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


The two men shook hands, the log beneath their feet wobbling a little. Taraval’s opponent gave him a cocky grin, as if to say, “I’ll beat you, royalty or not.” The handshake was a powerful one, and at close range Taraval saw that the youth had the advantage of being half a head taller and at least a stone heavier than himself. His confidence wavered, but only for a moment.

Since childhood, one of his favorite pastimes had been walking the logs that spanned the swirling river Swinnow, which sliced through the hills behind the castle of Ilahee. There were three logs, and even on the narrowest of them he was as sure-footed as a mountain goat. But, he wondered now, how steady would his balance be with someone swinging a weighted sack at him?

He wet his lips, his anticipation growing. He tested the weight of the sack and his balance on the log as the booth keeper accepted bets from the crowd and explained the rules: no hitting above the shoulders, anything else was fair. Taraval’s stomach muscles tightened when he realized that most of the bets were being placed on his opponent, who, he overheard, had already downed three contenders.

At last, the booth keeper nodded to Taraval. As the challenger, it was his privilege to say when he was ready. He crouched, feeling the contours of the log through the soft leather of his boot soles as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His palms were damp; he set the bag down for a moment and rubbed his hands on his tunic to dry them. As he picked it up again, a muscle in his thigh began to twitch.

The defending champion strutted up and down his end of the log, his fiery hair glinting in the sun. Then he made a mock bow and whispered to Taraval, “Your clothing won’t look so royal after I’ve rolled you in the dust.”

Small matter, these clothes, Taraval thought, I need the money. He whispered back, “Well, Sir Flaming Thatch, we’ll see who’s ready for a dusting” – then shouted, “Ready!”

His opponent took the first swing and the sack caught Taraval on the calf of his left leg, shaking him. But before the youth could swing again Taraval swung twice, glancing a stroke off the youth’s left shoulder and then, on the return, landing a blow to his stomach that knocked the breath out of him.

There was a yelp of approval from the crowd and an excited buzz as new bets were placed at the final call, this time on the noble challenger, who showed promise of giving them more than they had expected.

The red-haired youth lunged forward menacingly with a powerful swing toward Taraval’s shoulder, but Taraval ducked and the weighted bag sang harmlessly over his head. Taraval danced back three steps, and while his opponent was still off balance from his missed swing, caught him a blow on the hit that made him teeter back and forth. The crowd yelled and Taraval felt his confidence surging back.

He took the offensive before his opponent had time to recover. Like a farmer harvesting grain with a scythe, he slashed at the air with his bag, driving the red-haired youth to the far end of the log. There the defender crouched, head down, tempting Taraval to hit him in the head and be disqualified, but the bait wasn’t taken. Instead Taraval danced back on the log and, as his opponent straightened up, caught him on the arm he had thrust out for balance. The blow swung the youth around so that for a moment he faced off the side of the log teetering.

Seeing his opportunity, Taraval used a trick he had learned form his cousin Gaynor: He spun a full turn on the log, using the momentum of his spin to swing the sack in an arc and land a solid blow to the back of his opponent’s knees, and with a lurch the youth tumbled off the log and rolled in the dirt.

The crowd, now totally won over to the royal newcomer, cheered Taraval and urged him to take on the next challenger. But he shook his head and handed his weighted bag to the booth keeper. Grinning, the red-haired youth dusted himself off and slapped Taraval good-naturedly on the shoulder, all menace gone. “Sir Flaming Thatch, is it? Ha-ha, I like that.” Then turning to the onlookers he shouted, “Now who among you will challenge Sir Flaming Hatch?”

The booth keeper counted up the bets and handed Taraval his share of the purse. Taraval thanked him and walked on, noting that the crowd was now totally engrossed in wagering on the next battle. In the shade of an oak tree he sat down and counted his newly won coins. When he saw that they added up to the value of the gold coin the gypsy had asked for – plus a little more to add to his food allowance – he felt relief along with a pang of pride. Now he had only to find the gypsy woman.

He was whistling when he came back to his uncle, bearing not only a meat pie for each of them but also a strawberry tart to share. “Well, Nephew,” Terwilliger said. “I wish I could always get such a bargain for my money.” Taraval laughed, full of his secret.

“How is the selling going, Uncle?” he asked. Then, without waiting for a reply, he picked up a dulcimer and a lute and began to hail passersby, regaling them with details of the instruments’ careful workmanship, praising their beautiful finishes, and plucking melodies from first one and then another to demonstrate their fine tone. He felt good. He had won the money he needed fairly, and now his chest swelled with a feeling that he could do anything he set his mind to.

During the rest of the afternoon he set his mind to selling instruments, and so became a forceful and intuitive peddler, adept at singling out from the crowd the most likely customer – the sensitive, artistic types who were musicians themselves, and the sober, substantial citizens wealthy enough to keep musicians in their households.

Terwilliger’s leather purse began to bulge as one after another of Ilahee’s instruments passed into the hands of a buyer. He looked approvingly at his eager young nephew.

“Something happened to you today, Taraval. Tell me.”

Taraval looked at the westering sun and calculated the time – only another hour till sunset. He wanted to find the gypsy before dark.

“I will tell you later, Uncle. First I must look for someone. May I go now?”
Terwilliger smiled. “You’ve earned your break,” he said. “Just be back at the inn in time for supper.”

Taraval nodded and took off at a lope, patting the pouch that hung at his hip.


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