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Durand Col peered up into the vault of Heaven. At long last, the weather had broken, and now was his chance to escape.
His heart jumping, Durand plunged into the gloom of the old stable. His gelding stood with mud to its belly but still looked fit to travel. He would talk to Coensar. He would bid the others goodbye. And he would go. Beyond the narrow yard of Burrstone Walls the roads were drying. With a little luck, he could put Deorwen and Lamoric and the whole mess behind him.
He turned back to the castle yard just as the Heavens opened and the rain thundered down.
"Hells," he said.
Luck and the weather were not on his side, and so this would be another day to avoid Deorwen, and another hour to keep from Lord Lamoric's hall. He had a winter's practice at both.
As he stared into the drenching sky, a voice startled him, close and croaking out, "Durand Col, it is the day and hour of the Accounting. . . ."
It might have been the Voice of Doom, but it was only Father Odwy, the manor priest. The dour old man scowled up at Durand, rain streaming from a beard long enough to tuck in his belt. He was already turning before Durand could make an excuse. The old devil loved his rituals.
"Father, I am sure that one knight more or less will make no—"
A piping whistle escaped the man's nose and he set a pair of prodigious fists on his hips. "You are the one called Durand, yes? You are part of His Lordship's household. A knight, I'm told. And every man of the lord's household must attend before we may begin. It is the Custom. Every man if he must be carted or carried. You're meant to have been at supper. We've already prayed the Sunset. You, sir, are wanted in the bloody hall."
As the fearsome priest spun on his heel, Durand shot a glance toward the castle gates. He could make out a glimpse of light and freedom from beyond the walls—and the guard pacing across it.
Burrstone Walls made a man feel small. The locals said there were giants at the founding of the ancient pile: chill kings who slipped off into the Halls of Silence in the days before the High Kings came east. It certainly had the look of a giant's tomb. Whoever built the place had hollowed a stone hill by the river, and now the gutted heart of the old hill was the castle's long courtyard—more a quarryman's pit than a yard. Where Durand stood at the bottom of it all, he might have been a worm on the floor of a stone coffin, squinting up through a crack in the lid.
He had spent the winter Moons sleeping on damp rushes in the manor buildings that huddled at the bottom of this stone tomb: the seat of Sir Lamoric, debtor Lord of Burrstone Walls.
Shaking his head, Durand followed the priest.
The feasting hall of Burrstone Walls was a dank cavern of a place. As Durand stepped in, the assembled household turned his way: This is what had become of the glamorous knights of last autumn's Red Knight game. Towering Sir Ouen, built like carthorse, with his gilded leer and haystack beard. Stalwart Guthred the shield-bearer, scowling round the thick knuckle of his prodigious nose. One-eyed Sir Berchard, bald and bearded as an innkeeper, with tales of a hundred battles. Sneering Badan, a balding wolf in knight's breeches. And Coensar, Durand's captain—like a father since Durand left home. These were men who had saved a kingdom and caught a rebel in his own trap. All sitting like owls in this dripping barn of a hall, waiting on Father Odwy's Accounting.
At the head of the hall, Lord Lamoric fidgeted, and Coensar raised an amused eyebrow at Durand's entrance.
At least, Durand thought, Lady Deorwen was not there.
Odwy had hauled tables into a horseshoe with Lamoric trapped in the lord's seat at the top and himself standing in the middle of it all. Durand slid onto the heel of one bench by one-eyed Berchard. "Still here, are you?" said the grizzled knight. "Ain't seen you sit down to supper in a fortnight. You—"
Father Odwy twisted and managed a hard look that clapped the old knight's jaw shut as surely as a good slap. Again the priest's nose was whistling. "It is time," he said, smearing the rain from his face with broad fingers. "The men of the household are gathered. The bailiff and reeves have been feasted, meat and wine." He turned to three squat men at the opposite table. All three grunted a nod.
For a few moments then, there was silence—and dripping. As the silence stretched, the priest raked his sheep-yellow beard and, finally, raised a tufted eyebrow at Lamoric.
"Father, don't wag your bristles at me. I've been pacing this old barn since the Paling Moon, and from the first moment—" But Lamoric stopped himself, taking a breath.
"It's my turn, is it?" he said.
"Lordship," croaked the priest.
Lamoric covered his face. "How does it run? What am I to say?"
"By the Silent King of far Heaven . . ." the priest began.
