Chapter One



The first of Harvest’s Reign in the year 1045 at two o’clock in the morning


The old stone tower loomed high in the moonlight. Ayleth put her long silver hair up, shook her arms out, and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. This will be just the same as climbing the ruins back home, only with armed guards about, of course. She found her first hold and began her ascent.

The stone was rough, broken, and covered with ivy here, the result of what looked to be centuries of neglect and hastily completed repairs. The facade she’d chosen to climb faced the Ravenswood, so she was reasonably sure she wouldn’t be spotted.

Ayleth climbed more carefully than she usually did, her callused fingers and toes seeking out cracks, crevices, and missing stones—anything she could use as a hold. She risked a glance down. Thirty feet up now, high enough to die if I fall. Focus!

The wind picked up, bearing the scent of rain and the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance. I need to get off this fucking wall.

Another few feet of climbing brought Ayleth to an unbarred window, a half open pair of shutters knocking in the wind. She peered over the sill into the room. Dark, just as it has been for weeks. Ayleth pulled herself up and dropped quietly to the dusty plank floor.

The room was cluttered with old furniture, paintings of dead people dressed in ostentatious clothing, and chests layered in years of dust and cobwebs. No one has been here for a long time. She sat in a carved chair, its upholstery torn and tattered. Comfortable…I wonder why no one wants it. I do. Maybe there is a rope here somewhere…Focus, girl! I did not come here to steal a damned chair!

She picked at a hole in her black leather breeches. A lot of scuffs and damage from a lot of climbing and a lot of crime. Her father’s smiling face appeared in her mind’s eye, unbidden. He would be so ashamed. What have I become?

Ayleth shook off the troubling thoughts, rose from the chair, and crept to the door. She peered through the keyhole, and seeing nothing, opened the door slowly, passed through the small corridor beyond, and into a long, wood-paneled hall.

Wan moonlight shone through a row of narrow stained-glass windows in the western wall. This must be the council chamber. It smells of candle smoke and oak, leather and steel. The room was dominated by a massive trestle table surrounded by richly carved, throne-like chairs. Wax encrusted iron chandeliers hung by chains from the beamed ceiling.

Ayleth slipped through the room to the door leading into the castle, and heard footfalls in the space beyond. She froze. Whoever was outside the door stopped. Ayleth darted under the table and hid behind a chair as a key worked in the lock. The door screached as it opened, and a mail-clad guard holding a candle stepped a few feet into the room then stopped. Stay calm. He does not expect anyone to be here. After a moment, the man yawned then turned and left, locking the door behind himself.

Ayleth’s heart pounded in her ears. Peoplea king and his household live here, and I will meet more of them before my mad quest is complete. Stubborn girl! Leave this place and go home. No! I must keep going, or I will just try again.

A loud clap of thunder disrupted Ayleth’s introspection. She crawled from beneath the table and walked to a window, then unlatched and opened it. A gust of wind blew rain and leaves into the room. Shit. I knew this storm was coming, but I had to climb tonight! The moon, the day, the time, everything was right!

Ayleth closed the window and paced about the room, considering her next move. I cannot go through the castle as I planned—that guard was a warning and I may not get another. I must change my whole route! Over the roof then, if possible.

Stepping onto the rain-slicked windowsill, Ayleth gripped a piece of moulding and pulled herself up. She found another hold but slipped, a loose stone tumbling to the ground far below. She clung to the wall with one hand. Fuck! Be careful! She groped about for another hold with her free hand and both feet. Careful? Careful would be not breaking into a castle in a fucking storm! She found a small crevice and jammed two fingers into it. Good enough.

Angry with herself, she climbed recklessly the last few feet to the parapet, then looked through a crenel onto the walkway abutting the roof. She couldn’t see much in the rain.

Ayleth crawled through the gap and onto the stone walk. Lightning forked in the sky, illuminating a guard sheltering in a doorway off to her left. He did not see me. Second warning. She knelt in the shadows and studied the slate tile roof. It is slick, but not steep.

She kept low, stepping over the leaf-choked gutter and onto the roof, then crawled slowly to its peak and looked over. A few torches burned in the courtyard far below, and a window here and there glowed from candlelight within. The wind picked up and the rain poured down. I should have stayed inside. This is madness.

