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


The next morning at sun-up, Taraval was ready to set off in search of Ansel’s lone ravenwood tree. Segway begged to go along. The thought of Festinalentay’s lagging pace made Taraval reluctant at first, but his doubts about Ansel convinced him it would be safer if he took Segway with him, as well as the lute. Mistress Witherspoon released the boy from his chores and he ran off to the stable to saddle the horses.

Lisa came out of the kitchen and handed Taraval a packet she had prepared – with ample food for two. Taraval laughed. “Obviously, Segway was confident I’d give in.”

She nodded and flashed him a quick smile, then her hazel eyes grew serious. “Be careful when you get to the rocks,” she warned.

“I know,” Taraval replied. “Ansel told me about the animal burrows.”

“That’s not the only reason,” she said softly. “It’s a dangerous place in many ways.” In a tone scarcely above a whisper she added, “Does anyone else know you’re going there?”

Taraval thought of the man he’d seen turning off on the trail toward Ansel’s hut, but he didn’t want to alarm her. “No, no one,” he said, hoping that it was true.

By this time Segway had readied the horses and they began their journey, with the lute and the packet of food firmly secured to Tressiter’s saddle. For the first half hour they rode due west following a dry creek bed, then they turned southward on a little-used trail that took them through rolling grey-green hills dotted with clumps of red and gold. The mosaic of rich colors again reminded Taraval how rapidly fall was closing in. A cool breeze ruffled his hair, and though his tunic kept him warm, he saw Segway shiver in his flimsy shirt and berated himself for not having the boy bring his blanket, thin though it was.

Gradually the trail settled into a steady, gentle climb. In the distance, thick stands of pine and spruce stood out blue-green against purple hills, but around them everything was golden – tall poplars thrusting golden spires upward, and clustered of maple trees like showers of gold.

By mid-morning thick clouds began to gather, blotting out the sun. A little flurry of wind-shipped rain dampened their backs and pock-marked the dusty trail. It was gone as suddenly asit had come, but it wiped away all trace of the sun and left the sky overcast and leaden. As they descended into a wide, flat valley scattered with oak groves, they passed the skeletons of half a dozen dead oaks silhouetted against the dark, clabbered sky. Looming ahead of them was a huge rock formation of towering gray slabs. With its rocky pinnacles covered with patches of colored lichen, it resembled a castle draped with bright banners.

“Those must be the rocks the woodcutter told you about,” Segway volunteered.

Taraval nodded but offered no comment. Above them two hawks wheeled silently through the air, their wings like thin black brush strokes against the sky. The breeze sprang up again, colder and stronger now. It rustled the leaves restlessly, the only sound except for the clopping of the horses’ hooves and the harsh cawing of a crow.

Then Taraval heard a faint, sputtering buzz and felt a vibration against his leg where the lute case brushed it. He laid his hand on the case and leaned closer to the lute to listen for any further sounds.

“What is it, master Taraval?” Segway asked.

“I’m not sure. Featherbroom seems to be disturbed.” Was she just being peevish, he wondered, or was this another of her warnings?

Ahead of them some two furlongs now, the valley narrowed and the trail passed through a cleft between two tall stone spurs that stood like sentinels at the base of the rock castle. As they neared this crevice they heard the plaintive hooting of a distant owl. Taraval shivered and reined Tressiter in.

“That’s strange,” said Segway. “I’ve never heard an owl hoot before dusk.”

“Nor have I,” said Taraval. His feeling of uneasiness grew when he heard an erratic thumping against the sides of the lute – like the frantic beating of a bumblebee trapped inside a jar.

“Soft you now, Miss,” he said soothingly, caressing the lute, and he checked the case to make sure the little window flap he had cut for her was open.

The lute fell silent again – but it was not the silence of calm repose. Taraval could sense a tension emanating from the lute, like the charge in the air before a lightning storm.

He surveyed the landscape ahead of them. The rock formation was like the buckle in a curving belt of mountains, and there was no way around it. Heavy brush on the hills to either side looked virtually impenetrable. The only route open to them was the trail that threaded its way through and then over the stone fortress.

Taraval scanned the rocks carefully. Among the nooks and crannies he caught glimpses of movement – small brown heads popping up – a thriving population of marmots. Yes, there would be animal burrows to watch out for, but he could see no sign of anything else that might present a danger.

According to the directions Ansel had given him, they were near their goal – the ravenwood tree grew no more than a quarter hour’s ride beyond the rocks. Finding the tree was far too important to let hooting owls and vague feelings of uneasiness deter him.

“Let’s go on,” Taraval said, and he flicked Tressiter’s reins.

They rode between the tall shoulders of rock and began their climb single file up the steep, narrow trail. Halfway up the ascent they passed through another cleft. It opened out into a large cup-shaped area, a kind of amphitheater with high rock walls. The only exit was another crevice on the far side, just wide enough for a single rider.

When they reached the middle of the clearing, Taraval felt a prickling at the back of his neck. He looked at the lute case and saw it begin to quiver like an aspen leaf shaking in the breeze. Then the stillness was broken by a low whining sound that quickly rose to a high/keening wail – this time there was no mistaking Featherbroom’s warning.

He jerked back on Tressiter’s reins, but it was too late – through the opening ahead of them burst a maske,d black-clad horseman brandishing a sword. “Segway, go back!” Taraval yelled. The boy cried out as the swordsman bore down on them, and they whirled their horses about, only to find their retreat barred by two more horsemen with swords aloft. The trap was sprung, and they were the prey.


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