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


Taraval kissed his mother's cheek and set out for Terwilliger's shop, which was at the top of the hill at the far end of the village that lay below the castle. He loved walking to see his uncle, for all the villagers were craftspeople and artisans -- most of them instrument makers like his uncle, and all of them musicians -- so night and day music poured from the cottages, full melodies as well as scale runs and snatches and snippets of tunes. Taraval liked to see if he could identify the players, for each had his or her own flourishes, unique as signatures. Walking through the village always inspired him, as the sounds of their playing and tuning and plucking wove in his mind new melodies to try out on his own lute.

Today his walk was made even more pleasurable by his keen anticipation. Today he would choose a new lute from among the best his uncle had to offer, one made of ravenwood, the only valuable resource left in his father's kingdom since the tandaril trees died. Ravenwood lutes were not fine enough to bring merchants from around the world, as the tandaril lutes had, but for Taraval a good lute made of ravenwood would be a thing to treasure. At the thought of it he quickened his step, and almost collided with someone hurrying round a bend in the road in the opposite direction.

"Friar Biophilus! You startled me!" said Taraval with a grin. "A tandaril morning to you."

The friar, his hands tucked into the ample sleeves of his rough brown robe, came out of his reverie on seeing his favorite pupil. The warmth of Taraval's greeting erased the worry from the friar's face for a moment.

"A tandaril monring to you, also, Taraval. The sun finds you out early today."

"This is the day I am to choose my new lute."

"Wonderful!" the friar exclaimed, his thick, dark eyebrows twitching. "You must play it for me when you come for your lessons this afernoon."

Taraval opened his mouth to ask the friar his mother's question, then closed it, for he could read the answer in the stoop of the friar's shoulders and the lines in his forehead.

"What is it, Taraval?"

"You know what my mother wants to know."

The friar looked at the ground, nodding. "Yes, and I wish I could tell her something encouraging. Yesterday I could have, for two seedlings had opened up their first leaves. But this morning I found them wilted and withered, as always." Reading the concern in the boy's eyes, he gave Taraval a wan smile. "It is serious, Taraval, but not hopeless. Tell your mother I am working on the problem still, and that I am optimistic we shall solve it." Then he patted Taraval's shoulder and bustled on his way.

Uncle Terwilliger's house, built on the crest of the hill, commanded a view of the village. It was a large stone house with a workshop in the front, and on the side a kitchen garden where cabbages and onions grew amidst a profusion of rambling roses. Taraval found his uncle in the garden, sitting on a stool beheath a pear tree, polishing the belly of a lute he was making.

"Good morning, Uncle. Apparently, I'm not your first visitor."

Terwilliger smiled. "Friar Biophilus came to check on the progress of the injured badger he brought me last week. He was surprised to learn she had healed so fast that I let her go in the woods yesterday."

"Since she was here only a week, Uncle, do you think she will come back, like the others?"

"Oh, I shouldn't be surprised, Terwilliger answered with a smile. "She tried to follow me home!" He motioned Taraval to a low stool in the shade of the pear tree.

Terwilliger was a small man, trim like his much younger sister, Taraval's mother, and with worn, capable-looking hands. He moved slowly and often answered a question only after a considerable pause, but though his comments were usually brief, they showed wisdom and careful thought. He always listened attentively to everything Taraval told him, and he remembered whatever they had talked about on earlier visits, so that Taraval had only to say a word or two to renew a conversation that might have been left off days or even weeks before.

The youth joined the old man under the pear tree and the two shared a simple breakfast of soft goat cheese, dark bread, cider, and rose-blushed fruit from the tree. As they ate, a grey mourning dove fluttered into the garden and walked with its bobbing gait to Taraval's foot. The young prince held down his hand and the bird hopped onto his finger, murmuring softly.

"I see she knows you," said his uncle. "Do you recognize her?"

"I think she's the one that made her nest in your ravenwood tree last year," Taraval answered.

"Good," said Terwilliger. "You're improving. Yes, I think you have the knack."

Taraval had picked up from his uncle a great love for animals, and also was developing his elder's uncanny ability to attract and communicate with all manner of creatures. Terwilliger kept no pets, but his home was seldom without a visiting animal or two -- perhaps an injured kit fox on the mend, or an orphaned fawn or rabbit.

Taraval stroked the dove's soft breast feathers, then gently set the bird on the ground. When he straightened up, his face betrayed a hint of worry. "I suppose Friar Biophilus told you he's still had no luck starting any ravenwoods," he said.

His uncle nodded.

"Uncle, it's been six months now that all seedlings and grafts have withered. Friar Biophilus tries to cover it, but I can see he's very distressed. Twice last week I made an error in my Latin declensions and he didn't even notice." Taraval reached down to pick up a snuffling mole that had settle himself under the table near his left boot. He set the mole on his shoulder and scratched its back as he continued.

"And you know how he always loves to end the lessons with a story from the Romans or Greeks? Well, it's been weeks since he's done that. The minute the lesson is over he rushes me off so he can go back to his seedlings."

"His head is full of heavy thoughts, Taraval," said the elder, his tone grave.

"But I don't understand why he's so worried. If never another ravenwood grew in Ilahee, we have enough in our groves now to make lutes and dulcimers for twenty or thirty years still."

His uncle gave him a long look, a gliimmer of amusement in his grey eyes that seemed to say, Ah, the folly of youth, to think thirty years is forever.

"There's something more worrying him, isn't there, Uncle?"

Terwilliger looked his nephew in the eye. "Yes, Taraval, there is."

"What is it?"

"Well, like me, the friar was a young man when the blight took the tandaril trees, so he remembers, as I do, that for some time before the blight the tandarils wouldn't reproduce, just as the ravenwoods won't now. And he remembers that once the blight struck a tree, the wood was ruined and useless."

Taraval placed the furry little mole back on the ground, then sat quite still for a moment as the meaning of Terwilliger's words slowly seeped in. So that was why the friar walked around with a cloud over him. The dying seedlings might foretell a blight, and if blight struck the ravenwoods, all their wood would be lost! Then what would become of Ilahee? The kingdom was poor even now, and selling instruments of ravenwood was its ony source of income.

Terwilliger stood up stiffly and brushed the crumbs from his lap. "What's happening to the ravenwoods is probably only temporary, Taraval," he said. "Friar Biophilus knows more about plants than anyone else in Ilahee, or for miles around. If anyone can start ravenwood trees, he can." He took a final sip of cider and wiped his mouth. "Let's leave this subject, for today should be a happy day for you. Are you ready to decide on your lute?"

"Yes, Uncle, I'm ready," Taraval replied, and the exciting task at hand cleared from his mind the dark thoughts about blight and wilted ravenwood seedlings.


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