn’t fair. I rolled my dry tongue in my parched mouth, looking for any moisture that would free my speech and let me start to try and reason with him. I felt the knife press deeper in response before I could get a word out.

“Shut yer mouth, boy!” rasped the man in my ear. He whirled around, dragging me with him, to stare out into the darkness that surrounded my camp and I stifled a scream at the sudden movement. I could feel him turning his head above mine to look out into the dark.

With the moon obscured by dense clouds it was a much darker night than normal. The light from my fire flickered and pulsed unevenly, reaching, at best, a short distance of ten feet into the surrounding area. My meagre camp was centered in a small clearing within a copse of maybe twenty trees. I was not far from the road that led into the town of Jaipers located three miles away to the north. I found the site to be perfect to my gathering needs as the trees and bushes were sufficiently thick enough to hide the light of my fire from the road. A small stream flowed a few yards away and had clean and cold water fed from the nearby mountains. It also contained small brook trout in the deeper shaded spots.

Some of my best herbs came from the along the stream’s edge where the trees shaded them. I came here often to rest before striking into town to sell or trade my plants at the local open market. Gathering herbs was the one thing that I could do well and it benefited me by allowing me to trade for those items that I could not forage or make myself. The town folk knew me by sight and a few knew me by name; at least those who thought to ask. I had regular customers like Dempster, the cook at the town’s inn, and my good friend Daukyns. Daukyns was a Wordsmith and led a small congregation in the Word from the town common hall and partnered with me with the salves and unguents I made from my gatherings. Most of the town folk had added my plants to their food or traded for my pots of unguents; especially the healing ones. I had worked the area surrounding the town for close to four years and it was starting to feel like home despite my normal reluctance to be anywhere near other people or confined within the town walls. Food was my usual choice for trade, but once, every few months or so, I would indulge myself and trade for a hot bath at the inn. As needed, I would trade for used cloth or shirts and pants to replace those of mine that were beyond repair. My discarded clothes I would turn into coarse thread to help make new ones. It was a routine I was happy with and it was better than my life from before.

I preferred the solitary life away from people. I had lived in the woods for a long time now and through trial and error I had found a way to co–exist with the wilderness. I now felt at peace surrounded by trees, plants and grass. The small animals in the area knew me and seldom ran from my approach. I sensed a deep empathy with the outdoors. I knew where to find my plants and recognised the benefits of plants intuitively. I tended the herbs where they grew and took only what I needed to trade for goods that would keep my scant possessions in good condition and my belly full. One day would blur into another and the seasons would pass as they were meant to pass: without my trying to mark them. The summers were hot and the winters wet and chill. Yet I persevered through the years. I was trim, fit and healthy. I wanted for nothing except peace and solitude.

Yet here I was, at the mercy of this madman. I tried to calm myself so I could think. After a time, I was successful and I finally took notice of the absolute silence in the air. The crickets and frogs had gone still at the disturbance in their nightly ritual. The clearing and the surrounding area seemed to be holding its breath waiting for something. I sensed a feeling of dread from outside the firelight. It frightened me and added to my distress.

I looked into the darkness and observed that our combined shadow from the fire stretched out and melded with the dark. The night waited in silence and I waited for any sign from this man that could tell me what he wanted. With a grunt, he swung me around to stare across the fire into the dark. My night vision was long since shattered with the light from the fire and I could make out nothing.

“Where are you, you Godless bastard?” he muttered under his breath and I realised with an intake of breath that this man was afraid of someone pursuing him and probably wanted nothing from me. I was merely a convenient hostage, I concluded. With this thought, I felt the first stirring of hope rise within me.

He swung me around again to stare into the night.

His breathing continued hard and fast. The smell of alcohol and stale, stinking sweat were strong in my nostrils and yet I could smell something else above all this. It was a scent that touched the back of my mouth and left a faint metallic taste: the unmistakable smell of blood. My fear doubled. This man had blood on him! A lot of blood, or I wouldn’t be able to smell it so clearly. He had killed already and could easily do so again.

A twig snapped behind us, startling me with the sharp and loud explosive sound in the silence. The man whirled quickly to face the direction it had come from and somehow managed to press the knife further into my neck. My flesh felt like it would split across the edge of the blade and I would soon see my blood fountain into the night air. I was now having trouble breathing and I obscurely wondered when I had started to breathe again. I peered into the night through the fire, desperate to see anyone who could help me but, the light was too bright. The flames crackled. A spark shot high into the air and my eyes followed it, wishing I could join it, until it disappeared from view.

“Come out into the light so I can see you!” yelled the man, his voice loud and abrasive in my ear. His accent was strange and I wondered where he was from. More importantly, I was sure that I heard a note of fear in his voice and felt a glimmer of hope rise again within me. Someone out there made this man afraid.

We both strained to hear a reply from the darkness but there was none. The silence stretched until my assailant became increasingly agitated.

“I’ll open this boy’s throat if you don’t come out into the light so I can see you!” he yelled again and tightened his painful grip in my hair. My ear was now ringing.

“I don’t think you’ll do that,” came a quiet voice from somewhere beyond the fire. I recognised the voice at once. The voice belonged to the Reeve of Jaipers, a good man called Comlin. He had spoken to me many times in town and had been kind to me. “You wouldn’t have anything to hide behind then, now would you? You do realise that you have a young man there who means pretty much nothing to me or anyone else around these parts. I’m not so sure you’ve thought this out too clearly.”

As the magistrate for Jaipers, when I had first entered the town, Comlin had approached me wanting to know where I was from, how long I was staying in the area, and later, once I had traded my wares, where I had learned to gather herbs. He always wanted to know everything he could about me. And I had told him the truth – well, mostly. I hid from him the painful truths – stuff he hadn’t needed to know. I wasn’t going to open my past up to anyone. I had promised my mother to stay hidden and safe and I hadn’t broken that vow. Thankfully, after the initial scrutiny, Comlin had pretty much left me alone but would often stop by to talk to me when I came to town. He would want to know if I had seen anyone suspicious in the area. It was easy to see that he took his job of defending the people of Jaipers quite seriously. Unexpectedly, I became his eyes and ears in the area surrounding the town and surprised myself by finding the role exciting in a small way. I enjoyed our arrangement, if you could call it that. I also looked forward to seeing him in town and I had long ago noted his genuine concern for my wellbeing.

I was relieved to see him here and now. I trusted this man and knew that he would save me; although I honestly knew not how as I stood there in the madman’s clutches.

“Blessed Father,” muttered my captor. He raised his voice and called out to Comlin.

“Yer nuttin’ but a small town Reeve. You’ve nary an idea wut yer up against. You need to go back to your town and forget all about this. Be smart, not stupid. This boy is only moments away from spilling his blood all over this ground and it will be your fault.”

“Well, that’s an interesting concept,” answered the Reeve in a slow, drawn out way, as if he was thinking it over as he said it. “I should just turn around and walk away while you hold that boy with a knife to his throat? Tell me something, why’d you kill Bill and what did you take from his house? Answer me that.”

The man growled in frustration.

“That business is my business,” answered the man. “He wasn’t supposed to come home when he did. This would have been a lot cleaner if he had stayed drinking at the inn. Not my fault and what’s done is done. Why do you care about some old man?”

Silence was the only reply from the darkness. I waited, straining to hear anything that would show me where the Reeve stood.

“Bill was a good man,” came the soft reply. “You broke into his house to rob him. You killed him and then stole from him while his corpse cooled at your feet.”

I heard the regret in the Reeve’s voice. Silence followed. Then I heard a soft sound, like something being stretched, and wondered what it could be.

“You come out into the light, you bastard!” hissed the man, his spit spraying into the night air with his rage. “You have no idea what you are messing with. This is bigger than you can imagine.”

A sharp thrum filled the air and I felt, rather than heard, a hard, wet crunching sound explode next to my head. The man went rigid and I felt him exhale in one long sigh against my cheek. Then he simply crumpled to the ground and his hand, still tangled in my hair, pulled me down with him. I was forced to spin around and bend over to release him, only to find myself staring down at the feathered end of an arrow, plunged deep into his right eye. His remaining eye was half closed and sightless.

The arrow had pierced his head straight through and now the point was forcing his chin to his chest. I reached up and fumbling, freed his hand from my hair. It dropped with a heavy thud to lie limply beside his head in the dirt. I scrambled backwards away from the body and around to the other side of the fire. My eyes remained locked to the still form, waiting for him to rise. The man seemed to writhe on the ground through the flames of the camp fire.

I could see that he was dressed in dark leathers, and that the front glistened with what appeared to be drying blood. His face was rough and unshaven. His eyebrows were long and thick and shaded his eyes. I kept my eyes locked on the body, looking for any sign of movement as the Reeve emerged behind me into the light, patted my shoulder and approached the body. He carried a short bow in one hand and I could see he carried a small leather quiver across his back with the fletching of his arrows sticking out the top. I had never been happier to see the Reeve Comlin.

He glanced back at me briefly. “You okay, Will?” he asked.

When I nodded, he crouched down beside the body.

My hand crept up to my throat to feel for blood and came away with only a drop or two. I could feel a burning where the knife had scratched me. I was alive and unhurt; I realised with a start, and suddenly began shaking. I drew my knees to my chest and tried to stop them from trembling. Suddenly, the warmth from the fire seemed distant, cold and remote.

The Reeve smiled grimly at me and turned his attention to the body. He looked it over quickly and reached out, removing a leather purse that was tucked under the belt tied around the man’s waist. He hefted it in his palm and I could hear metal clink. The Reeve untied the purse’s drawstring, opened it and spilt the contents into his hand. I watched as his palm filled with a couple of silver groat and several copper pence coins. With a clink, a small red gem landed on top of the pile and the Reeve grunted in surprise.

“Not what I thought,” he said.

I opened my mouth to ask him what he meant but my teeth started chattering so I clamped my lips shut. He held the gem up to the fire and it flashed in the light. It had an odd shape that I couldn’t quite make out. He shook his head and poured the coins back into the purse, dropping the gem on top. He cinched the purse closed and tucked it under his own waist belt. “This goes into the town treasury until we can sort out what to do with it.” This time the Reeve looked at me, his gaze had a hard edge, as if he was, appraising me.

“You’ll be alright, Will,” he said. “The shakes will pass. You did good and you held still and let me take that shot.” The Reeve glanced at the arrow protruding from the man’s face and shook his head. “I lost that arrow, though, and it was my best one, too.”

He grabbed the flight of the arrow and lifted the dead man’s head to reach behind it. I heard a loud snap and watched as he held up a steel arrow head covered in blood and something else that I didn’t want to think about.

“This is worth keeping,” he muttered and quickly wiped it on a nearby patch of grass. He reached over his shoulder and I watched as the arrow head disappeared into his quiver with a dull thud. He pried my knife from the dead man’s hand, recognised it as my own, and tossed it over to land near my bedroll. I glared at it glinting in the firelight, the handle nothing more than tightly wrapped rags, the steel pitted and stained, and I was no longer sure I trusted my own knife.

