2 - WARDWICK
I missed my father. I kept looking over my shoulder for him, though he was safely buried.
The stablemen who dragged my father's horse from the stall looked none too happy about it, but then neither did the horse.
"He ran back here some time before the hunting party returned, milord," said my father's stable master, Penrod. He was one of my mother's imports, a Tallvenish flatlander. He'd ridden with the Blue Guard when my father had fought in the king's battles the better part of two decades ago, before slipping into the position of stable master when the old one died. Unlike many of the higher-ranking keep folk, Penrod always treated me with the same deference he used with my father.
"We're still trying to clean the blood off the Hurogmeten's saddle," he said. "I expect it's the smell that's kept Stygian so riled."
My attention on the squealing and struggling stallion, I waited, Ciarra a small, observant shadow beside me. I could tell from his face that Penrod wanted to say something.
"He's too good to put down, milord," he said at last. "His sire was trade goods, and he died early, when your father used him to hunt bandits. We only have two of his get, and one of them was gelded before anyone realized the quality of the animals. The Hurogmeten..." He hesitated, perhaps remembering that I was now the Hurogmeten, at least in title. "Your father didn't want to breed him yet, thought it would make him worse to handle than he already is. So if you kill him..." his voice took on the impassioned plea of an artist contemplating the destruction of his finest work.
"Kill him?" I asked, as if I'd only just heard him. "Why would I do a stupid thing like that?" I laughed inwardly as Penrod fought his tongue and won.
"I'm sure I don't know, milord. But your uncle - he stopped in here just a few minutes ago. He thought it might be best."
And suggested it to Penrod, in hopes the man might persuade me. Certainly any other stable master would have hated to have such an unpredictable monster in his keeping. But my uncle had misjudged the man. Penrod was a connoisseur of horses and a good enough horseman to see that most of Stygian's madness was man-made. It would have broken his heart to kill the stallion.
I shook my head, outwardly dismissing my uncle. "No."
My father had been a rider without peer. He could stay on the worst rogue and make it do anything he wanted. He preferred to ride them until he'd battered their spirit until a lesser man could handle them. Once that was done, he'd find a different mount, or at least he had until he'd ridden Stygian. The stallion had fought him for four years, emerging, today, the victor at last
Three softly cursing grooms struggled to hold the animal still for my inspection. It was a battle, despite the halter they had on him. Meant to control a lusting stallion, it had dull metal buttons in places that would inflict pain when the horse pulled against it. A chain wrapped around his nose could close off his breathing and drop him unconscious, if necessary.
Stygian was massive; it made him appear slow, which he actually wasn't. He was rather quicker in turning (and bucking) than in forward movement, but he'd do very well. Most animals of his build aren't much for endurance, either, but my father used to ride Stygian when his men went through two rotations of horses to keep up. He was a dark, muddy color that lightened on his belly, flanks, and nose to a rusty brown. There were other lighter patches of color near his flanks and on his barrel due to years of whip and spur.
"His bridle and saddle are here, milord. If you want to ride." Satisfied I wasn't going to kill the horse, Penrod had settled into his normal, respectful self. "Though it might be better just to turn him out." He cleared his throat. "I suggested putting him into a breeding program, but your uncle said he wouldn't have it as long as he held Hurog, said Stygian's temperament shouldn't be passed on."
"Can't breed him then," I said regretfully.
Penrod's respectful face often led smarter men than my uncle into believing that the stable master agreed with them - my father, for instance. Duraugh had probably left thinking Penrod would urge me to put Stygian down. My uncle's misjudgment might as well be turned to my good. If my uncle did well over the next two years, he would certainly win the support of the castle folk if he decided to take my place.
It wouldn't hurt to win over a few loyal men myself. Penrod already liked me, more because of how I treated his charges than anything personal. He was a smart man, or he'd never have survived in his position, given how far apart his ideas and my father's had been.
"Might shift his stall around," I said after a bit. "His is dark. Small. I don't like small places; maybe he doesn't either." The sewer today had decided that.
The stablemen were getting tired, but so was the horse. He'd already had quite a ride. I owed the stallion for his efforts today. I wondered why I wasn't happier about it.
"That stall's the only one we could keep him in," explained Penrod as if I didn't know.
"The big run by the old stables is built to hold stallions," I said. Then, in case he didn't understand, I continued, "Have to be careful the side gate's latch is secure."
He stood perfectly still for a moment, ostensibly watching the horse. Then he looked at me. The stallion's paddock was used for loose breeding and shared a fence line with the mares' fields. If someone accidentally (or on purpose) left the side gate open, Stygian would breed whatever mares happened to be in season.
I could have left it there. He'd understood the implications well enough, but I needed him. My uncle would have two years to win my people. I would have to make sure that when the time came, Hurog's people would listen to me and not my uncle. For that, I needed Penrod to know that I might be more than they'd given me credit for, so I winked at him.