As she turned and started down the other side, a slate tile slid off the roof and shattered on the walkway below. Shit! She lay still and flat, cold rain creeping into her leathers and snaking over her skin. I could be drinking at the Perch, or robbing a fop. Or fucking a fop while drinking at the Perch. I could even have robbed him afterwards! Ayleth wiped the water from her eyes, then crawled down the roof and stepped onto the walkway.

She looked around, but didn’t see anyone. It is too dark to see much of anything. If I am lucky, most of the guards are inside, cozy by their fires. Ayleth shivered. I need to find a place to hide and warm up.

She crept to the tower on her right and tried the door. Its rusty hinges squeeled as she eased it open a few inches.

“Damn wind!”, shouted a man within.

Ayleth sprang back and hid in the shadows.

“The wind didn't unlatch the door, idiot,” replied another. Someone's out there. Go see who it is.”

“Fine, but it's probably just Fancy Ed lurkin’ about. Gives me the fuckin’ creeps, 'e does.”

Ayleth scrambled up the wall to avoid the searching guard. She found a tiny crevice with a big toe, and gained the parapet just as the door screeched open below her.

She looked through a gap onto the roof. Another guard leaned over the wall across the tower, hunched from the rain. Looking away from me, at least.

“There’s no one ’ere! It was the fuckin’ wind,” yelled the guard below her. “Least it weren't Ed!” The iron pull clattered against the door as he slammed it shut.

Laughing to herself, she grabbed a piece of molding and pulled herself up and onto the tower’s roof. She clung to the shadows and made her way around to the stair turret door. Ayleth paused as the guard turned and walked across the roof, then seemed to change his mind and walked back the way he had come.

Fie! Unpredictable pacing. Oak planks creaked as the guard walked here and there, unaware of Ayleth, sometimes right next to him. When he strode away from her, she moved quickly around to the stair door, opened it, slipped inside, and shut it softly behind herself.

She sped down the staircase and stopped at the first door she came to, then crouched and eased it open a crack. Mercifully, it only squealed a little. The room was crammed with beds, many of them occupied. Great, a guard room. Two men sat on the far side of the chamber playing cards by candlelight. The two idiots I just evaded.

As Ayleth crawled into the room, the card players began to argue. Words turned to blows as the guards threw down their cards and began to fight. One of them fell onto a bed, waking a third, who quickly joined the brawl. It wasn't long before the room became the scene of a full-fledged melee.

Fuck. I am caught. Ayleth slumped against the wall, trapped by fighting men, and covered her face with her rough, callused hands. What will mother and father imagine has become of me?

The brawl lasted only a few minutes. No one had died, but several guards nursed wounds while others mocked their pain. One of them spotted Ayleth and shouted at her, rage and stupefaction combined on his bleeding face. "What the fuck are you doin’ in ’ere! Get down to the kitchen and fetch us some ale, you stupid wench. And make it sharpish, or I’ll beat you bloody then fuck your scrawny corpse!”

What an asshole! Necrophelia? She could see by the insignia on his surcoat that the man addressing her was a captain. “Roight away, Cap’n.”

She left the room heading for the gatehouse, hoping the captain wouldn't notice she was going the wrong way to the kitchen. Probably not. He is too busy berating his men. Ayleth rounded the corner and almost collided with a guard leaning against the wall, thick arms folded over his barrel chest.

“Evenin’, ma’am’.”

Shit! “Good evenin’ to you, sir. I’m to fetch some ale for the cap’n. Would you loike some as well?”

“I would. Very kind of you to ask, thank you.” So polite! I guess he cannot see my leathers in the dark. I need a disguise.

Ayleth turned and hurried back to the room she'd just left. As she stepped through the door, the captain shouted at her once again. "Fuck’re you still doin’ ’ere? Get movin’!" He grabbed his crotch and smiled. His stock warning, I suppose. He probably motivates his subordinates the same way.