The Reeve looked the man up and down and started examining his leathers. He untied the waist belt and then opened the straps that held his tunic closed. The Reeve grimaced at the blood now on his hands. He felt around inside the tunic and extracted a folded piece of parchment, opening it carefully to avoid getting blood on it. His eyes quickly scanned over whatever was on it and then he folded the parchment back up and stuffed it into his own leather tunic. He checked the waist and trousers and then he reached the man’s feet, where he wore a pair of black, soft–soled, leather boots. They were laced up with a strange leather strap that wound up around his calves. The Reeve removed them with strong tugs and, once he had them off, he tossed them over the fire to have them land next to me. I glanced at them, confused.

He looked meaningful at my rag–wrapped feet. “Yours. You earned them.”

He roughly removed all the man’s clothing until he lay naked, and without much dignity, on his back in the dirt. I found my eyes returning to stare at the man’s sightless eye. It haunted me. I watched as the Reeve squatted and bundled up the clothes; he tied the trousers legs around them to hold them together.

He stood up and stretched out his back, groaning a bit before he whistled once, softly, into the dark. The sound startled me and I blinked. The Reeve looked down at me and stared for a bit, with an unreadable expression on his face, until I started feeling uncomfortable under his scrutiny.

“I didn’t mean it,” he said cryptically. I had no idea what he meant and I just looked blankly back up at him.

He chuckled a bit and the sound startled me. He shook his head and smiled. “I lied to him to throw him off guard. You do mean something to the people around these parts. You have a gift with those herbs of yours. A rare gift, Will. The town appreciates your skills.”

Out of the darkness emerged a large shadow that coalesced into a piebald horse that I recognised as the Reeve’s. It had responded to the Reeve’s whistle. The horse looked down at me and startled me by seeming to duck its head for a moment. I had seen the Reeve with his horse numerous times before in Jaipers. I always had a strong bond with animals and this one was no exception. He was proud to be the Reeve’s horse. His dark brown and white patches were distinctive and I could tell that he was well cared for. The horse stood proudly in the fire light and continued to watch me. I forced a smile at him and he finally looked away.

The Reeve walked over to the saddle and removed a hemp rope that hung from the saddle horn. He measured a short length, cut it off and quickly secured the trussed up clothes next to his saddle bag. He returned to the dead body and expertly tied the feet together with one end of the rope and secured the other end to a metal ring hanging from the back of the saddle. The Reeve checked the girdle of the horse and stroked its nose with affection before clucking at it and turning it so that it was facing away from the fire and the dead body. I could sense that the horse was dreading what it seemed to know was about to happen and I didn’t think it was looking forward to the effort.

The Reeve put a foot in a stirrup and swung himself up onto the horse with practised ease before he looked back at me. Still sitting on the ground with my arms wrapped around my knees, I now had to crane my neck to look up at him. It hurt, but at least the shaking in my legs had seemed to reduce somewhat.

“Come into town tomorrow,” the Reeve said. “I’ll want you to make a statement to the garrison officer on what happened out here. I’ll arrange for you to get a hot bath at the inn as well. Fair enough?”

I nodded, not sure what else I could say. Time was starting and stopping, and then rushing along. Nothing was making much sense. I wasn’t at all sure what had just happened.

“These things happen, Will. You’ll be fine now,” said the Reeve as if reading my mind. “Take some time to work it all out in your head. You’re a strong lad and you’ll put this behind you. It had nothing to do with you – just remember that.”

He clucked at his horse and it started to walk away, then he stopped it with a slight tug on the reins. He looked back at me again. His horse seemed to do the same. This time, staring into its mournful eyes, I was sure the horse was not happy about dragging the body back to Jaipers.

“One more thing, Will, one of the town folk has a high fever and could use your attention. She’s not alone; many are sick.” He waited until I nodded again.

My mind already started working on the problem. I had collected a few herbs that would knock a high temperature down. It wouldn’t take me long to brew up a remedy.

I think the Reeve knew that I was already thinking on the problem because a look of satisfaction settled on his face as he gave the horse its head.

      The horse slowly started to walk into the darkness and down the deer path that led out of the clearing to the main road. The rope tied to the man slowly lifted from the ground until it hummed taught and unceremoniously, the dead man was pulled across the ground. The remaining shaft of the arrow sticking out the back of the head scraped a shallow furrow into the dirt and marked his passage. Appalled, I watched the head flop from side to side as he was dragged away; his arms trailing behind him, until he was out of the light and into the darkness. I knew that the image would stay with me forever. I wasn’t sure how much of the man would be left by the time he arrived into town. Not much, I imagined, and shuddered.

Eventually, the soft noise of the horse’s hooves hitting the dirt quietly faded into the night and the sounds of the crickets and frogs returned to fill the air.

I was alone and I was afraid.

Chapter Two

Outside Jaipers, 900 A.C.

AFTER A WHILE, the shaking and fear subsided and I felt that I could move again. I had no idea how long I sat there unmoving. My eyes finally drifted over to the small pool of blood that marked where the dead man’s head had lain on the ground. The dirt seemed to refuse to absorb it. Next to the blood, I saw something glistening pink and tan in colour and I was horrified. I frantically grabbed handfuls of dirt and from where I sat tossed them over to the spot until, after several attempts, I managed to hide the evidence. Only then did I awkwardly struggle to my feet and start to walk around my camp to work out the aches in my legs formed from remaining still for too long. I rubbed the dried tears from my cheeks.

I found myself pacing around my campfire. I was consumed with anger: anger at the Reeve, at the dead man, at Bill – who I barely knew other than him being the only drunk at the inn with money – and even anger at the whole damn town for letting this happen. I stalked the clearing and tried desperately to find a way to vent my building rage. I kicked dirt over where the blood lay and even ground away the line the arrow had made in the ground as best as I could with my rag–covered feet.

After a time, my anger faded and I found myself over by the stream scrubbing my hands, face, and neck with wet sand until they hurt. At one point I started sobbing and I couldn’t manage to stop myself and felt foolish the entire time. Then I couldn’t get warm and ended up throwing all my gathered wood onto the fire until it roared skyward and I could feel welcomed heat to sinking into my bones. I sat, shivering, as close to the fire as I could stand, my skin screaming with the heat. At one point, I’m embarrassed to admit, it occurred to me that there might have been more men out there lurking and lying in wait for me, and that they would now be drawn to the flames and me. Frightened, I knocked my fire apart in a frenzied haste before sanity returned to me and I managed to rebuild it.

What followed was a long and turbulent night and by morning I was surprised to awake lying in my wraps, on my sleeping roll, next to a burnt out fire. I couldn’t remember falling asleep or even going to bed. The sun had just risen and I could hear birds singing loudly into the morning air as if nothing was wrong in the world. I lay there listening to their songs until my bladder forced me out of my warm wraps. Even in summer the mornings could be cool in this region and today was no exception.

I relieved myself against a nearby tree and then grabbed my cooking pot and went to the stream to fetch water for my morning tea. I splashed my face with water. Now refreshed, I felt somewhat better. The memories of the night’s events were starting to fade in intensity. I reached up and fingered the area where the knife had cut me and I was pleased to find the wound closed and almost gone. Sometime during the night, I had calmed down and remembered to apply my healing unguent to the small cut on my neck. My unguent had remarkable healing properties imbued in it through my craft. I rarely had opportunity to apply it to myself and to be honest; I was proud and enjoyed the results.

I returned to the cold campfire after gathering some fuel wood and after finding some burning coals buried beneath the ash, I blew the fire back to life with some dry grass and kindling. I slowly built the fire back up to a good height that would boil the water in my tin pot in no time. Once bubbles formed in the water, I brought out some dried green tea leaves and added a generous pinch to the water along with a few dried chamomile flowers. I watched the leaves unfold in the water and I leaned over to breathe in the vapours, letting the scent fill me up as I exhaled in contentment. Soon I was sitting cross–legged with my eyes closed next to the fire, relaxing with my cup and trying to find my inner peace. My herbs were simply the best, I had to admit, and I chided myself for not having made this tea last night. I should have known better and could have avoided the horrible evening I had.

I rested there for at least an hour, reaching out with my senses to the trees, the stream and the wildlife. They imbued me with their natural peace and serenity, and I felt calm return to me with their presence. I quickly drained the last of the tea in my cup and determined that it was probably time to head to town to fulfill my promise to the Reeve. I snorted at the thought – I was already heading to town with my backpack full of herbs when the incident happened. Now I had one more reason to leave the comfort of the woods. I took a last look around at my peaceful camp from where I sat, and groaned as I rose to my feet to tear it down.

I washed out my pot and cup at the stream and refilled my water skin. I rolled up my sleeping roll and fastened it below my pack, tucking my pot and cup inside where they belonged. I took the time to gather fresh fuel wood and laid it out under the small shelter I had made for the purpose of keeping it dry till next time I returned. I had similar caches all over the region. I always found it wise to prepare for the future as best as you could and gathering fuel wood was one of the simplest preparations I could make. I hooked my water skin to the outside of the pack and then stood to look around to make sure that no one was observing me.

I had discovered over the years that it was always prudent to be attentive to your surroundings. Not that any harm ever came to me. This thought drew a snort from me as I remembered last night and recognised the lie that this belief now was. Still, habits meant that I always left my campsite cleared of any signs of recent use. Some signs were unavoidable, such as the remnants of the campfire, but nonetheless, I did the best I could. I was always on my own and relied only on my wits and power of observation to avoid trouble. I finished peering around and seeing no movement in the surrounding area and no one travelling on the nearby road, I simply closed my eyes to listen. After a time, hearing nothing but the wind through the trees and the birds calling to one another, I opened my eyes, certain that no one was near.

I moved over to where my sleeping roll had lain the night before and dug up the loose soil where I buried my most prized possession. I soon unearthed my small leather pouch and scooped it up, shook the dirt from it, and then quickly filled in and smoothed over the hole in the ground. As I held the soft leather pouch, I could easily feel my possession. I took the time to carefully tuck the pouch into a small pocket sewn inside the front of my tunic, placed up high near the left shoulder. It was the best hiding spot I could think of to conceal something on my body and felt it was an unlikely place to be searched; I was confident it would remain hidden from prying eyes or fingers. The object inside the pouch was far too important to me, and it was all that remained of my past and my mother.

I hoisted my backpack over one shoulder and glanced at the area where the blood had spilt on the ground and I was pleased to see that I could now barely make it out. I gave the area a once over to make sure I left nothing behind and I was startled to see the black boots lying exactly where the Reeve tossed them last night. That they belonged to a dead man filled me with a small measure of revulsion and I simply couldn’t bear the thought of wearing them. Still, I thought and glanced at my ragged feet and then back at the boots. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to try them on and see what it feels like to wear real boots. I couldn’t remember the last time I wore something solid on my feet. I must have at some point when I was younger. Images of running through a castle corridor teased my memories and faded just as quickly as they had come.

I slipped my pack off my shoulder, laid it on the ground and sat down next to the boots, grabbing one before I could change my mind. I turned it over in my hands and enjoyed how soft and supple the leather was against my green–stained, rough and calloused hands. The leather was dyed a rich, dark black and showed no wear. It seemed to absorb the light and I found it hard to really examine the boot closely. My eyes refused to stay focused on them and it was disconcerting. I could feel more than see that the stitching was doubled, tight and expertly done. The sole was thick and showed no wear on the heel. The boots were meant to reach mid–calf and laced up the front. Strangely, the upper half of the boot held leather straps that were meant to wrap up over the upper calf. It was an uncommon design and I only knew how they were worn from having watched the Reeve remove them from the man. Inside the boot opening, I observed a small maker’s mark stamped into the leather but knowing nothing of leather marks, I merely ignored it. I stored the detail for later, should I have a chance to inquire about it. I didn’t know much about leatherwork but I knew one thing for certain: these boots had cost the owner quite a bit of coin.