Penrod stiffened even further, shocked into turning from the horse to stare at me for a moment. It must be hard to change one's opinion of someone so quickly, but he had the added incentive of the carrot I offered him. He looked at the dark horse again.
"I'll see that he's put out in the paddock because you think that, like you, he doesn't like small, enclosed places." Underneath Penrod's bland voice vibrated a taut, fierce joy.
"Dark," I muttered. "Don't like dark."
"Right," he said with a small smile.
Once he followed my orders to disobey my uncle, he was mine. With him would come the rest of the stablemen. It would mean that eventually everyone would know I was not so stupid, but I wasn't sure stupidity was still in my best interest. The playing field was changing.
I frowned at my father's horse. "Stygian's too hard to say." There was a flower in one of Mother's gardens that was about the same color as Stygian. I had to wait a while longer until my lips quit trying to smile at the thought of what my father would have said before I spoke.
"I'll call him Pansy," I said blandly.
Ciarra pulled away and turned to face me, her expression so incredulous it needed no words.
"Mother has a flower in her garden his color. I asked her what it was," I explained.
"Pansy," said Penrod stiffly, doubtless thinking about how it would look on a pedigree. Then, abruptly, he smiled. He nodded his head at the three tense-faced stablemen holding the stallion. "Hard to be scared of something named Pansy."
I nodded abruptly and called to the grooms, "Put him in the round corral, then take off the halter." I turned to Penrod. "I need a long whip, like the ones we use to train the youngsters. And I need five or six copper pots. You can send someone to the kitchens. And an empty grain sack."
I'd had a long time to think about what to do about Stygian...Pansy. No sense waiting until my father was cold to steal his horse. Some dark emotion twisted my mouth before I could banish it. I would not grieve for my father. I would not. Instead, I would spend the afternoon making his horse mine.
In the training ring, Stygian stayed as far away from me as he could, which was fine with me for now. Four years wasn't to be undone in an afternoon - or a dozen afternoons. But I might make headway if I was lucky.
I held the sack of pots in one hand, careful that they made no noise. With my other hand I held a whip twice as long as I was tall. Half the length was stick from which the whipcord dangled.
"Let's go," I said without undue emphasis once I was in the center of the ring. At the same time, I shook out the whip, and the stallion took off at a dead run after aiming a kick somewhere in my general direction.
I let him run a dozen times around the smallish pen. He thought he knew what this was about. All my father's horses started in this ring to learn simple commands like walk and whoa. But I'd brought him here to learn a different lesson, I hoped.
He started to slow to a canter, more because it was hard for a horse with his stride to gallop around such a small enclosure than because he was tiring.
"Let's go," I said again and waved the whip in his face. A green horse would have turned around and run the other way, but he'd learned too much about whips. He flattened his ears and reared at me; then, in case I didn't get the message, he charged.
I could have hit him with the whip and driven him off, but he already knew that whips hurt. It wouldn't have taught him anything. Instead, I shook the bag of cooking pots hard, yelling and stepping toward him aggressively, banging on the bag with the hard end of the whip. It sounded like the kitchen after someone vexed the cook.
The noise was too much for Stygian. He spun on his hindquarters and darted in the other direction as if a pack of wolves were on his tail, crow-hopping around the circles his size wouldn't let him negotiate smoothly. By the fourth time I turned him, his chest and flanks were covered in foam. At last he dropped his head and looked at me, not challenging, but asking for permission to stop.
I pulled the whip up and said, "Whoa."
He stopped as he'd been trained, but his hindquarters angled toward me, so I shook the whip and sent him running again. I waited until he carried his head low once more. This time when he stopped, he faced me. We'd both had enough.
"Good lad," I said, setting the whip and the bag down. I walked up to him and patted his wet shoulder gently. "We'll turn you into a Pansy, yet, eh?"
His whole body heaved with the effort of breathing; he was too tired and disheartened to care who I was. Dull-eyed, he watched me, not expecting much, I thought. It was fear, not anger, that made him dangerous. I doubted he'd ever be a fit mount for anyone else, but he'd trust me, eventually.
I put a normal halter on him, not his usual one. It had taken a long time to wear him down to this point, but I doubted anyone would have to worry about his aggressiveness for a few hours yet. Tomorrow would be a better gauge of the progress we'd made. I hadn't hurt him once. He'd remember that long after the effects of his running were gone.
His ears twitched. I turned and found the Brat standing right next to me. She knew better than to approach a horse like Stygian without a good reason, so I wasn't surprised to see my uncle standing by the fence. He scared her, mostly, as far as I knew, because he was the twins' father and our father's brother.
It took a heavy tug on the lead rope to get the stallion to move - something I'd work on later. First things first. Penrod took him from me as soon as we'd cleared the gate while another groom ran into the ring to gather pots and whip.
