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


Green shadows in a green shade, emerald light filtering through translucent leaves, the air frothing white and green, like the cascade of a waterfall. In the center the woman stood, the essence of greenness, her silken dress and wimple the color of birch leaves. She turned green eyes upon him, and her lips formed his name – “Taraval, Taraval.”

A familiar chattering woke Taraval in the silver light of dawn. Treb, the chubby squirrel, sat on the windowsill, his red-brown fur glistening in the early morning sun. Taraval squeezed his eyes closed again, trying to shut out the day and recapture the feeling of his dream. But he couldn’t pull the image back again, though his mind was awash with greenness. Orchis, he thought. Why should I dream of Orchis?

But Treb had more pressing concerns to bring to Taraval’s attention. He flicked and twitched the halo of his tail as he churred and chattered, reminding Taraval that it was time to put away dreams and consider the subject of breakfast.

Taraval leaned over the edge of his bed and from a small box beneath it took out a handful of hazelnuts. The thick rock walls of the castle formed windowsills deep enough to sit in, and he perched in his nightshirt, his back braced against one side of the window and his bare feet against the other. The squirrel, familiar with the routine, climbed onto Taraval’s shoulder to await the feast. With a flat rock he kept handy, Taraval methodically cracked the nuts against the windowsill and shared them with Treb. When they had finished, the squirrel scurried down from Taraval’s shoulder, twitched, his tail twice as if in salute, then leaped onto an overhanging oak limb and ran off to take care of other important matters.

From his window ledge Taraval looked over the high courtyard wall, across the stream that flowed into the River Swinnow, to the hill behind the castle, where the skeleton of the last tandaril tree to die in the blight forty years earlier could still be seen, guarding King Galen’s grave. As a child he had often visited the grave and wondered why that tandaril tree had survived longer than all the others had. It was almost as if something – Galen’s spirit perhaps? – had protected it. Though the woodcutters had cut every other healthy tandaril they could find, they were told to spare that one as a memorial to the king. Finally the blight had reached it, but its gnarled trunk and shriveled limbs still remained as a gaunt reminder of both Ilahee’s past glory and its sad decline.

Taraval looked beyond the tandaril to the ravenwood grove beyond it and felt again the heavy mood that had darkened the past six days. Even at this distance he could see that the leaves of the ravenwood trees were wilted and beginning to darken, so that the trees looked shrunken and dispirited. The blight was racing through the valley like a grass fire; the trees it touched looked scorched and blackened as if by flame, and their wood was pithy and useless, just as the tandaril wood had become when the blight claimed it.

Not only the village woodcutters but every man, woman, and youth strong enough to wield an axe had been cutting ravenwood trees in an effort to keep ahead of the blight. Even so, though the pile of logs that had been hauled to the center of the village was growing, it looked pitifully small compared to the expanse of ruined groves.

But lessons went on despite catastrophe, so Taraval climbed out of his window nook and pulled from the battered wardrobe by his bed a worn linen shirt and his old green tunic. Dressing hurriedly, he noticed a tear in the sleeve of the shirt, a reminder of the mock duel he and his cousin Gaynor had fought with wooden swords a week ago. He sighed. It would have to be mended, another chore he must ask his mother or sister to do for him, for he had never learned sewing and it was years since the castle had employed a seamstress.

He put the task out of his mind for now because he didn’t want to keep Father Biophilus waiting. It would be a long day for both of them, attempting to squeeze a full week’s lessons into one session, for day after tomorrow Taraval and his uncle would be leaving Ilahee and he would miss his lessons during the three days of their trip. They were to lead a small caravan of wagons that would carry village handicrafts to the market in Trent.

Passing the kitchen courtyard, still quiet in the early light, Taraval spied the broad backside of Felicity, the head cook as she bent to slide a tray of bread loaves into one of the glowing ovens. He crept up behind her and, pulling a long stalk of rye grass form a clump by the walkway, leaned over and brushed the back of her neck with it.

“Master Taraval!” she cried with a start, almost dropping the tray of loaves. “You scared the breath out of me!” Her always rosy cheeks were flushed even redder from the heat of the oven and her startled state, and wisps of unruly grey hair bristled from beneath her white cap. “You walk as quiet as a fox stalking a woodcock,” she said, a touch of pride in her voice as she appraised Ilahee’s handsome young prince.

Taraval laughed. “I’m off to the friar’s for an early lesson, and I thought perhaps I could beg a nut loaf from you.” He sucked in his cheeks to make them look gaunt, and put on a mock plaintive tone. “All I’ve had for breakfast is a handful of hazelnuts, and I had to share those with Treb.”

“I’ll wager the squirrel got most of them, too,” Felicity said with a grin. “You and your animals. Well, I’m just putting the loaves in,” she said, following the words with the action, “So you’ll have to wait. But I think you’ll be doing that anyway. The queen asked me to send you to her, in her spinning room.”

“Did she say what for?” Taraval asked, his brow furrowed.

“It wasn’t my business to ask, but the expression on her face bespoke heavy thoughts. Come back when she’s finished with you, for I have a feeling that by then these loaves will be done, and the next batch as well.”

