To begin at the beginning, click on Prologue in the Table of Contents, then on Chapter One, etc.


After his lessons, Taraval set off with long strides down the hedgerow toward the stables. He had not ridden Tressiter since he’d heard the news about the ravenwoods, and he knew the horse needed exercise, blight or not.

His step was a little lighter and quicker now than it was before the lessons, for Friar Biophilus had told him something that carried a faint ray of hope. There was one small grove of ravenwoods still untouched by the blight at the far north end of the valley, a half day’s journey away. In that same grove, forty years before, several tandaril trees had lived for a year after all the others had fallen to blight. So now, on the chance that he might be able to start new seedlings from them, the friar had persuaded the king to save these ravenwoods from the woodcutter’s axes.

Well, when you have had nothing to hope for, a little seems a lot, Taraval thought, and he quickened his step as he neared the stables. A good fast ride on Tressiter was just what he needed.

The castle had two separate stables, situated a furlong apart. The farther one, near the fields, housed the oxen and plow horses, and Taraval rarely entered it. But the riding stable, nearer the castle, had always been one of his favorite places. He liked its dim, musty interior, with its smells of leather and oils and dry hay, but mostly he loved the half dozen sleek, fast horses his father kept there, and especially his own mount, Tressiter, one of the best in Ilahee. Suddenly a new worry crept into Taraval’s mind: If Ilahee was selling off the last of its treasures, would the horses be next to go?

As he entered the stable he called to the boy currying a horse at the far end. “Damien? Saddle up for me.”

But when the boy turned, Taraval saw it was not the usual groom to whom he spoke, but a boy he had never seen before. “Where’s Damien?” he asked.

“He had to take care of a mare that’s foaling, my lord, so he sent me in his place,” the boy said. “I can do whatever you need done.”

“Well, then, do you know which horse is Tressiter?”

The boy broke into a wide grin. “Oh, yes, m’lord. I shall have him ready for you in an instant.”

Taraval appraised the boy as he saddled the big chestnut stallion. His broadening shoulders suggested he might be nearly as old as Taraval himself, but his smooth round face and wide blue eyes made him appear much younger. Cut short and straight, his reddish-blond hair swung forward, hiding his face each time he bent down.

He showed as much skill and speed in his work as Damien did, but there was a difference. Damien was detached and aloof, but all the while this boy was saddling Tressiter, he caressed the horse, murmuring soft, soothing words. Tressiter, in response, arched his neck around and nuzzled the boy’s hand, as he often did with Taraval when looking for a carrot or an apple. Taraval frowned. The horse had never done that with anyone else before, that he knew of.

“What are you called?” he asked the boy, aware that his voice was a trifle gruff.

“Segway, my lord.”

“How is it I’ve never seen you here, Segway? You seem to have much skill with horses, and Tressiter knows you.”

“I usually work in the other stable, my lord. But Damien is my cousin, and sometimes he lets me come here at night to groom the horses and bed them down.”

“I see. You must like horses, then.”

“Oh, yes, my lord. Better than anything else in all the world!”

Taraval couldn’t help smiling. “What know you of ‘all the world,’ Segway?”

“Nothing, my lord – only the village of Menasta, where I was born, and now the kingdom of Ilahee.”

“Then by the breadth of Menasata you know more of the world than I,” Taraval admitted. As Segway finished saddling Tressiter, Taraval rubbed the horse’s muzzle with the flat of his palm. “Are you ready to run, old friend?” The horse blew his breaqth out quickly, making a soft whiffling sound. It was his way of saying yes.

Taraval gave the boy a serious look but spoke gently. “Have you been giving Tressiter treats, Segway?”

“Y-yes, my lord,” the youth stammered, not certain whether he was to be praised or reprimanded. “But I shan’t anymore if your lordship says nay.”

“Then nay it must be. A horse shouldn’t have too many treats – and those he has, only from his master.”

Taraval took the reins from the boy and started toward the door, but Segway stood in his path, his eyes on Tressiter and a sorrowful look on his face.

“Is there something you wish to say?” Taraval asked him, wondering what could be wrong with the boy.

“No, my lord,” the boy replied, lowering his eyes and stepping aside.

“Then we’ll be off,” Taraval said. He mounted Tressiter then and set off at a trot toward his favorite trail, unaware that the pink-cheeked youth watched horse and rider from the stable doorway until they were out of sight.

Taraval spent the afternoon riding up and down the valley and into the mountains of Ilahee, visiting all his favorite spots – the hidden pool where he loved to swim, a small neglected orchard where Tressiter always found a few forgotten apples, a rocky cliff from which he surveyed the entire valley glowing in golden afternoon sunlight. It was a glorious day, but his happiness was tarnished, for he knew that his carefree days meandering the kingdom might soon end.

On his return to the castle that evening, he found a message waiting from Uncle Terwilliger that cheered him once more. The next day was Taraval’s birthday, and the note invited him to come once again to consider choosing his lute.


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