"We've set the funeral for late tomorrow afternoon," said my uncle, approaching me. "It's too warm to wait longer, though it means your aunt cannot make it here in time."
I looked at him, then allowed my face to clear with comprehension. Ah, he would think (I hoped), the moron remembers his father died today. I nodded.
He waited, clearly hoping for some further response. "I see you're not taking Penrod's advice. I talked to him after the Hurogmeten died. That beast needs to be put down."
Fat lot you know, I thought.
"He's pretty," I said. "Hot blood and small spaces. Big things like him and me need space." I thought about the tunnel leading to the dragon bone cave and the raw places on my shoulders ached in response. "Lots of space."
"He killed your father, Ward. He's dangerous."
I looked at him. "If he couldn't control him, he shouldn't have ridden him." It was father's favorite axiom with variants like, "If he couldn't beat him, he shouldn't have started the fight."
Duraugh turned as if to go but twisted abruptly and closed in until we were face-to-face.
"Ward," he said intently, "your mother may be Tallvenish, but you are born and bred Shavigman. You know that our land is ruled by magic. I've fought skellet in the high reaches - "
Ciarra darted behind me at the mention of the unquiet dead.
" - and I've seen a village the Nightwalkers destroyed." Duraugh waved a hand vaguely southward. "The Tallvenish laugh at our fear of curses, but you aren't a flatlander, are you?"
I didn't know what he was getting at, but I played along. Ducking my head awkwardly so I could meet his eyes, I whispered, "We have a curse."
And an embarrassingly poor curse it was, too. No verse, no obscure references, just something that looked as though a group of adolescent boys had scratched it into a stone wall. It wouldn't have been so bad if the wall hadn't been in the great hall. The only reason visitors didn't laugh when they saw it was that it was written in old-style runes that few people could decipher. "Do you know what it is?"
I blinked at my uncle a moment before I decided it was something an idiot could know. "The house of Hurog will fall to the underground beast."
"The stygian beast, Ward. Stygian is the underworld beast. Fen thought it a good name for a warhorse. He picked better than he knew. That stallion is an underworld creature," he said intently. "He should have been killed long ago. Do you see?"
I'd known Stygian had been named for the beast who came from the underworld to gobble the souls of the dead who hadn't lived well enough to go dwell in the houses of the gods. Who'd have thought Uncle would take it so seriously? It occurred to me that the curse had already come to pass. Because the bones of the underground beast lay chained in a hidden cave under the keep, Hurog's riches were gone, and there were no dragons in the world.
Hurog didn't need the Stygian beast to destroy itself the rest of the way. My father was...had been a madman. My mother ate dreamroot and took little note of what went on about her. My sister was mute, though not a healer or magician could tell why. My brother had tried to take his own life.
"You do see?" Duraugh asked, obviously forgetting in his obsession that he was talking to the family idiot.
"I see very well," I replied to remind him. "But what does that have to do with the horse?"
My uncle was a good-looking man, better-looking than my father if not so handsome as his own sons. But anger took away from his looks; maybe that's why I enjoyed his reaction so much. The Brat buried her face against my back as he controlled himself with an effort.
"Stygian was your father's doom. If you don't see that, he'll be yours as well."
"He is a horse," I said doggedly. "And I changed his name. Stygian takes too long to say. Pansy. His name is Pansy." I liked the name better every time I said it.
Oreg, the boy from the dragon bone cave, came to me as I got ready for bed that night. I didn't see him come in the room, but when I dried my face after washing, he was sitting on the corner of my bed. I acknowledged him with a nod, sat on a stool placed near my bed, and began trimming my toenails over the empty chamber pot with my knife.
He watched me for a while. But watching someone trim their toenails is dull work, so finally he spoke.
"Do you know what the ring is for?"
I shook my head. There was a long silence during which I switched to my fingernails.
"Do you know who I am?"
I nodded my head this time. He stood up and began to pace, muttering to himself. Finally, he stopped in front of me and put his hand over my knife to still it. His hand was warm and solid, though in the bard's stories, ghosts always have icy, ephemeral touches.
"Who am I, then?" he said, frustrated anger in his voice. I wondered if he'd watched me when I wasn't pretending. Did he know my game?
"Don't you know who you are?" I asked, widening my eyes.
He dropped to the floor in a depressed sort of flop and buried his face in his hands. The back of his neck looked vulnerable. He reminded me of my brother Tosten.
I stared at him for a long moment. There was no one I trusted with my secret. Not even Ciarra really, though she might suspect.
"Who are you?" I asked crisply. "I don't know much more than a few ghost stories. And I don't believe you are a ghost."
His head jerked up at the difference in my voice. I put my knife away, kicked the chamber pot under the bed, and prepared to listen.
"It's true isn't it?" He whispered, more hope than certainty in his voice. "You've been pretending all these years. I thought it might be so. I couldn't tell earlier."