“Roight away, sir. Forgot moi cloak, Oi did.” God’s teeth I am glad I do not have to speak like that all the time. Ayleth found and donned a worn green cloak with a hood, then headed down the stairs toward the kitchen. She sniffed at the cloak and immediately wished she hadn’t. This stinky, threadbare thing will have to do for a disguise.

Ayleth found the kitchen, cooks and scullions hard at work prepping for an early breakfast. Shit. If they are cooking already, this is taking me longer than I thought. She snatched a sausage from a plate and ate it, then grabbed a pitcher from a worktable and headed through the door into the courtyard.

Off t’ fetch some water for the king if it please you, sir,” she said to the wet, miserable guard outside the door. He smiled vaguely and waved her on.

Ayleth filled the pitcher at the well a few feet away, then splashed through leaf-strewn puddles to the oak growing in the center of the courtyard, branches swaying gently in the breeze. She slipped into its shadow and looked around. Six guards I can see, certainly more I cannot. I am going to get caught! Stop! Relax and focus. I am just a servant taking shelter from the rain. No one is watching me.

She dried her face with the musty smelling cloak then walked across the courtyard and pressed herself into the shadows. She stood at the base of the King's Tower where it joined the castle’s east wing. Safe for the moment.

Setting the pitcher down, Ayleth turned and searched the stone for a route to the open fourth-floor window high above her. A long crack ran up the corner. This is going to hurt.

She took a last furtive look at the guards, then wedged her hands into the crevice and began to climb, expecting to feel the sharp pain of an arrow in her back at any moment. Then the long fall, the few seconds of terror until my head explodes on the cobbles. And then what? She banished the dreadful thought from her mind and found her next hold and then the next, until she came level with the window.

Her arms and legs burned with exertion, her fingers and toes ripped and bleeding. Do or die, girl, and do it quickly. She reached out and brushed the molding around the window with her fingertips. Just a little more and I will have a crappy hold on a slick surface. Leaning out dangerously, she grasped the sill with her left hand, found a foothold, and moved onto the wall just below the window. She pulled herself up and saw hands next to her own, then a torso and a bearded face. Shit! She dropped and hung from the rain-slicked sill, arms trembling.

"I love the rain, Orf,” said the man in the window. “It makes me feel peaceful. Damn near puts me to sleep, in fact".

"True 'nuff, ’cept when Oi’m on the march,” said another man. “Then the rain don't make me feel so much peaceful as shitful.”

"You have a way with words, Orf. The Poet himself, I sometimes think". Who the fuck is “The Poet”?

“You really think so? Should Oi larn t’ write down my witty skisms?”, asked Orf.

“No Orf. You are a fucking moron. People would wipe their asses with your witty skisms.”

“Ah, Oi know yer havin’ a laugh! Thankee kindly. Yer a good man, Lewtent Brooks. A good man indeed.”

The Lieutenant chuckled to himself. “Any time. Any time at all. Well, better lock it up against the rain.”

No no no! Shit!

The latch made a mocking sound as the window closed.

Here is the end of my story—I cannot hold on forever. What a nasty surprise my mangled corpse will make in the fresh autumn morning. Blood from the cuts in her hands mixed with water, streamed down from the sill to her arms and dripped onto her face, blending with her tears. Lightning flashed in the distance, followed by thunder a few seconds later. The storm was passing. I do not want to die! This cannot be happening! This is happening. There is only so much luck in the world, and I have used a lifetime’s worth tonight. I must find a way to live or I will die.

But Ayleth could not find a way to live—her arms and hands were completely exhausted, and the sill was simply too slick to hold. She began to hyperventilate and shiver violently. Slowly, her hands stopped functioning, her grip on the sill failed, and she fell.

Ayleth dropped a few feet and landed brutally hard, crotch-first, on a gargoyle, water streaming out of its grotesque mouth. “Fuuuck! Ouch!”

“What the fuck was ’at? Who the fuck’s there, Oi say!”

Ayleth leaned against the wall, wincing in pain. Do not move or breathe.

The window above her slammed open, and Orf yelled to guards in the courtyard below.

“Can you see summit? Oi can't see shit! One o’ you done the screamin’ then?”

"Fuck yerself, Orf. It weren’t us!”, yelled a man below. “Whadaya take us for, a right pair o’ assholes, screamin’ to wake the fuckin’ dead and the king hisself? Ah, but there’s no one about!”