My revulsion had faded and was replaced with curiosity. I untied my foot wraps, flipped the top laces out of the way and pulled the boot over my right foot. The boot was only a little bit large so I wrapped the leather straps around my upper calf and tied it off, making it snug enough. I enjoyed the wonderful feeling of having leather protecting my foot and scrunched my toes inside. After years of wearing rags on my feet, the feeling of wearing real boots was amazing. Odd, I thought, I had thought the boots a little large for me but they now seemed to fit remarkably well. Goodness, they feel good on my feet. I eagerly reached out and pulled the other boot on.

Immediately, my big toe struck something inside. I pulled out my foot and peered into the boot but could not see anything. I tipped and shook the boot over an open hand but nothing fell out. I reached in and groped around until I felt the toe part of the foot lining peel back a little and grasped a small round and flat object with my fingers. I extracted my hand and saw with amazement that I held a small gold coin. Right away the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I shivered despite the warmth of the day. My blood pounded in my ears and for just a moment I grew incredibly dizzy. I closed my eyes and shook my head. The dizziness fled as quickly as it had come. I opened my eyes and all was normal again.

         I looked closely at the coin and right away I could see that it wasn’t a typical round coin. It was elongated and stretched out like someone had pulled it slightly apart from opposite sides. It was only the size of the pad of one of my thumbs and it was smoothly worn down on one side as if someone had been rubbing it repeatedly for a long time. I turned the coin over and, even slightly distorted, I could make out an embossed symbol that looked like three swirls joined in the middle. I was sure I had never seen this symbol before but it was vaguely familiar somehow. I had never held a gold coin before, nor I had ever seen one this close, but I was sure that the coin was made from real gold as it shone with a lustre I had rarely seen and then only from a distance as the richer merchants sold their wares inside their shops.

         Once, some months ago, I had seen a rather fat merchant bite a gold coin and so I too bit my coin. It was hard and hurt my teeth. I looked at the coin and couldn’t see if I had made a mark and so I wasn’t sure if it had passed the test. I didn’t care though; the coin felt so wonderful in my hand. It had such a surprising weight for something so small. I held it in my palm and flipped it over and over, staring in wonder. A brief flash of recognition went through me but I shrugged it off as yet another one of my annoying memories that would intrude at odd times.

I hadn’t seen many coins in my life, except for the occasional pence, halfpence or farthing in trade for my herbs, but this did not seem to be a recently issued coin. The symbol on the back, for instance, was not on current coins. Older coins typically held the cameo of the king, but those went out of favour after the war when the Lord Protector took over. Today coins bore the country of Belkin’s coat of arms. So whatever the symbol meant, it must have been from a long time ago; probably from well before the war. I wondered how long it would take to wear down and elongate the coin over repeated rubbing and I was sure it was a long, long time.

I doubted any merchant would accept the coin with it being so deformed, but it was still worth something by weight if I could find a gold buyer. A gold coin of this size was called a mark and was equal to nine silver groats and one groat was worth four copper pence. I had owned two groats once, payment for providing a significant amount of healing unguent to the Jaipers garrison captain last year. I was certain that I could exchange this coin for a few groats.

Excitement at my new wealth raced through me. Images of what I could purchase swam before my eyes. I could purchase new clothes and get rid of these rags. My clothes were fine in the summer heat but come winter I would be wet and cold. It would be wonderful to be able to stay dry and warm. Maybe I could purchase some leathers like the Reeve wore. I could get a nice oilskin cloak to keep the rain off – that was a certain purchase. Or a large leather backpack instead of the one I had painstakingly stitched together with scraps of leather and pieces of cloth. I looked forlornly at my poor backpack on the ground and shook my head.

I soon added other items to my imaginary list and my head reeled with the possibilities. Then I imagined the Reeve finding out and looking at me with disappointment and my excitement came crashing down around me. I knew at once that I should really return the coin to the Reeve. I would face too many questions if I suddenly showed up with gold in my hands after what had happened. It wasn’t mine and it probably had something to do with what had happened in Jaipers.

I tied the second boot to my calf and stood up to test them. My feet felt so protected and I imagined that this must be what it would be like to walk on the clouds. I thought of my journey to Jaipers and realised that, even though it was only about three miles to the south gate, with these boots on I would make good time on the rough and rocky road. Delighted, I threw my patchwork backpack over my shoulders and started the downhill journey north to town and squinted against sun, now well above the horizon and bright in my eyes to the east.

* * *

By the time I reached Jaipers, the sun was well established in the sky, the heat already oppressive. The clouds had cleared during the night and now the sky was clear and blue. It was such a clear day that I could easily see the snow covered tops of the Turgany mountains far to the west. My eyes followed the mountains down to hills that surrounded the large broad valley that nestled the town of Jaipers. From where I walked on the road, I could now look down over the town of Jaipers and I watched it shimmer in the rising heat. Hoisted above the town was the Baron’s flag but it lay sullen against the flagpole in the absence of any wind. With the sun now burning overhead, I had broken out into a sweat, my back was soaked against the backpack and I could feel sweat running down to the crack of my bum. It would be hot in town but at least it offered shade and the town well held cool water.

Jaipers, like all small towns in Turgany County, was fortified with a wall made of massive logs sunk into the ground and cut to rough points at the top. Not all the towns had walls, but they reduced the taxes the town was required to pay each quarter. Walls also rewarded the town with a small garrison of at least twelve men and one officer; all supplied by the Baron Windthrop, whose flag flew over the town. The garrison was provisioned, barracked and fed by the town, but the Baron paid the men. I did not know if the tax savings offset the cost of the maintaining of the wall and feeding the garrison or not and to be honest, I didn’t care one way or another. I did know that Jaipers was proud of its wall and its garrison but that was all foreign to me. My home was with nature and not within the town.

The town was round in shape and had been cleared of trees for a mile around to provide a clear line of sight in all directions, presumably for defence. Defence against what, I had no idea. The town had two gates: one to the north and one to the south. The north gate gave access to the river pier and to the road that traveled east to the next town down river called Belger, located beside the lake from which it took its name. The gates were very sturdy structures and were double planked and reinforced with iron bands. Small wooden towers were built on either side of the gates and leaned out over the wall. The gates were closed at nightfall and guarded continuously by the garrison. Captain Gendred, the garrison officer, insisted on closing the gates each night at sunset notwithstanding the fact that there hadn’t been hostilities in the county since the war. He was a very stern and serious man but he was friendly to me. I had provided him with a few unguents that helped his men with aches and pains and this seemed to have warmed him to me. I grew to know his men as well and I had no troubles with any of them.

Jaipers was not a large town. There were about four hundred people that lived within its walls. Another eight hundred to a thousand people lived near the town in small hamlets and farmsteads and they regularly came to town to trade and barter for goods and provisions. The nearby Potsman River had a working mill and a lone saw mill that provided valuable resources to the town and to the county. More importantly, the road I was now on led to the south west to the western sea port, named, with little imagination, Port West.

Port West and this road allowed critical goods to travel from the west coast of Belkin to Jaipers and then over one hundred miles downriver by barge to Jergen, the port city on the east coast. From there goods traveled north to the capital city of Munsten and then supposedly onward to the rest of the country. The market in Jaipers thrived on this trade route. The market was centrally located within the town and had a few semi–permanent structures for those merchants who could not yet afford to purchase a full store in the small commercial district.

Due to the walls constraining the town size, real estate within the walls was limited and expensive and it could take merchants many years of hard work to be able to afford a store and pay the additional taxes required through ownership to the Baron. As a result, many merchants set up shop outside the town walls between the river pier and the far north gate. These makeshift dwellings were supposedly illegal and the garrison could without warning demolish any structures found outside the walls, but no one could remember that happening in many years. Everyone knew, though, that the best merchants would be found inside the town, but everyone also knew that the merchants outside the wall typically specialised in those items that were hard to get or illegal to possess – such as weapons and armour. Since the war, no commoners were allowed to possess weapons or armour, other than small personal knives. The irony that it was the commoners that won the war was not lost on most people, but the law remained nonetheless and people obeyed, for the penalty was severe and often death was the judgment for violations.

Outside the north gate was where the large warehouses were built where the river, road and town all converged. Barges lined the nearby piers, with stables placed in close proximity to provide shelter for the large, hairy workhorses that ponderously pulled the barges up from down the river. Barges were a constant sight, coming and going from the piers, offloading and loading their steady stream of goods – the route down river being the luxury route. Little of the goods stayed in Jaipers. Most were destined for the larger towns and the capital city of Munsten. A few merchants chose to use the road that skirted the river, despite the risk of highwaymen, and often I sat and watched them line up their carts and rumble down the road, bristling with hired armed guards, and disappear over the horizon.

Sometimes I wished I could go with them but my promise to my mother kept my feet safe in the woods and out of sight. The town knew that the Baron had men of the Army of the Realm that policed the road but they couldn’t be everywhere and every so often tales of highwaymen raiding caravans would trickle into town. I would listen to these tales and be glad I remained safe to the south in the woods and hills outside the valley. Most merchants preferred the barges: they could carry more and they were safer on the water than on the road, but they cut into the profits and still required men to guard the goods when the barges moored for the night.

The road leading up to the south gate was deserted at this time of day. I approached the gate and was relieved to enter the shade below the wall and fully open my eyes. I blinked and rubbed my eyebrows; they were sore after squinting for so long. The sentry guard positioned outside the gate looked bored, hot and tired. He knew me well enough and greeted me pleasantly by name, nodding toward the open gate to let me know that I could enter. As I passed through the gate, I smiled to myself as the town opened up in front of me.

The sounds and smells of civilisation always seemed to overwhelm my senses after so long by myself. The smell of so many people living in close proximity was foul. Their noise was a loud drone that obscured any other sounds. People filled where they lived with their presence. I always felt disconnected when I entered the town and today was no exception. Except – perhaps today, after all that has happened – a little human companionship would be welcomed. And, I admitted to myself with a smile, coming into town meant that I got to see my good friend, Daukyns.

I could only stay in town for a few days before I knew I would find my feet taking me back outside to the peace and quiet in the woods and hills. But for now, I was happy to return and my stomach growled with hunger. I had not broken fast this morning and I now regretted it. I also had a terrible thirst and the town well beckoned me.

I had a route that I always liked to take in town: first to the inn, then to the common hall, and lastly to the merchant square to sell my herbs, potions and unguents. Afterwards I head back to the inn to get a hot meal, a bath and a warm soft bed. It was a comforting routine and it allowed me to minimize my time around people.

Somehow, not long after I entered Jaipers, word would get around and I would find myself providing advice to those with ailments. They would seek me out and sometimes surround me. They suffered from ailments real and imagined but all of them would look for cures from me. I had a sense about illnesses; gained from long discussions with Daukyns and through my knowledge of herb lore. I dimly remembered that my mother, too, had a gift for healing and that I seemed to have the same gift and that pleased me. And so I helped people. Daukyns would break it up when people grew too adamant with me. It was all strange and wonderful.