He watched me for a while, but I didn't know how to explain it so it didn't sound stupid and melodramatic.
"Do you know who built Hurog keep?" he asked finally.
His tone was wary. He'd already learned that asking questions was a risky business. But I'd decided he wasn't a player in the game. He was mine as Hurog was mine. I touched the platinum ring lightly with my thumb.
"No. I know he was given charge of the dragons here at the behest of the high king."
Oreg snorted bitterly. "Then you know nothing at all. The Hurog title came hundreds of years later. Hurog keep is old, built early in the age of the Empire by a true mage - not like that idiot of your father's. When the mage retired from court, he built his fortress here, where no one would bother him, because they were afraid of dragons."
He looked down and traced a pattern on the floor. "He wanted a house that would take care of itself, so he wouldn't be bothered by servants pottering about or soldiers practicing in the courtyard. He had two sons by his wife, a mundane woman who had the good sense to die when she was young. One son became a field commander and died in some war or other; the second was a wizard in his own right. I was born of a slave woman and sold to a nobleman's family, but when he gave them money, they sent me back to him here."
He stopped. I wasn't certain I wanted him to continue. I'd heard enough bards' tales to know where the story was going, or maybe I'd just had too much experience with my father to expect much of his.
"When I got here, he was alone; there were no servants. He gave me a bowl of soup from a pot he had brewing in the fireplace. I fell asleep. When I awoke, I was the keep."
I stared at him while I examined his last words. He was the keep, he said. I remembered the oddity of stepping through the hidden door into my room, though I knew we had been somewhere deep in the mound the keep sat upon. I weighed the possible responses I might make and in the end chose to make none at all.
"Thank you for taking care of the Brat today, Oreg." If you said something unexpected, I'd learned that you often got more answers than if you asked questions.
His head snapped up, and he looked at me, frowning. Whatever he thought to read in my face, I don't think he found it. "I try to watch out for her," he said. "It isn't much. A door that lets her escape to a quiet place where her father can't find her but her brothers can."
We sat for a bit in a companionable silence, while I thought about what he'd meant when he told me that he was the keep. I played idly with the unaccustomed ring on my finger.
"You can't take the ring off," Oreg said with a start, as if he'd just remembered what he'd come here to do. "It gives you control of the keep. Only if you are dying will it come off. Then you must give it to your heir."
"If I give it to someone else?" I asked, after trying to get the ring off and failing. I wished I'd known about that before I put it on. Rings weren't good to wear when you fight; they change your sword grip and catch on things. At the very least, I'd have put it on my left hand.
"Whomever you give it to becomes your heir."
"Ah," I said. "Tell me more about the spell, the ring, the keep, and yourself."
His face went curiously blank. I recognized the look.
After all, I'd practiced it in the polished shield on my wall until it was the expression I usually wore. I wondered if he'd watched me. If he'd had cow eyes like mine, he might have looked stupid, too. As it was, he just looked secretive.
"I am a slave," he said. "Your slave, Master, bound to your ring. Soul slave to you. Whatever you ask of me, I will do if I am able - and I have much power."
I thought of what that would have meant to some of the more disreputable of my ancestors. He was a pretty boy, like my brother. Poor slave.
"If I were to ask you to sit where you are without moving, what would happen?" I asked.
"I sit here without moving," he said with bleak truthfulness, "until you die or tell me differently. I must do whatever you tell me." There was tension in his body, though if he'd been here all this time, he should know that I didn't torment people in my power. But, I supposed, that like Stygian...Pansy, it would take him time to learn.
"When you said that you were the keep, did you mean that literally? Or that you are tied to it by magic?"
"I don't think there is much of a difference," he said, examining his hands.
"Do you know what's going on in the keep?"
The boy tilted his head, his eyes looking at something other than what was before them. "In the great hall, the fire is banked for the night. There's a rat sniffing in the corner for food. Your uncle is standing before the fireplace, hands behind his back, rocking a little on his heels - "
"Enough," I said. "Can you look more than one place at a time?"
"No more than you can look at the far wall and behind you at the same time."
"Can you hear as well?"
I rubbed my pant legs. I could work with Pansy's fears because I understood him. I won over Penrod by the same means. I needed to understand Oreg as well as I understood the mistreated horse. "Does it hurt you when the keep is damaged?"
"No," he said, then continued almost reluctantly, "I can feel it, but it doesn't hurt."
"Do you occupy the whole of the keep, or just the older parts?"
"The whole keep, and that which belongs to it. The curtain walls, the stables, the smithy - the sewers, even."
"If you are the keep, how is it that you still have a body?" I asked, tipping my head at his human body.
"It amused my father."
I thought about what he'd said for a while. "If the keep is damaged, it does not hurt you. Does it hurt you when your body is hurt?"
"Yes," he whispered, tensing.