"Maybe not, though I weren’t a’sleepin’ an’ I heard it clear as a raven, just ’ere." Orf paused a moment, then cried out: "Who’s there! I see you now! Come on out with you!"

Ayleth began to move and almost spoke. Wait! He cannot see me—he is trying to trick me into revealing myself. And there are crows in the Ravenswood, damn you! Not ravens. I cannot believe how much I hurt.

"Blast! It were worth a go, though weren’t it?” said Orf. “Saw Marshall Everard do that once. We all had a big laugh when ’e told the poor bastard ’e ’adn’t seen ’im after all!”

A guard in the courtyard laughed. "Seen the Marshall pull a stunt like that a time or two moiself. Good man t’ have with you in a tight spot."

"All the same, there’s naught t’ see,” replied Orf. “Was it the butcher’s ’ound do you think? ‘E’s mad, you know. Makes all sorts o’ strange sounds!"

"Orf, you stupid asshole, ’ound’s don’t yell fuck! Least none that Oi ever ’eard. Though Oi did ’ear, an uh, parrot ’e called it, bird from down south, curse and swear oaths loike ’is master! That fuckin’ bird made us all ’owl with laughter, sittin’ there on the table, cursin’ each man and ’is mother! Yer mother is a fuckin’ 'alf penny whore it would curse! Oi’d love t’ have me a bird loike that someday! Oi’d set me a up a stall and charge people t’ listen t’ ’im!"

Orf chuckled. “Best keep it down though, lest you wake the king. Just you keep searchin’ for the person what did the cursin’, assumin’ it ain’t your parrot! We’ll do the same. Guess you heard, Lewtent Brooks… Lewtent? Are you here? Must ’ave gone down to the kitchen for breakfast. A good hour early, but he’s an ossifer, so Oi won’t be tellin’ ’im ’e can’t." He closed and latched the window.

Damn. This is not luck. This is a miracle, but I do not believe in miracles. Ayleth shifted her weight, and looked up at the window. I am amazed they have not raised the alarm, but I suppose they think it could have been a servant.

She massaged her screaming crotch ineffectually. It can hurt all it wants, but I will die if I stay here. Ayleth muffled a scream as she found her footing and stood on the gargoyle. I imagine I would genuinely laugh if this fucking thing broke. She peered up through the stained-glass window into the hall. None of the distorted shapes she could see moved or was human-shaped. Where did Orf go?

She pulled herself up and sat on the wet stone sill and inspected the window. How the stained-glass glows! How beautiful, the drips of water running down the window. It makes the hunter depicted herein look as though he is crying. And well he should be—he has just skewered a great boar. Fucking murderer.

Ayleth located the lock and used her knife to pry out a piece of glass near it, then unlocked the window, pushed it open, and crept over the sill and into the hall.

A candle set in a wall sconce flickered and died in the breeze. Candle smoke reminds me of mother reading to me in bed. When the story was finished, she would blow out the candle and kiss my forehead.

The warm thought comforted Ayleth. She closed the window and attempted to replace the glass pieces, but only one would fit into the grooved frame. She left the remaining glass on the sill and took her bearings.

A guard she hadn't noticed leaned against the wall outside of a door down the hall. He must be dozing. Ayleth knelt beside the paneled wall. I should be directly outside of King Rolant’s chambers, but I need to pass by that guard and go through the door to get there.

She slunk down the hall, extinguishing candles as she passed them. Water dripped from her drenched black leathers and onto the cold stone floor, leaving a trail of footprints that traced her path through the corridor.

Ayleth reached the guard. How can he sleep standing? His keys were hanging from a loop on his belt. She knelt on the ground at his feet, putting the keys at eye level. By the Dancing Devil, he had better not wake upI would have to tell him I was sent by one of his friends to suck his cock. And then, well, suck his cock, unless he told me he was not interested. Har.

She sighed and reached for his key ring. Gently now. She worked the keyring’s latch, then removed it from the leather loop. When she looked up, the guard was smiling at her. Fuck.