With an odd sense of foreboding, Taraval walked to the door to the door of the spinning room, where his mother and sister Alisoun spent the morning hours in spinning, weaving, and embroidery. His mother knew of his plan to spend the whole day in lessons and he thought there must be serious news for her to call for him on such a busy morning. He knocked with more than a little trepidation.

“Come in,” his mother called, her voice sounding strained and little breathless, Taraval surmised.

Queen Juliana was not engrossed in her customary needlework, but instead sat at a table polishing a large silver salt cellar. This morning Alisoun wore her heavy braids of wheat-gold hair falling free rather than in their usual coil around her head. The soft, sweet scent of woodruff surrounded his sister, from the sachets of the herb she kept hanging in her wardrobe. She was sorting through a small pile of jewelry, laying out the pieces on the table.

Noting the special tasks that occupied the two of them, Taraval felt a sudden throb of excitement. “Good morning, Mother, Sister,” he greeted them. “Are we expecting guests?”

His mother answered him in a tight voice, without looking up from her polishing. “I wish it were so, Taraval, but you should know better than that. The whole village is gathering its treasures to send with you and Terwilliger… to sell in Trent.”

Taraval’s surge of pleasant anticipation died away instantly and his feeling of foreboding returned. His mother glanced at him now, and he saw that her face looked decidedly pinched, as if she hadn’t slept. Quickly she turned her eyes back to her work. “Friar Biophilus says the signs point to a hard winter coming, and a long one. Provisions would be hard to come by even if we still had the ravenwoods to count on, but they’re gone, and we must prepare for winter anyway. And if we ask our people to sacrifice, we must be willing to do the same.” She spoke this all in a rush, as if trying to finish before her voice betrayed her.

Taraval looked at the salt cellar his mother was polishing so tenderly and felt a stab of pain in his heart. Aside from the tapestry, this intricately wrought vessel was the last of the treasures of Ilahee’s past. Traditionally, such a piece was used in the Great Hall to separate the nobility from the commoners, who sat “below the salt.” But it had been years since guests, noble or common, had been regulars at his father’s table, so the salt cellar had been moved to the king and queen’s private chambers. As the only item of value there, it was kept in a special niche in the wall.

The salt cellar held great meaning for Taraval, too. He had always been fascinated by the miniature hunting scene cast in relief on its lid: a leaping stag fleeing a hunger who stood beneath a tree, bow and arrow poised. Whenever he looked at he felt glad it depicted the stag still free and beautiful, before it was shot.

And now he would never see the piece again; it was to take its place with all those other treasures that had gone before, and its going seemed a symbol of Ilahee’s final decline.

Since his mother still kept her face averted from him, Taraval turned to Alisounand said quietly, “How goes it with you this morning, Sister?”

“Well enough, my brother,” she replied, her eyes downcast, for though they were boisterous when they were alone together, they were always a little formal with one another when their parents were present. Then, as their mother remained absorbed in her polishing, Alisoun looked up at her brother with a wry smile and whispered, “You’ve torn your shirt again, you clumsy thing.”

“What must I give you to mend it for me,” he whispered back.

“Only a ride on Tressiter,” she replied, making a face at him. “If you’re not afraid I’ll run away with him.”

By this time, she had finished sorting out the small tangle of rings, necklaces and bracelets, and Taraval saw among them the pearl-studded clasp she used to fasten her cape, a favorite piece of hers. It had belonged to their grandmother.

“Mother,” he pleaded, pointing to it. “Must that go, too? Alisoun loves it so.”

“I’m sorry, Taraval, but all we have is far too little. She gave it without my asking.”

“Then take this, too,” he exclaimed, pulling from his wrist a copper cuff, on eof only two pieces of jewelry he wore. He paused, looking at the other, a silver ring with an ornate crest and a circle of purple amethysts. Then, his lips set hard, he twisted the ring off his finger and placed it and the cuff next to his sister’s pearl clasp.

“No, Taraval!” Alisoun cried. She grabbed the ring, put it back in his hand and closed his fingers over it. “Tell him no, Mother. He mustn’t!”

The queen, whose face till now had remained firm, shut her eyes tight and bit her lip. The ring was engraved with the seal of Ilahee and had been worn by all the heirs to the throne for longer than anyone in the kingdom could remember.

“Your sister is right,” she said, a catch in her voice. “You must keep the ring,f or it is much more than an ornament.” Then she picked up the copper bracelet and handed it back to him. It was one he had fashioned himself, from a piece of copper the castle blacksmith had given him; a silversmith in the village had inlaid his initial in it.

“Here, keep them both,” his mother said. “One is too valuable for you to give away, and the other not valuable enough.” She paused for a moment, her face again turned from him. Then, in a faltering voice, she spoke. “I have something else in mind for you to give for Ilahee.”

Taraval feel suddenly wary. “What is it, Mother? Tell me.”

The queen looked at Alisoun, who stood and quietly left the room, closing the door softly behind her.


Post a Comment

<< Home