Well, if I'd spent the last fifteen years as my father's slave, I'd have whispered an answer, too. From all accounts, my grandfather had been worse. Deliberately, I yawned. It was late, I needed to sleep.
"My father never mentioned you at all."
"Strategically speaking, it is better if I am secret from your enemies - a harmless ghost that wanders the halls." He hesitated, then ventured, "I prefer to keep my presence quiet. I don't like people very much."
Nor would I, I thought, after so many years of serving Hurogs.
"Right." I said. "Here are my orders for now. Continue your protection of my sister. I'd like to meet you here each night when I am alone. Other than that, do as you will."
"Do you want me to protect you, too?"
I grinned. Powerful he might be, I was willing to accept his word on that, but he was half my weight. "I've had years to learn to do that. If I can't, well, then I'm not fit to be Hurogmeten, am I?"
"There are those who say you aren't fit anyway," he said, a challenge in his voice.
I couldn't decide if he was testing my temper or if he still half believed my act. Maybe he knew the truth better than I did. Abruptly, I felt tired.
"Yes. Well, now. I'd be sad if they thought me competent after all the effort I put into shoving my stupidity down my father's throat. I can hardly hold that against them, can I?"
He laughed, though I thought it was because he believed it necessary rather than because my words actually amused him. He was silent for a while then asked, "Why are you pretending to be stupid?" He hesitated and said tentatively, "I always wondered about that. It seemed so odd that you would spend all those hours in the library. But then you would read and read but never seemed to understand what it was you were reading." As he spoke, he bounced off the bed and strode oh so casually out of my reach.
"Thought I might be looking at the pictures or the pretty inks?" I asked, amused.
"What happened when your father hit you that time? If it wasn't brain damage? And even an idiot listening to you now could see that your brain is fine." He grinned shyly, a boy venturing an opinion or a slave flattering the master, but he'd put furniture between his body and me.
Like Pansy, I thought, he'd learn that I wouldn't harm him. Besides, I'd pried into his private pain; it was only fair to give him the same opportunity. "It damaged something," I said. "I couldn't speak at all." I remembered how terrifying it had been to have thoughts that wouldn't turn into words.
"You weren't just frightened?" asked Oreg.
Looking at him, I could see he knew what it was to be so frightened he couldn't speak. Pity choked my reply. "No."
"You couldn't walk, either," he said speculatively.
I nodded. "Or stand or anything else." It had taken Stala and me years to strengthen my left side until I was as fast with my left hand as I was with my right. Sometimes I dreamt that the strange, overpowering numbness had overtaken my left arm again.
"You used to do magic - make flowers bloom for your mother." Oreg was relaxing a bit. He'd settled on the bench near the door.
"I can still find things. Ciarra nearly scared me out of a winter's growth today when I discovered she was suddenly so far below me. I take it she didn't fall out of the tunnel like I did? You led her by another path?" He nodded. "But otherwise, I can't work magic anymore. I can feel it but not work it."
"But you aren't stupid. Why did you pretend?"
"So my father wouldn't kill me." I tried to put instinctive knowledge into terms someone else might understand. "My father is - was the Hurogmeten. Perhaps you know what that means better than anyone else. To him it was the most important thing a human could be, better than high king, but the title was only temporary, to be given away like this ring when he died."
"But all men must do that," commented Oreg reasonably. "His father entrusted Hurog to Fenwick. He would live on through his children."
"He killed my grandfather," I said. It was the first time I'd ever said it out loud.
Everything about Oreg went still. Then he whispered, "Your grandfather was killed by bandits. Your father brought him here to die."
"My grandfather was struck from behind by my father's arrow. My father admitted it once when he was drunk."
We'd been hunting, just the two of us, when I was nine or ten. We'd camped up in the mountains, and my father began drinking as soon as we'd set up the tent. I don't remember what led him to confess, but I still remembered the look he'd turned on me afterward. He hadn't meant to let that slip, and even then I'd known it was dangerous knowledge. I'd pretended I hadn't heard him, that his words had been too slurred. It might have been that slip that sent him over the edge, but I'd come to believe his antagonism went deeper than that.
"He saw me as a rival for Hurog. Time was his enemy, and I its standard bearer." That sounded like something my hero Seleg might have written in his journals. It also would have sounded better on paper than it did out loud, so I tried for a less dramatic tone. "My father didn't like to lose battles."
I left the bed and went to the polished square of metal hanging on the wall. I looked like my father, not so startling without the Hurog blue eyes, but a younger version of my father all the same. The size came from his mother's family, but the features were Hurog. "I was his successor, a constant reminder that he would someday lose Hurog. I'm not certain even he realized it, but from the day I first held a sword, he thought of me as a threat. You might recall, if you were paying attention, that the beating responsible for my "change" was not the first time he beat me unconscious. If it had continued, he would have killed me before I was old enough to defend myself. And I had the example of my mother to follow."