"Jus’ where Oi loike a woman—on her knees. Well, get to it then! Oi ain’t got all night. Lessn’ you wanna ’and back them keys you stole. Noicely done, though. Oi been watchin’ you since that moron Orf went chasin’ after an early breakfast, fat fuckin’ tub o’ shit ’e is."

"Shit. I…" Ayleth swung the heavy keys into his balls.

"Ah! Moi bollocks!"

She kneed him hard in the face when he doubled over, then dropped the keys onto the floor and shoved a corner of her soaking wet cloak into his mouth. The guard slumped to the ground, trying to hold his testicles and broken nose at the same time. He was gurgling blood and trying to yell through the gag. Shit, he cannot breathe. Ayleth seized his dagger and held it to his throat stubble-covered throat.

"Quiet, sir." She removed the sodden garment from his mouth. He took a deep, raspy breath, and coughed.

"Who the fuck are you?" He spat a wad of blood at Ayleth.

"How perfectly revolting. Who I am is none of your concern. Now please, be quiet or I shall cut your throat."

She switched the blade to her left hand and wiped the blood off her other with the guard’s surcoat.

"You ’aven’t got the guts t’ slit a man’s throat." True.

"Open this door or I shall indeed slit your throat, despite your opinion that I have not the guts to do so."

"You talk funny! Oi ’ave not the guts. Tha’s roight funny it is. You ’ave not the guts, Oi’ll say t’ the next man t’ trouble me. Then Oi’ll gut ’im! Ha!”

What the fuck is wrong with him? "What the fuck is wrong with you? I have a knife to your throat!"

"Just tryin’ t’ make conversation is all. Not the first time Oi’ve ’ad a knife at moi throat. A whore once tried robbin’ me just as you’re doin’. She feeds the fishies now, she does. Well, Oi says feeds. She’s long since et by them little fishies. Fishies don’ look t’ be meat eaters, but some are, you know.”

What the…ah. He is buying himself time to recover. He is smarter than he looks. "Oi’ s’pose they need t’ eat summit, don’ they?" He lunged for her with another knife, but Ayleth leapt out of the way and brought the back of his knife down hard on his skull.

The maneuver almost worked. The blow didn’t knock him out, but he was hurt and struggling to rise. By Bledri’s corpse I swear—no brawling henceforth. She kicked him hard in his balls, and he went down again.

"Orf’ll be back presently, and ’e will sit on your ’ead, ’e will." I have managed to weaken him, at least. Well, the hardest job to finish is the one never started, as father says. I have made a start on knocking him out, but how to finish it? This is like trying to fell a great ash with a dull hatchet.

"Bitch! Oi’ll…ram moi knoif…"

Ayleth did not wait around to see where he intended to ram his knife, though she was certain she knew. She kicked him hard in his face, and his head hit the stone wall with a sickening thud. She picked up his second knife, and not knowing what to do with it, left it on the floor in the shadows.

Shit. I hope I did not kill him. She felt his pulse carefully, wary of a ruse. No, just knocked out.

Blood flowed from the guard’s nose and into the joints of the hall’s age-worn flagstones. Ayleth attempted to drag him, then stopped. He must weigh two hundred and fifty pounds! I cannot leave him here, and I cannot haul him to the stairs, where he would be found in any case. Why am I doing this? Am I insane? Would I know if I was?

Ayleth reflected on her conundrum as she knelt and peered through the keyhole. The room beyond glowed brightly. This must be King Rolant’s study. I do not see anyone, but I cannot see much at all. She began to try the keys in the lock, and after several failed attempts, found the right one. The lock’s action was smooth and crisp.

Ayleth eased the door open a crack, and saw a hand and part of an arm dangling from a leather chair by the fire. Whoever they belonged to snored softly. A hazy plan began to form in her mind.

With great difficulty, she dragged the recumbent guard through the door, then shut and locked it behind her. Ayleth investigated the remainder of the room and saw that the man snoring in the chair was a guard. A half-empty bottle of whiskey stood on the floor at his feet. Such an honor to guard the King! And yet he sits drunk and drooling in front of the fire. But he does give me an idea.