I tossed these thoughts aside and smiled as I cleared the gate and stepped back into the sunlight of the town. A few people nearby waved to me in recognition and carried on with their business. The town seemed almost deserted but I knew they were somewhere sheltered in shade from the oppressive heat of the day.

Thankfully, all three of my route destinations were centrally located in the town just past the garrison barracks and their stable. As I passed the barracks, I watched three new guardsmen being outfitted in front by the garrison Quartermaster. The Quartermaster waved at me and the three new men glanced at me without interest. I waved back and stopped at the nearby well.

The well was the only one in town, fairly large and had a roof structure built over top. It was a marvel of engineering and the town was proud of their well. A thick rope with a pulley and handle mechanism lowered and raised an enormous bucket for when large quantities of water were required, but usually people just threw down the smaller bucket on a rope. At night a large wooden cover was lowered and locked over the opening but during the day it lay propped up against one of the building’s corner supports. As was typical, a few children were hanging around to pull up the smaller well bucket for people and looking for handouts in return. As I approached they handed the rope to me and said hello. They knew me well enough to know I had nothing to reward them with and therefore I could do the lifting myself. I dropped my backpack beside me in the shade offered by the well cover structure, grabbed hold of the knotted rope and started hauling up the bucket. I pulled the bucket out of the well, rested it on the stone wall and grabbed one of the large tin ladles tied to the support beams, scooping out some water and dousing myself with it. The cool water hit me like a balm and washed the dust and heat of the road from my body. I gulped a second ladle and then a third to slake my thirst and finally refreshed, handed the rope back to the waiting children who eagerly dropped the bucket back down into the well, looking for potential customers. I frowned at the faintly odd taste in my mouth but I shrugged it off and laughed as I wrung the water out of my hair, relishing the brief respite from the heat and taking the time to look around the town.

South of me was the gate I had just come through. West of the gate was the garrison barracks and the attached stable house for their horses. The quartermaster was still outside with the new recruits except now they were talking and looking over at me with interest. They were no doubt discussing my healing salves and I hoped it would mean more business for me. They turned away when they saw me looking back at them and so I ignored them too. Across the road from the barracks was the small Reeve office with a tiny gaol inside. I hadn’t seen the Reeve when I walked past and that was fine with me; I had more important errands to attend to before I could spend time with him. I also wasn’t ready yet to start discussing what had happened last night and the thought of answering questions from the garrison captain worried me.

The well was positioned southwest of the town’s crossroad. North of me was the Woven Bail Inn, a tall three story building that towered over the town; here would be my first stop today. Across the road from the inn was the town common hall. This would be my second stop and the one I looked forward to. The common hall also served as the home of my good friend, Daukyns, who ran the town’s Word community. Down the road toward the north gate was the central open market and near that was the commerce area that comprised of a half dozen merchant stores. Near the stores were the town storehouse and the granary building; both were maintained and stocked by the garrison for times of conflict. They could be empty for all I knew but knowing the garrison captain as I did, they were probably meticulously maintained. West of the well, the road led to the housing area where the wealthy people in town lived; mostly the merchants and guild representatives. The Reeve told me that about twenty families lived down there but I had never gone down the road to see.

Down the road to the east was where the remainder of the town’s sixty or so families lived. Despite the separation of families by wealth, the children mixed and played and fought in the centre of town. It was a simple matter to tell the children apart by the quality of their clothes and by whether or not they wore shoes. I glanced at my own boots and wondered what people would make of me now. I knew what my friend Daukyns would say: “All people are equal regardless of their wealth or success”. I swear the Word had more quotes than the old religious church once had. I think they would consider me an upstart and glare at me, both the poor and rich.

I said farewell to the children at the well and wished them good fortune as I shouldered my backpack and headed over to the inn. They didn’t even spare me a glance. One of the children started coughing as I walked away and I was surprised to hear how wet it sounded. Colds like that rarely occurred in the middle of summer. I made a mental note to look for him later once I was settled.

I turned my attention to The Woven Bail Inn ahead of me. It was the largest building in town, providing rooms mostly for the richer barge captains and the caravan leaders. Outside the town was a larger hostel that housed the crews of the barges from out of town. That was a cheap imitation of The Woven Bail and I avoided it. The Woven Bail Inn was a towering three–story affair and held at least a dozen rooms of varying quality. It boasted a large common bar and a room with a bathtub. More importantly, it had a kitchen that the inn was famous for and this is where I headed. My business with the kitchen was what provided me with a free room when available and often a free bath, too.

The kitchen entrance was around back and as I approached I called out and Dempster, the cook, opened the door and greeted me like an old friend, which for a solitary person like me always seemed a strange thing. Dempster was a very tall and very fat man. He had little hair left on his head, his face was typically bright red, and the apron stretched across his girth was stained with all manner of food, grease and who knew what else. The owner of the inn was always telling him to stop eating the profits and Dempster would laugh his rumbling, deep, laugh and claim that a fat cook meant a good cook and that he should be pleased. I secretly craved any of the food this man prepared. He cooked from the heart and you could taste it. He was the reason that the Inn was famous and the owner knew this. So did Dempster and he always got what he wanted from the innkeeper. Sometimes it was hard to tell who ran the inn.

The smells from his kitchen wafted out into the still air around me and I smelled fresh bread. It was white bread, if I was not mistaken, not the tough whole grain kind that most people ate. My mouth instantly watered. White bread was like clouds on my tongue. Soft, fluffy clouds.

Dempster hustled me into his kitchen and eagerly watched as I pulled out bundles of herbs from my backpack. He had requested some very specific herbs the last time I was in town and as I lovingly laid down the tidy bundles on his preparation table, I named them out loud: thyme, oregano, chives, green peppercorns and mint. When I say they were tidy bundles I mean they were very tidy. The herbs that I sold in town were always tied together gently with willow bark strips. Each plant was trimmed to the same length and each leaf was healthy and bursting with life. The bundles marked by willow bark strips would last several days longer than most people expected. I cultivated them specifically this way and it was what made people want my herbs over anyone else’s. I was often asked to explain the high quality of my herbs and I would always just shrug and smile, explaining that it was because they came from high up in the hills around Jaipers. Despite some doubtful looks, this explanation seemed to always satisfy the curious and kept my secret safe.

I watched, mildly amused, as Dempster quickly examined them for quality and tasted them. Satisfied, he exclaimed that they were up to my excellent standard. He looked over the herbs once more and then glanced sideways at me, seeming a little bit dejected. I smiled and then watched his face light up as I pulled out a small bundle of basil and marjoram and laid them next to the other herbs. He laughed, pounded me on the back, then rubbed his hands in anticipation and said he had a special recipe that could make good use of the basil and thanked me. He placed a finger beside his rather large nose and pondered me for a moment, then rummaged in his pantry and brought forth packages containing oats, corn meal, and a generous pound of salted pork. I was very pleased with the more than fair exchange.

As I packed away the goods, Dempster surprised me by pulling out a small sachet of coarse salt that could only have come directly from the salt mines across the river outside the town of Finnow. I could see the special package markings from the Finnow Salt Guild as he pressed it into my hand. Dempster had once decided to painstakingly educate me in the markings of food guilds and Finnow was easily recognisable with the small minnow symbol. Finnow had a sense of humour, apparently.

By its weight the pouch must contain about an ounce of salt. He smiled at me as I opened it to peer inside. I gasped when I saw the deep purple colour of the salt and identified it as Life salt. If it weren’t for the hue, the unmistakable faint lavender smell would have confirmed what it was. Life salt was the most prized salt from the Finnow mines. It was rare and provided more flavour than ordinary salt. My mouth salivated at the smell and I thought about the amount of herbs I would need to gather to equal the cost of this ounce of salt: baskets and baskets of herbs. I couldn’t believe he was giving me a whole ounce of Life salt – it was far too generous. I started to protest but the cook grabbed and closed up the pouch, stuffing the salt into my pack. He tapped the side of his nose with a finger, gave me a knowing wink and then mentioned that the Reeve had stopped by that morning and not to worry about it. All was square, he said.

A bit dazed, I found myself being gently pushed out the door and outside with a large heel of white crusty bread thrust into one hand, the melting butter leaking between my fingers, and my backpack held against my chest with the other. I stopped and stood outside the kitchen door as it closed and took a large bite of the still warm bread. It was so delicious. I chewed and swallowed the bread as quickly as I could and felt each bite land in my empty stomach. I yelled a quick thanks to Dempster, laughed at his ‘ya ya’ response, and started toward my next stop. As I shouldered my backpack I groaned at the weight of it – it hadn’t been this heavy for a long, long time. I felt giddy and rich.

That salt was a wonder, though I couldn’t help but question why the Reeve asked the cook to provide me with Life salt. I simply couldn’t understand, but decided I wouldn’t argue it. With that salt I could produce some amazing things. My mind clicked with possibilities. Recipes I had never tried before came to mind. I would need nightshade, I knew at once. With the salt I could extract a pure alkaloid essence. The process ran through my head without having to think about it. I could create a cure for the strongest poisons. A poison cure would help people so much! More recipes swam through my head as I made my way across the road and over to the common hall and my good friend, Daukyns.

The common hall was not much more than a rectangular building with rows of simple benches that could hold maybe a quarter of the town inside. It was used by the town mayor to provide the town with important news and it was used to debate issues. More importantly, the town held celebrations in the common hall and outside in the spacious grounds that surrounded it. I always made a point of being here for the harvest time during Mabon and the harvest dance at Samhain. It was fun to sit back and watch people enjoying the bounty of nature and I felt more in common with them at that time than any other.

As I expected, Daukyns was sitting in the shade outside the entrance to the common hall. The town allowed my friend to conduct his Word services in the building. In the back there was a small storage room that Daukyns was allowed to use as a home. And it served, more importantly, as a workshop for our joint efforts. He always seemed to be the happiest person in town, as far as I could tell. He spied me right away and stood and rushed over to me as I approached; his face flushed its usual red and with his arms out to embrace me.

“Will!” he shouted, wrapping me up in his arms and squeezing the breath out of me. I muffled a hello into his chest and he finally released me. A few people walking nearby smiled as they passed. Our friendship was well known in town but what we produced, I think, was even more known and valued.

“How have you been, Will? It’s been a few weeks, has it not?” he bellowed as much as his aged, reedy voice would allow. He held me at arm’s length and looked me up and down to see if I was still whole and hale. I gave him a once over at the same time.

Daukyns was a strange looking fellow. He always wore the same light brown robes that dragged on the ground and with sleeves that were hemmed far too long for his arms covering his hands more often than naught, meaning that he always had to hold his arms slightly raised so he could push the sleeves up to free his hands. His hair was bright white and gleamed in the sun except for the startling large bald spot on top. This bare dome of skin was always burnt to a deep red by the sun and many people in the town had said that his brains were baked as a result. He was not a young man – most would consider him elderly. His eyes and mouth were heavily creased and wrinkled but his laugh lines were the more predominant.

He sported an overly large and bulbous nose that was as deep a red as his scalp often was. He was known for fondness for wine and always found a way for the town people to keep him well supplied. The front of his robe certainly had seen its share of spilled wine and the purple stain seemed almost an intentional part of the design.