"When she lost herself in dreams, he didn't beat her as much. Or visit her bed," agreed the boy solemnly.
"My speaking problem made my father think I'd become an idiot, and I decided to take advantage of it."
"Why continue it now, after he is dead?"
I felt my way to an answer. "My uncle rules here for the next two years. Like my father, he was raised to believe that becoming Hurogmeten is the summit of what a man can accomplish. I'm not sure he'll want to give it back."
"You're so certain he's a villain? He was a nice boy..."
Oreg's voice dropped to a whisper. "At least I think it was Duraugh, but sometimes I don't remember so well."
I closed my eyes. "I don't know him, only that he has little patience with idiots. The gods know I wouldn't want an idiot in charge of Hurog, either. We live too close to the edge of survival." I shrugged and looked at Oreg, who'd somehow come to be crouched at my feet. "I don't trust him."
I'd talked more to Oreg than I ever remember talking to anyone except Ciarra. Speech was still something of an effort, and it tired me. Ironic how honesty felt much more awkward than lying.
"Trust your instincts," said Oreg after a moment. "It will harm none if you remain cautious for a while yet."
He left then, not going through the passageway or the door, just disappeared, leaving me to my memories.
My instincts, eh? My father was dead, and I didn't know if I was joy- or grief-stricken. Hurog was mine at last, but it wasn't. Should I reveal myself? Say, "Thought you'd like to know I'm not really an idiot"? I wasn't even sure that there was anything left of me but the stupid surface covering the constant vigilance underneath. I would wait.
I rested my folded arms on the top of the fence rail and breathed the early-morning air while Harron, one of the grooms, told me about the night's excitement.
Someone left the gate to the mares' paddock open, and Pansy was found snorting and charging in the paddock with my father's best mare ("Who was in season, damn the luck," Harron said cheerfully). The other mares were safely in their barns, but Moth had been restless. Penrod had thought a night in the field might calm her. He had spoken to my uncle about it.
As Harron talked, we watched most of the stable hands and my uncle chase Pansy with halters, ropes, and grain buckets. Pansy eluded his pursuers with a flagged tail and a shake of his magnificent head. My uncle saw me and left the stablemen to their job. While he climbed through the fence, I sent Harron to get grain and a halter.
"Some idiot left the gate to the mares' paddock open," growled my uncle.
It was too good an opening to miss.
"I checked on them last night," I lied. "Pansy was in the stallion's paddock then."
My uncle stared at me.
"I checked on the mare, too," I said earnestly. I'd have to learn to be more cautious. My father saw what he wanted to see, but my uncle might not be subject to the same weakness. If I took every opening he gave me, he'd notice what I was doing.
"Here ya are, Ward!" huffed Harron, and he heaved a grain bucket in my general direction - up. On top of the bucket was the halter I'd requested.
I grabbed the bucket and rolled over the top of the fence.
"They've tried grain, Ward," said my uncle. "They'll get him eventually. Leave them to their work."
I continued walking but said over my shoulder, "Thought I'd catch the mare."
Moth, unlike the sex-ruled stallion, was greatly interested in the food. Moreover, she knew and liked me - and my father didn't ride mares. When she realized what I carried, she trotted up to me, dancing a bit with early-morning pleasure and shaking her silver gray mane.
"Liked that, did you?" I asked her, one conspirator to another. Both of us ignored the grooms chasing futilely after the stallion on the far side of the pasture. "I'd think he might be a little tough on the ladies, new as he is to this. But you have more experience. Looks like you showed him properly." She preened a bit at the admiration in my voice as she munched the treat I'd brought her with dainty greed.
She allowed me to slip the halter on her. It was too big, but with her, it didn't matter. I gave her a quick once over with my eye, but aside from a rough, dried patch of hair on her neck where he must have nipped her, she hadn't come to any hurt.
I led her out of the field and into the stallion's paddock, and she, fickle thing that she was, paid no attention to Pansy, who'd finally noticed me stealing his mare and filled the air with frantic bugling. Harron, having seen what I was about, waited at the gate between field and paddock and shut it after the charging stallion was in the smaller enclosure. By then, I'd let the mare out of the far gate and just shut it behind us when the furious stallion struck it with his hooves.
Grinning, Harron ran up and took Moth. She gave Pansy a coy look, then followed Harron quietly back to the mares' barn.
"How did you know to do that?" Duraugh asked.
"What?" I asked blinking at him.
"How to catch the stallion?"
I snorted. "Have you ever tried outrunning a horse? I have. Took me most of the day to decide that he was faster than I was." I leaned closer to him and continued conspiratorially, "Horses are stronger and faster, but I'm smarter." His face went blank at this assertion, and I laughed inwardly.
Penrod had climbed through the fence and come around as I said the last.
