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


Within half an hour Taraval was ready to go seeking Ansel the woodcutter. He strapped on his sword, and though he debated leaving the lute in Segway’s care, the recollection of Featherbroom’s warning before the rock slide made him decide to take it with him.

As he slid the lute into its case, there was a sudden explosion of screeching sounds from inside.

“What is it, Mistress Featherbroom?” he said with a sigh. “Perhaps you don’t like the dark?”

There was a short, sputtering hiss, like the sizzle of an ember doused in water.

“Well, you’ve never complained about it before – but maybe you’ve more to say now that we’re talking to each other, hmm? At any rate, you used your power to help me last night, so it’s only fair that I return the favor.”

He took out his knife and carefully cut a flap in the leather over the rose carving. “There,” he said, “now you have a window.”

From the lute came a brief, mellow-toned buzz, followed by the same reverberating tone he had heard from the little nymph the night before. Taraval took it to mean “thank you.”

“You’re welcome, he replied.

Then he set out, following the directions Thomas Carbold had given him. As he rode he wondered about the relationship between the two brothers. Had Thomas’s action been prompted by his benevolent heart, or by a dislike for Philip? A third possibility also occurred to him: that he was being sent on a fool’s errand for a joke – or something worse. Well, he had better stay alert and be ready for anything.

He followed the river trail northward for half an hour, then cut off to the northeast on a smaller trail marked by a great oak tree. From there he rode through scattered oak groves until he came to a spring – another market on Thomas Carbold’s map – then turned due north again. Soon he came upon a crude hut partly hidden behind a thicket of berry vines. Stacked against a boulder nearby was a pile of logs.

From out of the hut a short, wiry, bearded man with a wild mane of white hair limped toward him, leaning on a walking stick. One leg was shorter than the other – perhaps the legacy of a tree-felling accident, Taraval thought.

“Who comes looking for me?” the man barked.

“You are Ansel?”

“I may be, if you be wanting to buy wood.”

“I am Taraval, a minstrel, and it is not wood I seek, but information.”

“It is not information I deal in, but wood,” the man snapped in a flat, harsh voice.

Taraval hesitated, appraising the bent but sturdy body and shrewd-looking face as he recalled the carpenter’s words: “Ansel’s never been known to give anything away.” Then he said, “I am willing to pay, if you can tell me where to find what I’m looking for.”

“Depends on what that is, and what you are paying.”

Taraval dismounted, took out the ravenwood box and showed the woodcutter a ravenwood leaf.

“I’m looking for trees with leaves like this.”

“Let me see it closer,” the woodcutter demanded.

Taraval handed it to him. “Be careful, it’s very dry,” he cautioned.

Ansel only grunted. He turned the leaf over and held it up to the sun, squinting at the pattern of veins outlined on the translucent leaf. Then he turned his keen gray eyes on Taraval. “These must be valuable trees for a stranger to come here searching for them.”

Taraval knew well how an animal will try to hid an injury or infirmity, sensing that predators always prey on the weakest of the herd. It was that same instinct now that kept him from giving information about Ilahee’s desperate plight to a man who might use it for his own gain. “I’ve been sent by a friar who collects trees for his nursery,” he said. “That leaf is from a tree he saw once, and now he wants to add some of them to his collection.”

The woodcutter looked at him skeptically. “You came all this distance on someone’s whim?” he asked.

“His trees are his one vanity,” Taraval replied, trying to keep the flush of dishonesty from showing on his face. “He confessed to me that they take the place of all the worldly possession he gave up when he joined the monastery.” Apparently the lie convinced the woodcutter, for he nodded and again held the leaf up to the sun.

“What is it worth to you if I tell you where you can find such a tree?” he said gruffly.

Taraval’s heart gave a leap and then settled into a steady pounding. Could it be that his quest was to bear fruit so soon? He swallowed twice and gave the woodcutter a figure which allowed him some room for bargaining.

“Double it and the information is yours,” the woodcutter said, his sharp gray eyes unblinking.

Taraval looked at the stubborn little man and tried to determine if he could trust him any more than he could trust Philip Carbold. “I will increase my offer by half, and pay you a third of the total now,” he said after a moment. “The rest I’ll give you after I’ve found the trees.”

“And what assurance do I have that you’ll pay me then?”

“What assurance do I have that you know of any such trees?”

The woodcutter stared at him intently, his white-maned head cocked to one side. When he didn’t answer, Taraval added, “If either of us is a villain, you stand to gain more than I do, since I’m paying you part of the sum in advance.”

“Give me half the total amount now,” Ansel said, “and I’ll tell you where to look. Agreed?”

It was the counter Taraval had anticipated. “Very well, agreed. Now where are the trees?”

“Where is the money?” the old man snapped in response.

Taraval dug into his leather pouch, pulled out some coins, and counted them aloud as he dropped them into the woodcutter’s hand.

Ansel counted the coins again, then put them in his pocket and said, “Now listen well. There is only one such tree, and it’s been a year or two since I last saw it. But I remember the place very well, since it’s the only tree of its like I have ever seen.”

A solitary ravenwood tree, Taraval thought, when he had hoped for a grove of them. But if it bore seeds and had young, healthy shoots, one tree would be enough. He listened well as the woodcutter described the landmarks along the route he was to take.

“It’s a half day’s ride each way, so take some food,” Ansel advised. “And be careful when you get to the rocks – there are a lot of small animals in that region, and horses have been known to break a leg stepping into their one of their burrows.”
Taraval thanked him for the directions and the warning. “If I find the tree, I’ll bring you the rest of the money day after tomorrow,” he said.

“See that you do,” the woodcutter replied. “If you don’t, I’ll be seeking you at The Hanged Man.” Then he turned and limped back to his hut.

Riding back to the village, Taraval puzzled over Ansel’s last words. The Hanged Man was the only inn in Landshut, so it was an easy guess that a stranger in town would have to stay there, but Taraval hadn’t mentioned that he’d come from the village. Was it possible that word of the new minstrel in town had gotten to the isolated woodcutter? The tradesmen he’d talked to agreed that Ansel had last been in town before Taraval arrived; that meant someone might have brought the news to him.

Reining Tressiter back onto the river trail toward Landshut, Taraval saw another rider approaching him, his head bent and his face obscured under a broad-brimmed hat. Even when they drew abreast the other rider did not raise his head or offer a greeting, but Taraval saw that he was a big man with an ample belly. His eyes sought the hand holding the reins and noted that the forefinger was missing.

After riding on a bit further he glanced back, in time to see the rider turn off on the northeasterly trail – the one that led to the woodcutter’s hut.


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