I couldn’t help but notice how tired my friend seemed, and more so than usual. Dark circles hung under his eyes and his left hand trembled with a shake that seemed worse than normal. My friend was not as well as I would like and I feared age was catching up with him. I doubted he was taking the herbs I had provided him with. Knowing Daukyns, he had probably given them away to someone he felt more deserving. I would have to talk to him again about that and dreaded the conversation. The last time had frustrated me to no end. I turned these troubling thoughts aside and forced myself to smile up at Daukyns.

“I’ve been well, sir. I found a good supply this time out. Better than usual. The sun and weather seem perfect.”

Daukyns laughed. “Good, good! Come on inside. Let me see. You look well but tired, Will. Come.”

With that Daukyns brought me inside the common hall and we walked to the back room where he slept. I glanced at him as we walked, noting the irony of his last statement. He was the one that looked like he hadn’t slept in days. We entered the small room and I paused to admire the supplies we used for our joint venture. Our materials were all neatly laid out on the small table pushed up against the wall nearest the door. It was covered with small clay jars, beeswax, clay tubs of lard, a stone and a wooden mortar and pestle, a sharp knife, a jar of expensive pressed and filtered olive oil and a series of small copper pots suspended over unlit candle burners.

I surveyed the table quickly with a knowing eye, looking for anything amiss, but everything seemed in order. Daukyns had restocked the jars and consumables and it all looked satisfactory. There was enough here now to make full use of my herbs. Little would remain afterwards but once I was finished I would be able to purchase more supplies for my next visit. Satisfied, I dropped my backpack to the floor next to Daukyns’ cot, and started pulling out my special herbs and stacking them on the table. These bundles were wrapped with the fronds of the catkins. I had found that only catkins would stay neutral with the herbs they touched and not diminish the potency I had imbued in the bundles. I carefully placed the herbs on the table and Daukyns moved over to examine them. I wasn’t worried what he would think: these herbs would stay fresh for weeks – my cultivation technique assured that. Daukyns watched closely, gasping as each bundle was brought forth and lovingly laid down on the table.

“So much this time, young man!” he said as I laid the last bundle down on the table. “Is that what I think it is?”

He pointed at the poppy flowers. I nodded, secretly pleased that he noted my special find; I knew he would. They were a spectacular find. I had the location memorised and would return to harvest the site as often as I could. The poppy, I knew instinctively once I had found them and examined them, would produce one of the single most powerful pain reducing unguents I could create. Daukyns and I had discussed their potential the last time I passed through after he had heard some merchants speaking of it down at the pier. My latest outing was to specifically locate the flower. Daukyns had pointed me in a likely direction to look and, surprisingly, he had been right.

He had knowledge of plants that I could only dream of attaining. But together we made quite the team. It was through my friendship with Daukyns that I had been able to fully grasp my talents and make good use of them. He was a mentor and more importantly, my friend. But on this last venture he had steered me unerringly to where I would likely find a source for the flower. I watched as Daukyns picked up the poppies and examined and smelled them eagerly.

“They were right where you thought they might be, sir. You will need to tell me who your source was! He was so exact on the location. I mean, I pretty much just walked straight to them. How did he know that a battle had been fought there?” I said. “The evidence was everywhere, I mean, everywhere I looked! I…” I stopped when I noticed that Daukyns’ face had darkened and he looked away. “What is it? What did I say?”

“Nothing, it’s not you, my boy. The source for the poppy location was from Bill Burstone. He used it to treat the pain of his burn scars. He created some kind of pain reliever. But that’s not what bothers me. Something terrible has happened to him and I am sorry to say that he was murdered – murdered! – just last night and right in his own home. Horrible, horrible business.” Daukyns tutted and ran a hand over his bald pate. He reached out with his other hand and ran it over his copy of the Word lying on the table. “Killed over gold, they are saying. Gold of all things.” He shook his head and moved to the doorway and peered out into the empty common room.

I stood frozen in thought at the words of my friend. I gripped the table to steady myself and tried not to think about what Daukyns was saying. He carried on talking not noticing that I was quiet.

“The town was in quite the state last night until the Reeve dragged the murderer’s corpse back just after midnight, at least according to the guards I’ve spoken to. All morning I have been trying to reach out to the humanity in people – bolster their courage with the Word! It was hot work and I’ve only just returned. You know, to get my strength back up. You’ll hear about it all soon enough, Will. Everyone in the market has been gossiping about it. Can’t get them to shut up, really. Oh, and the captain has locked up Bill’s home and posted a guard…”

His voice trailed off as he turned away from the doorway to face me and realised I was staring at him with tears once again starting to slide unwelcome down my cheeks. I convinced myself that I had nothing to do with what happened last night – that I had just been an innocent bystander at the wrong place at the wrong time – but now? The events had come full circle and were entwined in my life: Bill Burstone had been the source of the poppies. The poppies I had gone out to find because of him and then I came face–to–face with his murderer and watched that man die. My peace was shattered.

“What is it, my boy? Your face just went as white as a spirit! Sit, sit!” and he steered me to his cot. Once I sat he fetched me a cup of water from the bucket by his door, sloshing the contents in his haste. I took the cup and sipped the warm water as Daukyns continued to question me. I just needed a moment to centre myself.

“What happened, Will? What do you know about this?” he asked. Slowly at first, and then in a flood, I told him what had happened last night. I surprised myself by leaving out the part where I found the coin in the toe of the boot. I summoned the courage to speak of it when Daukyns distracted me.

Daukyns had been looking down at my boots. “So these are his boots? Lord Protector, have mercy!” He sat next to me, wrapping an arm about my shoulder and squeezing me against him. “What a horrible thing to witness, Will. And to think what must’ve been going through your mind when he held you with that knife, your very own knife, right to your throat!”

I looked around the small room that served as my personal apothecary as Daukyns continued to spout disbelief. Somehow, opening up to Daukyns had improved my mood and feelings about the whole event. The bundles of herbs lay quietly on the table looking as fresh as when I had harvested them. I never let them lay around too long, less someone notice their durability and start questioning me about it. Daukyns had noticed their long life a while ago but I felt he deemed it better to leave it unspoken. I found I couldn’t sit here any longer with my work beckoning me and so I struggled to my feet and handed the empty cup to Daukyns, commenting that he needed a fresh bucket of water. Daukyns ignored me and kept up his vitriol, now speaking in anger, questioning the sanity of the Reeve and how he could just leave me out there after all that had happened. I smiled and picked up the first bundle and started to untie the catkins that held it together.

“Well, I am fine now. Speaking of the Reeve, he wants me to see him today and talk to Captain Gendred so I best get started with this while the herbs are still fresh.”

Daukyns stopped his rant and sat quietly behind me for a spell and then stood up and patted my back as we moved to the door. “Very well, my boy. Very well. I’ll leave you to your work.” Daukyns stopped in the door. “We’ll talk about this later, Will. You need to get this all out. Things like that affect you in small ways you wouldn’t expect. Trust me, I saw so much of that during the war. You can’t keep it locked up inside.”

Daukyns grew quiet for a moment as if considering telling me something more and I waited, looking at him with an eyebrow raised. When he said nothing further I turned my attention back to the herbs. He watched me for a spell as I sorted out the herbs and then quietly he left and closed the door behind him.

No sooner had he left than I reached into my tunic and pulled out the small pouch, opened it and emptied the contents into my palm. The coin hit my palm first, followed right behind by my small sickle, which landed on the coin with a soft clink. The sickle was made from a black glass that seemed to gleam with an internal light. It was comprised completely out of a singular piece of glass – with a blade only two inches in diameter. The blade was sharper than anything I had ever seen and I had never been required to sharpen or hone it. It was also unbreakable, stronger than iron and harder than rock.

The sickle had always been with me. It was given to me by my mother, of that I was sure, although I no longer had any memory of the exchange. I knew somehow that she taught me how to use it and how to hide it. It had been hers and she had entrusted it to me when all the bad things happened – so very long ago that I was no longer sure what I remembered correctly anymore. My mother’s face was long forgotten in my mind – I only remembered the look of her closed eyes. I would sometimes see other women and wonder if they looked like my mother once did. That saddened me. My only memory of my father came down to one: I remembered his back as he walked down the tunnel away from me and my mother and back into the burning city. His last words to us were to follow the tunnel out to the sea and not look back. But I did. Once outside I saw the entire city in flames above the cliffs. I was six years old at the time. That was ten years ago.

I turned the sickle over in my hand. It was such a comfort to me. It fit my hand like no other instrument. It was small but more than adequate. Once I had cut myself with the blade. It had bit deep into my fingers and I felt it scrape across the bone. Shocked, I stuck the finger in my mouth and expected it to fill with the hot taste of my blood. When all I tasted were the herbs that stained my skin, I drew my finger out and examined it in awe. Not a single mark showed to indicate that the blade had cut through my flesh and touched the bone. My finger was untouched: whole and unblemished. That was a true moment of wonder to me.

Later, I experimented with the blade and tried to cut myself. I tried to nick my finger and when the blood immediately welled from the small cut I was stunned and I wasn’t sure what to believe anymore.

Much later I had been harvesting a large amount of sweet mint and a wild dog barked in the woods nearby, startling me and a nye of pheasants. The sickle slipped and again I felt it pass through my flesh. This time it ran across a good portion of my left wrist. I cried out and dropped the sickle to grasp my wrist. I waited to see blood well through my fingers and when none appeared I let go and held up my arm and spied not a single mark on my wrist. The feeling and pain of the cut remained though, and ran down my arm in waves until it finally faded away. I stared at that wrist forever until I decided that it was best left as a mystery. Nonetheless, I was very careful with the blade after that.

I always kept it hidden. It meant everything to me. It linked me to my mother and brought back the feeling of being loved. I also felt more in commune with nature when I held and used it. During these moments the world would fade away and all that would remain were the plants and their nature. Always my mother was foremost in my thoughts and during these times I missed her the most and oddly, felt closer to her.

I also had to concern myself that it would be perceived as a weapon and therefore be illegal. If it was found on me I thought I would be likely arrested and the blade removed from me forever. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to bear that and so I kept it hidden at all costs.

I stared at the little sickle I held in my hand. The light coming through the cracks in the wallboards caused it to glint and as always its simplistic beauty stunned me. I then picked up the first bundle of herbs and started to work. The sickle gleamed and grew brighter as I focused my efforts and I soon lost myself in my work.

Chapter Three

Jaipers, 900 A.C.

LATE IN THE afternoon, I finally put down the small sickle and rubbed my tired eyes. The small room smelled pleasantly of beeswax and herbs, the mint being the most predominant. Daukyns always said he slept in this room better on these days than any other and that he always woke feeling renewed in spirit and body. I often asked him why he never took any of the herbs for his own use, but he would always just smile and give them all away or sell them for coin to use on the less fortunate people of Jaipers. I had stopped trying to change his mind about this some time ago and now I simply handed them over to him and enjoyed the pleased look on this face. And so I stood there in the small room and breathed in the fragrances and a sense of tranquility filled me; I cherished these moments. The work with the herbs was so soothing to my soul. Cutting the herbs in such precise ways that released their most potent strength was something that came so naturally to me that it was easier than breathing. The herbs spoke to me, but not with words. I really couldn’t explain how I did what I did or how the plants spoke to me – I just knew how to make use of them. In simple terms, and as best as I could explain, with the sickle I could release the strength of herbs and combine them with others to amplify their potency well beyond normal means. I had no idea how I did this, only that the sickle became a part of me and allowed me to extend my awareness into the herbs and let me create powerful medicines.