I nodded at the stable master and said more prosaically, "Besides, that's how Penrod caught old Warmonger whenever he got out of his pen - which he did about once a day, eh? Food never worked, but lead a mare in season by him, and he was her slave." Warmonger, the last of my grandfather's mounts, had been almost human in his intelligence and mischief.
Penrod nodded and grinned. "Damned horse could open any fastening we ever concocted. And quick, he was. Only way we ever caught him was with a mare. Finally, we nailed his door shut behind him."
I returned his grin. "Then he just jumped his way out."
So my father'd killed him. I could still see the satisfaction on his face when the last evidence of his father's reign lay dying on the ground. Penrod's humor quickly faded back into his professional mask. No doubt he was remembering the same thing I was.
My uncle hadn't followed our thoughts; his smile didn't fade. "I'd forgotten Warmonger. He was a grand old campaigner. My own stallion is from his line."
Would it be so stupid to tell Duraugh the charade I'd been playing? Maybe if he knew me, really knew me, he would like me. Perhaps my uncle could guide me in the task of ruling Hurog. Despite the midnight raids to the library and the unobtrusive, obsessive attention I'd paid to my father's method of governance, I felt ignorant. My uncle had been ruling his own lands successfully for the last two decades.
I opened my mouth, but he spoke first.
"The burial is this afternoon. I told Axiel to find you something appropriate to wear from your father's wardrobe. I noticed yesterday that you've outgrown your court clothes, and Axiel told me that you've nothing else suitable. I would appreciate it if you would go in and change. I don't suppose there's any way to get Tosten home in time for the funeral, but tell me where I can find him, and I'll send for him today."
He slipped it in oh so casually, that mention of my brother.
"Axiel's my father's man," I said.
Tosten and I were all that stood between my uncle and Hurog.
"He's agreed to look after you," explained Duraugh with obvious impatience. "Ward, where is your brother?"
Iftahar, my uncle's Tallvenish estate, was larger and richer than Hurog, but it wasn't Hurog. No dragon claws had gouged the stone of the watchtowers. I thought that even a man who owned a rich estate might hunger after Hurog.
"I dunno," I said.
"But you told Fen..."
"Oh, he's safe," I said. "I just don't know where."
Father's body servant, Axiel, awaited me in my room, wearing the Hurog colors of blue and gold. He was a small man, tough as boiled leather. My mother, when I asked her, said that the Hurogmeten had brought him back from some battle or another.
When he drank enough, Axiel claimed to be the son of the dwarven king, and no one was foolhardy enough to gainsay it, because Axiel was as tough as my father.
Axiel's olive skin and dark hair had, as far as I could remember, looked the same as when I was a young child. Most of Hurog's people, including me, wore our hair after the style of the Tallvens who ruled us, shoulder length and loose. Axiel, who was not a Shavigman at all, wore his hair in the old Shavig style, roughly braided and uncut. The long braid was a disadvantage in fighting. The Shavig of old claimed it as a mark of honor that they were so skilled such a meager advantage was none at all.
He was a body servant in the Tallvenish style - a rank closer to bodyguard than valet or squire. Axiel's face showed no sign of grief over my father's death, but then he was my father's servant. Doubtless he'd learned to hide what he felt as well as I could.
"My lord." He said. "Lord Duraugh thought that it would be appropriate for you to have a body servant due your rank."
"I've taken it upon myself to ready the Hurog - your father's second set of court clothes for you, sir." He opened the door to my chamber for me.
There was a small room above the tallest of the shelves of the library behind the decorative curtains that covered the whole of the upper walls. I'd happened upon the little room by chance, and I thought that my father might be the only other person who knew it was more - and he didn't frequent the library. From that room I'd spent many afternoons secretly watching Axiel train with knife and sword. His style was completely different from my aunt's, and I'd found that incorporating gleaned bits of it in my fighting made me a better fighter.
If Axiel were loyal to me, I would be a lot safer than if he were loyal to my uncle. I stopped in front of the fireplace and looked at the gray remnants of last night's fire. But safe from what? Before my father died, I'd fought for my life. What was I fighting for now?
"If you would allow me?" Although he sounded as if he were asking permission, Axiel stripped my clothes off of me with great efficiency. While I scrubbed, he trotted over to my bed.
I looked up from washing my face to see the servant holding two sets of clothing.
"I brought this in from your father's rooms." He held up one of the familiar gray outfits my father favored. "But someone else has been here, for I found this on top of it."
I took the tunic from the second set of clothing from him. Deep blue velvet, so dark it was almost black, it had the Hurog dragon embroidered in red, gold, and green across the front shoulder. The velvet alone would have cost ten gold pieces, if not more, and there was no one here, other than perhaps my mother, who could embroider well enough to do the work on the dragon. The undershirt was the color of faded gold, and I didn't recognize the fabric.
"What's this made of?" I asked.
"Silk, sir. You haven't seen these before either? It's not from your father's wardrobe nor from anything I saw in your uncle's wardrobe."