She arranged a tableau, which in her mind was a masterpiece of artifice: the drunken guard she left in the chair, while the object of her violence now sprawled in front of the fireplace. She smeared blood from his nose onto the hearth, and poured the remaining whiskey onto his face.

That must sting. I love a finely-crafted whiskey, but I do not imagine this distillation could by any stretch of the imagination be placed into that category. “Dancing Pig Whiskey.” Here, an artist has depicted the pigs to which the brand name refers, engaged in a drunken revelry. The one on the left seems to be aroused by the one on the right, the sow with whom he dances. I believe father would use this foul blend as torch fuel.

Ayleth threw her filthy cloak into the fire and surveyed her work. This should buy me enough time to complete my task. I could just take something from this room and be done, of course. No, I must see it through to the endfor better or worse. It must be something from his bedchamber.

She walked to the door carved with a Raven and Oak, the coat of arms of house Bardolf. Dropping to her knees, she peered through the keyhole, but saw only a dull orange glow. Not very useful. She stood and looked over her shoulder. Both guards were still out. Ayleth selected a brass key from the ring and tried it. The key turned easily in the lock. She turned to check on the guards once more. Get moving before they wake up!

Ayleth took a deep breath and started to open the door, but stopped. Of course, the moment I walk through, a dog is going to eat me for breakfast. She checked on the guards a final time, then opened the door slowly, slipped into the room, and closed and locked the door behind her. No dog lunged for her throat. Curious. I would have a big damn dog in here if I were queen.

King Rolant’s bedroom was dominated by an enormous canopy bed set in the middle of the chamber. Soft breathing sounds emanated from behind its dark green curtains. A fire was dying in the hearth, and moonlight passed through a leaded-glass window, painting diamonds onto the parquet floor. An elaborate gilded chandelier hung from a carved ceiling beam, and paintings covered the walls.

Ayleth walked to the window, opened it, and placed her hands on the sill. The storm was passing. Rain pattered softly on her fingers as she breathed deeply, savoring the fresh aroma. Thunder rolled softly in the distance and lights twinkled in the city far below. A perfect moment. She looked east across the river, into Lavina Nou. The King’s stolen land. He must stand where I am, seething and plotting…wake up! Focus!

She lurked about, searching the room. A great, iron-bound chest stood at the foot of the bed. I would love to accept your challenge my friend, but I cannot pick locks. Yet. What kind of thief cannot pick a lock? She moved to the head of the bed, pulled the silk curtain back, and stood next to the king, in gentle repose. He is a beautiful effigy on a cathedral floor!

King Rolant was blond haired and clean shaven, perhaps in his early fifties. Despite his advancing age, he was handsome, with a strong chin and a rugged, scarred face. He has been in a fight or two.

Queen Emelyn was shockingly ugly, with a pig’s nose, terrible skin, and wispy, greying brown hair. A thin mustache loitered on her upper lip. It was probably an arranged marriage, otherwise why would hefuck, I am an asshole!

Ayleth resumed her investigation and discovered a small box on a table near the bed. She picked it up. Rosewood inlaid with gold, polished to a mirror sheen. She opened the box and picked up a small ring, engraved with King Rolant’s coat of arms. His signet ring, I think. This will serve nicely. She pocketed the ring, returned the box to the table, and moved to the window. Time to leave.

She spotted a painting in a gilded frame and crossed the room to view it. This was painted by an elegant hand. Valderbründ I believe. Yes, here is his signature. See how the trees seem to sway in the wind! That shepherd has a beautiful flock of sheep, but a storm is coming. He should gather them and make his way home. Yes, his dogs are alerting him. Fool! Get out of here! Those dogs are warning me!

Ayleth glanced once more at the sleeping king and queen, then crept to the window and climbed onto the wet sill. Climbing is risky, but less so than going back the way I came. Just get to the roof and figure it out from there.

It was raining lightly, and the moon had nearly set. Ayleth turned to face the tower, then grasped the molded top of the window and pulled herself up. Pain and fatigue made her short climb a battle. When she reached the parapet, she squeezed through a crenel, rose and shook out her aching arms.

I have achieved the impossible! If only I could tell father, or anyone for that matter. She began to walk toward the stair turret, and heard a voice.