I laughed to myself. Daukyns knew something about what I did; I was sure of that. He called it the work of the Word and I have long since abandoned trying to change his mind about that. I picked up the sickle and placed it back in the pouch. Just then a glint from the table caught my eye and I looked over to see that the gold coin lay there, forgotten until now. I sucked in a breath when I saw that an unmistakable soft yellow glow came off the coin. I glanced quickly over to the beams of sun streaming through the wallboards and saw that they had moved to the back of the room and could not be the cause. Slowly, I reached down and poked the coin and when nothing happened I picked it up and found it was warm to the touch. I held it between thumb and forefinger and noticed that my right thumb fit the coin where I had assumed someone had been rubbing it. I gave it a quick rub and the world shifted.

Between one blink and the next, the walls around me became transparent, still visible but like a faint mist. All around me lay the town with all the buildings and structures – everything – turned to mist. I felt so exposed and visible, almost as if I was standing naked in the middle of the town for all to see. A feeling of falling passed over me and I reached out and grasped the table for support as my head swam. I felt dizzy like I had been spinning myself around. I looked all around me at the wonder of it all and ignored the feeling of unease.

I couldn’t help but notice the people of the town. Where the walls were watery mist, the people in town stood out like bright beacons of various colours. I could see that where the people were walking around town they were leaving a faint and quickly fading coloured trail behind them to mark their passage. Then I noticed all the animals around town. The dogs, cats, birds, even the small insects that scurried about – they were all bright with colour and stood out to me like a bright fire in in the dark night. This is what the coin allowed, I knew –it let me truly see people and life.

I looked nearest to me where Daukyns sat outside the common hall slumped in his chair. He had a colour to him too – a blue streaked with grey that pulsed with his breathing and I guessed this to mean that he was asleep. Unbidden, a strong impression came to mind as I looked at Daukyns. As I watched him I suddenly knew that he was ill with age. The knowledge came with a certainty that I could not dispute and I was filled with astonishment of being able to intimately know something so surely when it should be impossible to know.

Yet as I examined Daukyns, it all was so clear to me. I could sense the worn effect his age had on his body and not just by his surrounding colour – which I now could see seemed faded or missing in places. I could sense how hard his heart worked to keep his blood pumping through his body. I could feel the pain in his joints and how hard his lungs worked to draw in air. But something else was wrong with him: his liver and kidneys were dying. With an intense shock I knew that he only had a few days left to live. I don’t know how but I stumbled out of this strange vision and shifted back to normal.

I found myself feeling trapped within the suddenly confining walls of the small back room. I closed my eyes and sat heavily on Daukyns’ cot. What had I just observed? What had I just done and how? I glanced down at the coin still held in my hand and knew it was the cause. Any idiot could figure that out, I thought. But there’s more to it than that. I feel drawn to this coin. But what had it just allowed me to do? It had allowed me to see through walls and I had just seen the effect of age on a human being in a way that no one had ever seen before. It had allowed me to see, I realised with increasing horror, that my good friend Daukyns was going to die, and soon.

I sat on the cot for a long time and wondered what I could possibly do with this ability and knowledge. It was not normal that anyone should know when another person was going to die. The knowledge weighed on me like several stones tied around my neck. I imagined myself trying to explain this to him and knew that there was no way to prove it. I would have to think on this. Questions crowded my mind and with an effort I tore my gaze from the coin, distraught, and wondered what else I could sense with it. Before I could change my mind I gave the coin a rub and shifted again.

As soon as I could once again look out into the whole town the claustrophobia evaporated. With relief, the dizziness did not return and this time I felt like I did when I first exited out of the town and back into the open country – free. I paused and looked at Daukyns, still asleep in his chair and unaware of all that was going wrong within him, and wondered what I could do to help. I observed him for a little while and after a time came to the conclusion that the only thing I could do was to ease his pain with my herbs. For a moment I felt a strange urge to reach inside him but I was horrified at the thought and I backed away and fled into the town.

I looked around and I focused in on a merchant in the open market square closing a deal with a woman only a few years older than myself. I recognized both of them and knew them well enough from my times in town. She was quiet and worked down by the river repairing baskets used by the barges. She was friendly to me and once we had talked about the birds. She watched them all the time, she had said. The merchant was a man I avoided. He sold produce at the far edge of the market. His wares were worse than second rate but he always managed to sell to the less fortunate in town.

Watching them through the coin I could see more than I normally could. This time I knew and could sense that this poor woman was starving. Before when I had seen her in the market she had looked no different from others in the town who were without money. She was thin and hungry. But seeing her through the coin, I could feel the hunger coming off her in waves; visually it flashed through the colour that surrounded her in oranges and yellows.

I could sense her focus on the mealy potatoes the merchant hawked and that she wanted to buy them without giving away her need to him. The sights and smells of the food in the market were making her head faint and she struggled to maintain her composure. But the potatoes right in front of her were increasing her hunger and I found myself sharing that same hunger. My mouth watered with the thought of sinking my teeth into the flesh of the roots. I could imagine tearing off chunks and swallowing them whole. I could almost savour the feeling of food hitting my empty stomach.

I forced myself to shake off the connection and studied the merchant to see what he could tell me. The merchant was smirking at her – a smirk hidden behind a practised smile. I sensed at once that he knew that she was starving and didn’t care. He only knew that he could take advantage of that and the sickly yellow of his avarice pulsed all around him. It was sickening and bile rose in the back of my throat. His potatoes were the cheapest in the market but he could sell to her for more than these old potatoes were worth. He knew she would pay despite her protests. Her plight meant nothing more to him than a chance to earn more coin.

I felt nauseous and unclean watching him, like he was infecting me with his greed. Instinctively, my hand reached up to the sickle in my pouch and I grasped it through the leather. I tore my gaze away from the merchant and felt my sickness fade. Gasping with relief, I turned my attention elsewhere and stopped when I spotted the Reeve sitting in the inn, looking my way. I almost shouted in surprise then with a laugh, I realized it only appeared that he was looking directly at me. He was watching a couple in the dining room, sitting between him and me. They were laughing at something and he looked almost wistful watching them.

The Reeve, I noticed with curiosity, had a deep blue colour surrounding him and it was tight and compact and looked solid. He wasn’t the only man in town with such colours but his colour was the deepest blue. With the gift of the coin, I knew that he was an anchor in a storm – that he would bring stability where it was needed. I knew that he could be trusted, that he was a good man. I smiled, thinking that I didn’t need the coin to know that, but it was good to have the proof right before me.

I watched as the innkeeper approached the Reeve and spoke, handing him a beer. The innkeeper’s aura was a mix of colours. There was the dark green of greed there, I sensed, but stronger than that was that same blue colour I knew probably meant in the innkeeper that he had an honest sincerity. The innkeeper was an honest man, but to a point. He warred with good intentions and the desire to do well at his business. I found it odd that his desires should conflict so strongly within him and realized I knew nothing of such things. The Reeve smiled at the innkeeper and gave him a coin and waved off the change. Once the innkeeper moved away, the Reeve returned his attention to the couple and suddenly I felt like I was intruding.

I looked around town and marveled at all the colours that surrounded people. I could have watched for hours when I suddenly became aware of a presence all around me. It was comforting and it urged me to look elsewhere in town. I had felt this presence before, of that I was certain. It didn’t frighten me. It reminded me of the peace of the woods and the smell of freshly fallen rain. Before I could think, the presence drew me to a strong pulsing green aura in a quiet eastern area of town and as soon as I saw the aura the presence faded.

I looked about where I was and recognised the shacks that stood near the garrison wall in the eastern part of town. This was where the poorer people lived in ramshackle homes. They were barely tolerated by the garrison soldiers but they were left to their own for the most part. Daukyns spent most of his time and effort here and knew the people intimately. Being rather poor myself, I did not pity them. I felt a kindredness more than anything, despite that they seldom spoke to me.

Now that I had seen the strange aura, it pulled at my curiosity and I felt as if I was being dragged across the town until I found myself standing inside a small shack. I felt strange and physically disconnected from my body. I knew with certainty that I was still standing inside Daukyns’ cramped room but I also knew that I was standing inside this shack. Beside me lay a woman on straw simply piled up on the ground. On the other side of her there was a small child asleep and exhausted next to her with one hand clasping hers. The woman’s aura was thin but it pulsated with a bright and sickly yellow–green colour. Her face was flushed with a very high fever and I knew that a bad sickness racked her body.

I stared down at the woman and tried to understand what it was that I was seeing. Her aura stretched from the woman and reached out to the child next to her and I realized to my horror that the sickness in the woman had spread to the child. I focused on the green aura, setting the particular colour to memory, and looked around quickly, finding others in the area also showing the same colour. Whatever ailed her, it was spreading throughout the town! Shocked, I dropped the coin in the dirt and immediately found myself standing in the small room with the walls tight all around me. Whatever this sickness was it was spreading like a vile sludge across town.

A sense of falling overcame me and I had the sudden urge to vomit, sweat beading my brow, but I managed to fight it down. The nausea and the feeling of confinement in the small stuffy room combined to force me crave the outdoors and open air. I had to get out the room.

I quickly placed the coin back in my pouch, securing it in my tunic and fighting off another urge to vomit. With my teeth clenched, I gathered up the pots of unguent, two dozen in all, all marked on the lid with symbols made from practiced brush strokes. The symbols identified the contents – symbols my mother had taught me years ago. The small pots were sealed with beeswax and would stay potent for years. It was a labour of love but with the need to vomit growing stronger, I heedlessly threw my share of the pots into my backpack, left the others for Daukyns on the table, and blew out the candles. I gathered my remaining bundles as the sweat on my brow turned cold and then broke out all over my body. My stomach lurched once more and I clamped my jaw shut with force to stop myself from spewing.

I ran my eyes over the table and snagged my precious pouch of Life salt and was pleased to see, despite the need to throw up, that half of it still remained. I threw this in my pack and looked at the remaining mess on the table. Daukyns always insisted on cleaning the worktable. He said it made him feel part of the process. His pots sat neatly stacked on the table. I knew he shared them with the people who needed the contents the most in town. In return he got to stay and run his community Word services and they kept him stocked with food and more importantly to him, in wine.

Satisfied, I slung my backpack over my left shoulder and ran quickly out of the small room and through the adjoining common room. Once back outside in the open, I could no longer contain myself and I leaned over, violently ill next to the building. I had little in my stomach and dry heaves soon painfully overtook me. The remains of my breakfast of bread soured my mouth and I spit as clear as I could before wiping my lips clean. I sank to the ground, thankfully upwind from my vomit and lay exhausted. I felt so much better as I mopped the sweat from my brow and grabbed the sickle through my tunic.

The last time I remembered being this sick was that time Daukyns had taken me out to fish from a small boat on the river. He had to turn back soon after because I was ill then and felt much the same as I did now. Seasickness was what he called it. Whatever it was it was horrible. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the light breeze that had picked up while I had been working. The breeze drew the sweat from my skin and cooled me.