"I'll wear this," I said, running my rough fingers over the undershirt, "if it fits."
"Fitting for the death of the Hurogmeten," agreed Axiel. "But where did it come from?"
"Maybe the family ghost," I said seriously after a moment's thought.
"Surely you know of the ghost?" I asked, slipping the undershirt over my head. It fit as if it had been newly tailored for me. Perhaps it had. His father hadn't wanted any other servants, he'd said.
"Yes, of course, sir. But why would it choose to do something like this?"
I shrugged, settling the velvet tunic over the silk. "Ask him." I exchanged my trousers for the loose silk ones that matched the undershirt.
I looked at the polished metal I used as a mirror and noted that the unaccustomed glory of my clothes made me look dashing and heroic. I was very careful to look stupid, too, before I left the room.
The funeral was a grand thing, my father would have hated it. But he wasn't there to object. My mother, dressed in gray velvet - her wedding gown - was ethereal and beautiful. My uncle, beside her, appeared strong and stalwart, the perfect man to protect Hurog.
My sister looked like a lady grown, nearly as tall as Mother. I did some quick calculations and realized that Mother had been married when she was Ciarra's age. Like me, Ciarra was clad in a blue velvet gown, though her dragon was a small embroidered pattern around her neckline. Oreg had been busy.
Waiting in my place at the open grave on the hillside opposite the keep, I had a full view of the funeral procession, and they had an equally good view of me, their new (and temporarily powerless) lord.
I'd ridden up here on a good-natured gray gelding who looked particularly well in Hurog blue. Everyone else trudged up the hill on foot. Stala, in dress blues, led the pallbearers behind Erdrick and Beckram, who brought up the rear of the family group.
Of us all, Stala might be the only one who really mourned my father. Her face, I noticed, was still and tearless.
I watched, standing apart from the rest of the ceremony as the bearers lowered him carefully into the dark earth, as my father had watched his own father put to rest. Doubtless he'd felt satisfaction as the wooden box hit bottom.
I looked across the grave at Mother, and I could tell from my uncle's tight face that she was humming again. I had vague memories of a time when my mother had been gay and laughing and had played with me for hours building wooden-block towers while my father fought in the king's wars.
The Brat watched the box with the Hurogmeten in it settle into the soft earth. She flinched when my uncle set his hand upon her shoulder. I thought of my brother, who'd given up everything to leave my father.
May the underground beast take you for what you have made of your family, I thought to the dead man. But perhaps being Hurog was enough justification for the gods, too, for no dark beast rose from the shadows of the grave to devour my father's body, despite my uncle's fears.
Dismounting, I took a handful of earth and tossed it on the grave. Stay there, I thought at the Hurogmeten. Bitter waves of fruitless anger beat at my composure. If he'd been different, I might have my brother standing beside me, to help with the overwhelming task of keeping Hurog alive. I might have a mother who could bear the burden of daily chores and free me to chase bandits and reap the fields. I would not have been standing, half mad, with tears sliding down my face as the pallbearers, men of the Blue Guard, pushed dirt over my father's grave.
In the end, I think I was the only one who cried. Maybe I was the only one who mourned. But I did not mourn the man who lay in that grave.
"Does my uncle know about you?" I asked.
Oreg, who was stretched out on the end of my bed. From my stool, set before the fireplace, I watched him while I sharpened my boot knife. The clothes I'd worn to my father's funeral were hung up in the wardrobe. I wore instead the sweat-stained clothes I'd worn to training with the Blue Guard this evening. Not even the Hurogmeten's funeral interfered with training.
"No." Oreg closed his eyes, his face relaxed. "Your father never told anyone more than he had to."
I held the knife up so the light hit it better. I couldn't see it, but I knew the knife had developed a wire edge; otherwise it would have been a lot sharper after all the time I'd worked on it. I bent down and grabbed a leather strop out of my sharpening kit and set to work.
Oreg rolled over so he could see me better. "A man came here this evening to talk to your uncle."
"The overseer of the field with the salt creep," I agreed mildly, stropping the knife.
"Your uncle's wizard didn't fare any better than old Scraggle Beard." I'd learned that Oreg disliked Licleng, referring to him as a "self-aggrandized clerk."
"There are going to be hungry folk here this winter."
I ran my stone over the edge a few more times. I licked my arm and drew the knife along the wet area. This time it sliced the hair off cleanly.
"Yes, but Hurog will survive." I decided to change the subject. There was nothing I could do about the harvest. "Thank you for the clothes. I assume you're responsible for the Brat's wardrobe, too."
He nodded. "I'm very good with clothing."
"Did you do the embroidery by hand?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Magic work. But I do sometimes, when I have the time. I..." He closed his eyes. "I often have too much time."
I stretched out and threw another log into the fire, which was getting low. Even in the summer, the old stone building got chilly in the evenings.