The coin was foremost in my thoughts. Somehow it was allowing me to see intimate details about the health of people. The colours surrounding them were clearly tied to them as well and I had yet to figure that out but it seemed intuitive. Green was clearly not good. The coin freed me to move about and observe without being seen. It allowed me to tap into the nature around me. I realized then that the coin combined with my knowledge of herbs would be a uniquely powerful thing. With them I could help cure people of sickness and insure the correct herbs were administered. The thought of being able to help people so directly and so effectively was intoxicating to me. My very core yearned to reach out to people and help them.

The coin, I knew with a certainty, was a boon surely meant for someone like me. My sense of ownership grew threefold and I knew that I had to keep it and work more with it. I couldn’t share the knowledge of the coin with anyone – including Daukyns or the Reeve. Like my sickle, I could not give it up. I knew I was torn but had up until that moment felt that I would be turning it over to the Reeve. Now I knew I never could. A certain amount of guilt consumed me at that point. I remained lying against the wall with eyes closed, I forced myself to relax.

Once I composed myself and my stomach seemed settled, I hurried over to where Daukyns sat, still slouched over and snoring peacefully. Without the coin I could no longer see his aura or sense his pain but looking closely at him, I could now make out the deep lines around his eyes and for the first time I saw just how old he really was and I could see the ghost of the pain he felt by the set of his jaw. I never really noticed how he had aged before – or maybe I did but refused to admit it. I suddenly felt such sorrow for him and I wanted to ease his pain. I reached out to wake him and warn him when a hand clamped down on my shoulder, startling me and almost causing me to cry out.

“Let him rest, son,” said the Reeve softly and with some warmth. “He needs it. Come with me. We need to talk.” The Reeve walked slowly away toward the inn and didn’t check to see if I would follow. I took a long look at Daukyns and watched a line of drool run down the corner of his mouth. He was my only true friend in this whole town. I couldn’t lose him. I shook my head and looked around to find the Reeve already several feet away and still walking.

I caught up to him and he slowed his pace to accommodate my shorter stride. He glanced down at me once and grunted. I wasn’t exactly sure what the grunt meant and decided to ignore it. My head only reached the midpoint of the Reeve’s upper arm. At sixteen, I was likely as tall as I would get and I resigned myself to having to always look up at people. We walked in silence side–by–side for a few minutes and passed the inn, where I had assumed we were destined. I said nothing but watched as the inn went by, and decided to wait him out and felt more mature for it.

We started left down the residential road and paused as a couple of children rushed by, pushing a hoop with a stick and laughing with endless energy. I had never been one of those kids and felt a longing to join them despite knowing that now it was impossible to be a kid again. I watched them disappear around the corner and looked at where we were.

I had never ventured down this area of town before. I never had the need and was worried that people would get suspicious. The people that lived here were wealthy. Their money fuelled the town, which in turn fuelled the barony. They had power and stature and didn’t like anyone interfering with that power nor intruding into their private area of town. As I took in my surroundings, the occasional window dressings would shift ever so slightly and I knew that we were being watched. I suddenly felt very exposed and the dirt on my clothes seemed to stand out all the more. I was one of the poor and not tolerated in this part of town. The presence of the Reeve was likely the only reason I wasn’t already asked to leave.

A river barge captain had once told me that the houses were nothing special, but to me they were homes with living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms and all the fine belongings that anyone could possibly want. They gave shelter from the wind and rain, warmth in winter and shade in the summer sun. The buildings were well tended and some had been washed with coloured stains, making them bright and cheery. The windows had real glass and the roofs were shingled with clay pieces. I wondered what it would be like to live under a dry roof instead of the stars and trees. I sighed. That life was not meant for me. Living outdoors was my world and it called to me but I strived to imagine living in a house until the Reeve broke me out of my reverie by starting to speak to me at last. I felt some measure of satisfaction that he broke the silence first and grinned to myself.

“Bill fought in the revolution all those years ago. He made a real name for himself but not with the Baron. It was the Lord Protector himself that he impressed. Bet you didn’t know that, did you?” He didn’t wait for a response but kept talking, almost as if to himself. “I don’t think anyone in this town knew that. He kept that to himself. Very private. Sure, they all imagined that he must have done something of value once and they knew that he had money. He had his large home that he paid for in coin and he always had money for beer and wine at the inn. Did you know he was a knight in the King’s Guard?”

This last question shocked me and I looked up at the Reeve to see if he was joking. He seemed to be waiting for an answer so I mumbled a no. I hadn’t known that. He certainly didn’t look like someone from the King’s Guard – but a knight, too? King’s Guard were the elite in the land – except they were now called the Lord Protector’s Guard. Knights were all allowed to wear armour and carry swords and had horses and squires and all that other stuff, didn’t they? Bill, when I did chance to see him, was usually sitting slouched outside the inn drunk, smoking a pipe and watching people wander by. The burns on his face and hands were horrible to look at and people always kept clear of him. He yelled at people a lot, too. He was, everyone knew, a pretty bitter man. Daukyns liked him, though and that thought kept my tongue quiet. Daukyns was an excellent judge of character.

“He was. Wait till you see his armour. The way he told it, he had been a very honourable Protector’s guardsman of some stature. It took years of speaking with him to piece that together, but I did. After the war, he was given a knighthood, lands to go with it, people to work that land and a purse to keep it running. He tended that land and probably collected taxes for the Realm for years. He took a wife and had kids, too.” The Reeve paused a moment before continuing. “I think he loved being a knight but ten years ago that all changed and he came here by himself to live. He moved into that home right over there.” And the Reeve pointed to the house at the end of the road.

It was, no doubt, where we were headed. I took an appraising look as we approached. The house looked like all the others except a little better taken care of, but it was hard to say why. The wood was a little better trimmed. The windows were framed a little straighter. The roof was a little more even and better shingled. Flowerpots adorned the porch and were obviously well watered based on how vibrant they were. I didn’t truly understand the need for a house since it separated you from the earth. The flowers were held in little clay pots and I could sense they felt so constrained and frustrated. Their roots reached deep in the soil only to find themselves blocked by fire–hardened clay all around them.

As we closed the last few yards, I could make out a guard standing in the shadow of the porch beside the door. I knew him by sight but not by name. The poor man was in full garrison dress and he looking bored but alert. I pitied him and the heat he must have been suffering dressed in all that armour. He spied us as we walked toward him and seemed to stand up a little straighter. A quick glance to the Reeve confirmed to me that he didn’t notice the respect the town garrison returned to him. He was oblivious to the guard and kept speaking to me. The guard gave me a tight smile and nodded once.

“He wouldn’t say anything of his wife and kids,” continued the Reeve. “I only knew he had them because he let it slip one day. But, mind you, he never mentioned them again and I suspect that they no longer live or no longer care about him if they do still live. Something happened ten years ago that made him give up his knighthood, his lands, his people and to come to this small merchant town miles from anywhere of any importance. What could cause a man to do that, I wonder?”

I thought then of the burns that marked Bill’s face, neck and hands. They were bad, but long healed, and I suspected they marked his body elsewhere. Daukyns had mentioned that he used the poppy plant for the pain of the burns. The pain had never truly faded, he had explained at my look of surprise. If something had happened to his family in the past I suspected fire was involved. I didn’t doubt that Reeve Comlin thought so too. Little escaped his notice.

We reached the two steps that led up to his porch and front door. The Reeve paused, took out a cloth and wiped the sweat and dust from his face and then from the back of his neck. He placed one foot on the bottom step and leaned an elbow on the lower railing post beside the steps. He nodded at the guard who nodded back. The Reeve waved one arm in the direction of the other houses.

“These folks had no idea who lived here. Sure, they knew Bill. Knew that he once owned land but not why and what happened to him. He had money. That’s for sure. Paid his taxes and never traded for anything – he always paid good coin. That was enough for these people around here. They didn’t need to– or want to – know more than that.” The Reeve leaned down and spat on the ground.

“They also don’t seem to care that he is now dead and murdered in his own house other than the pleasure of gossiping about it. Already people in the town are jostling to buy the place. Captain Gendred closed down the housing office this morning in disgust. That was a respectable thing to do, I thought. Bill hasn’t even been buried yet.”

The Reeve looked over at me and at the guard and I nodded my agreement. The guard, suddenly thinking he was part of the conversation, nodded too. The Reeve looked at me a little longer and I had to look away. Something was bothering the Reeve and I had yet to figure out how I was involved in any of this other than almost being killed by the same man that had killed Bill. Here I stood outside his house and I had no idea why. For some reason I felt guilty and the hidden coin came immediately to my mind. I started to say something about it when again some part of me stopped my words. A sudden insane urge to run came to me but I held my ground and waited, opting to simply look down the street to the other houses.

“Follow me,” he ordered and he started up the stairs. The guard turned to the front door, pulled a key out from around his neck, and quickly unlocked and removed a shiny brass padlock from the door. The hasp was newly installed and stood out against the wood. The guard stepped aside to allow us passage. Clearly the guard expected us but he looked strangely at me. I suspected he was wondering why the Reeve would bring me into this home. Much like I was wondering.

The Reeve pushed open the door and walked into the house, waiting for me to follow him. I glanced at the guard, who was thankfully now ignoring me, and walked through the door behind the Reeve. I stopped just inside to look around and I blinked repeatedly to clear the sun from my eyes in the sudden gloom.

Once my sight adjusted, my first impression was that I had entered a place of meticulous order. This was my first time in a house and even not knowing what to expect, I could easily tell that there was no clutter anywhere to see. The walls, floors and ceilings were all made of expensive and expertly joined wood planks. Trim covered the bottoms and tops of the walls. The furniture was of very good quality and precisely placed, gleaming with oils and immaculate. The walls and furniture were empty of any belongings or keepsakes. There were no items that hinted at family life, or loved ones, or any personal possessions.

To my nose the house smelled strange. It was hotter than outside despite the shade and the heat stung my nose when I breathed in deep. The smell told me that the house had been locked up for a few days with no air to freshen it. With no movement of air the sweat on my skin had nowhere to go and I was soon dripping with it. From out front I heard the guard cough and watched as the Reeve turned his face to the noise with a frown. The cough was that same wet sound I had heard earlier and I couldn’t help but think of the sick woman with her child in that shack. The sickness was spreading.

From where I stood at the door, I saw that the first floor contained a living room that opened up to a small kitchen with a wood stove that vented through the back of the house to the outside. There was one small door in the kitchen and I surmised that it opened to a small adjoining pantry much like in the kitchen in the inn. A dining area was beside the kitchen and contained a simple table with one chair pushed up tightly against it. From the dining room, a back door led behind the house to where a privy and wood store would likely be located. Beside me a narrow flight of stairs led upstairs, but glancing up, I couldn’t see what lay above us on the second floor. If it was like the inn, I expected to see a bedroom at least.

The Reeve called out a greeting and a rough reply from outside the back door was heard, confirming that another guard was positioned behind the house. I hadn’t expected that and wondered what would warrant two guards. Before I could ask, the Reeve clasped my shoulder briefly in a tight grip and then headed for the stairs. I followed after him and we made our way to the second floor until we stood in a narrow hallway. The heat upstairs was heavy and thick and I wiped my sleeve across my brow and blinked when the sweat stung my eyes.

Two bedrooms and a study were the only rooms upstairs off the hallway. I imagined that this house must be considered a large private home by Jaipers’ standards. One bedroom was clearly the one Bill had used; the spread was still rumpled. The other bedroom was empty except for a narrow cot pushed up against the far wall. Both bedrooms were small compared to the study, which took up most of the upper floor. The Reeve led me directly into this windowless room. It contained a centrally positioned, beautifully ornate desk with a thick, padded leather chair that glistened with oils. A large wooden chest sat on the floor behind the desk and pushed into the far right corner. What caught my attention was that each wall was covered from floor to ceiling with shelves filled with books and scrolls of all shapes and sizes. I had never seen this much written word in one location and marveled at the wealth they represented. My eyes hovered for a moment over a hollow in the bookshelves behind the desk that held a coat of arms that I did not recognize. Then I noticed, as I made my way into the room and could peer into the corner once hidden from the hallway, that an armour tree stood proudly bearing a full set of plate armour. I had never anything like it before. It was made of solid metal and shone like looking glasses. Draped from the armour hung a large, two–handed sword, worn with use. I knew that this sword was not ceremonial and was well used and cared for.

All this I noticed automatically but my eyes were drawn to the arc of blood that crossed the desk, over the coat of arms and the wall and rose up over the bookshelves. I looked up and saw the blood continue across the ceiling. At my feet, in front of the desk, lay a massive pool of blackened, dried blood. It was here that Bill had bled out and died. There was so much blood that it was still drying and looked sticky. Disturbed by our entry, swarms of flies rose and buzzed all over the place, and I was glad my stomach was empty. Anything I had in it would be gone by now and I resisted an urge to gag as the coppery smell of the blood reached my nose. I covered my mouth and nose with a hand and breathed through my fingers and mouth. Flashes of memories from my childhood of blood covering floors and walls overcame me, but they vanished as quickly as they had come and I blinked them away.

The desk had several scrolls and papers strewn over it and it was in such a state of disarray that I knew Bill had never left it like this. It was uncharacteristic of the house and from what I could tell of Bill’s obsession with neatness, with everything being in its proper place. The mess on the desk was out of place. The blood on the desk had been smeared in places and I knew that the murderer must have been going through the papers when he had been found, killed Bill and then resumed his search. I glanced behind me at the study door that lay fully open and against the wall; no blood marked the outside of it. I pulled the door closed enough to examine the back and there I found blood. The murderer had hidden behind the door, swung it closed when Bill entered, no doubt focused on the disarray of his desk. He would have stepped forward and took Bill from behind and opened his throat in one motion. It was the only thing that made sense from what I was seeing and I imagined the scene playing out in my head.

The Reeve was staring at me and so I told him what I thought happened and he nodded in agreement, seemingly pleased with my conclusion.

“The only thing that the murderer touched was this desk,” he said. “He went through the drawers and pulled out the papers. I believe Bill came home unexpectedly and came in here; most likely he heard something. He probably walked in and stopped when he saw the mess on his desk and knew that someone had been here. That’s when the murderer stepped out from behind that door and opened Bill’s throat with one cut. An expert cut, I might add, it’s not a simple thing to cut a man’s throat. He cut both veins and his voice in one cut. He knew what he was doing and had done it before. Bill bled out in seconds. He never had a chance.” The Reeve’s head and eyes followed the blood that had sprayed across the ceiling and over to the far wall.

“The murderer then took his time and finished looking for what he wanted and left. He was caught leaving by the back door by the neighbour in the house behind this one. He called over thinking it was Bill heading to the privy. When the man ran he called out and was lucky to have the garrison patrol already out front to hear him. They saw the man run off and gave chase. One went inside the house and found Bill lying dead in his own blood. They chased the man to the wall and watched him disappear over it thanks to a knotted rope left for that purpose. I tracked him south and found him with you.”

The Reeve looked at me and waited. I had no idea what he was waiting for and suddenly I felt uncomfortable and out of place. The events here had led to that man scooping me off the ground and then dying with an arrow through his eye. It was senseless. I glanced around the room looking for anything that would explain why this had happened so I could break the silence with the discovery. Then a thought occurred to me – a little detail that didn’t add up.

“Where is the knife he used?” I blurted out. At my camp he had used my knife. I didn’t remember seeing another one when the Reeve had looted his body.

The Reeve smiled at that. “Good question. I have no idea. I’ve looked all over for it and even questioned people in town. No one has seen it. Best I can figure is he lost it somewhere between here and where you were.” The Reeve sniffed and pointed a boot at the chest in the corner. “Have a look in there.”

I moved over to the chest, careful to step over the blood, and waved the flies away. As I stood over it, it was clear that this was an expensive chest and expertly made of the finest woods. Brass bands wrapped the chest and gave it strength and I figured it would probably take at least two strong men to lift it while empty. Leather handles were fashioned into the sides on metal rings. The domed lid was oiled and gleamed even in the dull light that came into the room from the hallway. The hasp of the chest was unlocked and so I reached out and pulled the lid up with surprisingly little effort.

I gasped when I saw the contents. Everywhere I looked I saw gold crown and half–crown coins. The inside of the chest was lined with inset drawers and held bags all bulging with more coins. It was a tremendous fortune; it contained more money than the entire town could earn in a lifetime. I had heard the expression “a king’s ransom” and now I knew what one looked like. The light from the hallway glinted off the coins and flashed in my eyes. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Some of the coins were new but most were old, I thought, and certainly dating from before the war. The cameo of the king stood out on all the coins in the chest. I was reminded of my own stolen coin and felt the guilt descend on me again.

The Reeve came over and slowly closed the lid, looking down at me. “Now that is quite a sizeable fortune and more than a knight with simple lands could ever amass in twenty–five years, don’t you think?”

I had no idea how much a knight made but certainly thought the Reeve must be right. Just how could Bill have that much gold?

“It–it–it’s…” I stammered searching for the right word. “Amazing!” I finally got the word out but it still didn’t convey my complete sense of awe. “He has so much gold!” I still thought of my coin. My coin didn’t have the King’s image on it – it wasn’t like these.

“Had,” corrected the Reeve drily. “He had so much gold. Question is: why did the man who killed Bill not take any of it? His purse didn’t contain a single gold mark.”

I looked sharply at the Reeve to see if he suspected I had a gold coin on me. I should tell him what I found in the boot, I thought. Now is the time. I opened my mouth to confess but I saw that the Reeve seemed to be looking right through me at some memory. I could tell that his mind was not on me, but the murder.

“He didn’t come here to rob Bill, that’s for sure. Even if he didn’t come to steal, why not take some of this gold? Nothing makes sense.” The Reeve didn’t seem to be speaking to me but was thinking out loud more than anything else. He was trying to make sense of the murder, to talk it through. The Reeve turned and moved over to stand behind the desk, careful not to disturb the blood. “The parchment in his tunic, you remember that?” This was directed at me and I nodded. I hadn’t really thought about the parchment until now.

“It’s a map of the town and it identified Bill’s house. It also showed where the guards did their patrols. When I showed it to Captain Gendred he was furious, and rightly so. The map allowed the thief to pick when and how to get to Bill’s house undetected. Someone drew that map, someone who knew the town. Gendred wants the head of whomever aided the assassin.” The Reeve opened a desk drawer, looked inside and then just as quickly closed it. It was clear he had already gone through this room in detail. “The murderer was after something here and I’m not sure he found what he wanted. Even if he did take something, I am not convinced he had time to hand it off. He was on the run from the house all the way to the clearing where he stumbled across you and I was on his heels the entire time. He didn’t drop it anywhere. There was no time. I’m convinced of that. I wonder who Bill was to warrant an assassination.”

The Reeve looked thoughtfully at the armour on the tree and his eyebrows furrowed in thought. He slid some papers around on the desk, avoiding the blood. Then he looked up sharply at the armour once more, his eyes a little wider. I didn’t really notice at the time, though. Instead, I was focused on something the Reeve had just said and it confused and angered me.

“You were on his heels the entire time? From here to my camp? Why didn’t you run him down before he got to the woods? Why didn’t you stop him before he grabbed me!” My voice raised in pitch as my mind reeled. The Reeve looked at me, at first a little startled, as if drawn out of some deeper thought, but now he glared at me and that look stifled further protests.

“I was following him to see where he was headed. There may have been more of them out there and I am pretty sure there was. He had no supplies on him, remember? He was meeting with someone else. Someone who had his gear.” This froze the anger in my blood as I remembered my fears that night, remembered kicking down my fire in fright of being discovered. I felt my cheeks redden in embarrassment and hung my head a little, knowing the Reeve was right.

“Will,” he continued a little softer seeing my reaction. “Somehow he knew I was following him. That man had skills in the outdoors. He left no trail that I could find and that was a first for me. I tracked him by other means.” The Reeve grimaced before continuing and I wondered what he meant. “I honestly don’t think anyone could have snuck up on that fellow. He moved like a shadow. It was uncanny. I have no doubt that he was a professional thief, maybe an assassin based on the murder, although it was sloppily done judging by all this blood.” He gestured around at the room. “Either he was terrible at the actual killing part or he reveled in the act. I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that and I’m pretty sure he led me into those woods to ambush me and then when he found you lying there felt he had an edge on me. He probably thought having a hostage would lure me out to him for a direct confrontation. It was not a smart thing to do. I don’t do direct very well in a fight.” A hint of a smile ghosted across the Reeve’s face and for a second I almost saw a different man looking back at me – a harder, crueler man. The thief had clearly underestimated the Reeve and I thanked the Word silently.

“Will,” he said after a moment’s silence and I looked up to see him staring earnestly at me. “I didn’t know you were there until I saw the light of your fire and saw him pick you up off the ground. Believe me, I was as surprised as you were.”

When I nodded my understanding the Reeve looked around the room. “Good,” he said simply and then changed the subject. “Bill didn’t keep an inventory and I have no idea what he kept in here. Whatever he took he must’ve dropped as he ran or else he never found what he wanted. Bill’s dead and that man is dead – a tragedy all around. Senseless.”

I almost told the Reeve about the coin at that moment. I had no doubt that the coin was what the murderer was after and perhaps it would provide the Reeve with what he needed to understand the murder. But I was sorely torn. I only needed a few days with it, nothing more. I desperately needed to determine what made it work, how it let me see through walls, and more importantly, how it showed me what ailed a person just by looking at them. I sensed it would allow me to better treat people and I argued with myself that the number of potential lives I could save outweighed the need to do the right thing. Plus I couldn’t shake this feeling that the coin somehow belonged with me. And so I warred with myself and stared meekly at the Reeve, waiting until he gathered his thoughts. He clamped a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it briefly in warmth.

“I wanted to show you this to give you some closure. To prove to you it had nothing to do with you. I owed you that after what you experienced last night. And you’ve a keen eye, too, Will. You’ve confirmed my own conclusions here and I thank you for that.”

I nodded, not sure how to respond. I didn’t feel like this provided closure. The Reeve looked around the room one more time and beckoned toward the exit and the stairs.

“Enough. Let’s go to Martha and see to her sickness. Let’s see if we can’t do something to help her and her son. There’s been enough death around here.”

With one last glance to the armour in the corner, he escorted me out of the house to the street.

END of FREE CHAPTERS – now go buy the book!