Lamoric raised his hand, and turned to the three villagers. "By the Silent King of far Heaven, by his Queen, by the Warders at the Bright Gates, by the Champion, by his lance, by the chains of the Chainbreaker, by the Maiden of the Spring this Lambing Moon, reeves and bailiff, you must swear to speak no falsehood on this day of the Accounting."
The priest nodded, turning to the first of the villagers. "Odred the Miller, bailiff to His Lordship's manor of Burrstone Walls?"
"Aye," the man grunted. "I swear."
"Odric, dock master, reeve of Burrstone Landing?"
"Aye, Father. Lordship," said the next. "I swear it."
"Odmund, formerly quarryman, now reeve of Burrstone Pits?"
"As you say," said the last. "I swear."
"Odred, Odric, and Odmund, Father?" asked Lamoric.
The priest let Lamoric's question pass and pressed on. They kissed a massive Book of Moons to seal their oaths, planting their lips on a patch of the heavy cover burnished to a high shine by a thousand Accounting oaths.
And the muttered account began.
It was the Lambing Moon, the eve of First Waning, and so the reeves and the bailiff numbered the spindly additions to Lamoric's flock and enumerated those that had frozen; they announced that a very few calves were expected; they reported that the winter crop in all fields "'twixt Pit and the Burrstone Coppice" had flooded, frozen hard, and would need plowing under for reseeding. It went on.
Durand kneaded his face. All winter, Lamoric had been pacing Burrstone Walls like a dog in a kennel. He was trapped and smothered in the backwater fief. They all were.
The year before, the young lord had planned to show the great ones of the kingdom that he was more than the spoiled second son of the Duke of Gireth. Fighting as the nameless "Red Knight," he'd led his hand-picked band of men from tilt to tilt until they were fighting before the king at the cliffs of Tern Gyre. But, at Tern Gyre, there had been more at stake than one man's reputation. In the end, Lamoric and Durand and the others managed to scotch a rebellion. The king kept his crown, and the rebel duke—Radomor of Yrlac—was left to slink home, looking like a fool.
The whole adventure ought to have made their fortunes, but times were hard for kings in Errest, and Lamoric had only kept the Burrstones through weighty loans from his elder brother in Acconel. And with grim winters like these, a hundred years must pass before Lamoric could repay the debt.
The game was over. A pauper lord could not keep a troop of knights. The men must spring from him like fleas from a dead hound.
"And last night," mumbled Odred Miller, bailiff to Burrstone Walls, "Odwin's lad Gil saw the frogspawn in the quarry at Burrstone Pit."
Lamoric twisted in his chair. "Frogspawn?"
Odred Miller grunted affirmation.
Lamoric turned to the priest. "Why in Heaven's name would this man—Odmund Miller?—report the carnal activities of these creatures to me?" They had ridden to Tern Gyre. They had fought the Duke of Yrlac and saved the Evenstar Crown for the king anointed by the Patriarchs. "Are we keeping a flock of amphibians for—"
"Frogspawn is the customary sign, Lordship. In the pit. Frogspawn being seen, the villagers will make the teams ready for the Plow Chase. The children climb down to look for it. This year the Chase comes later than most, but tomorrow Walls, Pits, and Landing will set their best teams against each other to—"
"And this is Miller Odred. Miller Odmund died in my father's day, buried with his quern and apron in the last years of old King Carondas."
Lamoric mashed his hands over his eyes. "A man to be envied, that Odmund Miller." The reeves and bailiff exchanged glances: a slow matter involving much blinking of dark eyes.
The list went on. "The damp spoiled the seed rye in Burrstone Walls, the great quarry at Burrstone Pits has flooded to one fathom's depth at the place of deepest delving," said one reeve.
"I find that I cannot breathe some days," said Lamoric. "We dined with princes and patriarchs. It is like the bottom of a well."
But the Burrstone men did not hear him. They pressed on with plowshares bought, dung carted, millstones to be cut, iron bought for mallets and chisels, and willows felled.
"And," said Odwy, "there is the matter of the king's writ, just arrived today."
Lamoric shot upright. "You've had a king's writ waiting on bloody frogs?"
Just then something creaked on the landing high over Lamoric's shoulder. Durand glanced and felt his heart stumble, for Deorwen had stepped from her chambers and stood now above the hall: Deorwen with her dark eyes, her petal lips. Pale as an idol above its shrine she stood. All thought of king's writs flew from Durand's mind as he spun in the flicker of her glance.
Her hair—the gleaming red weight of it—was smothered in a married woman's veil. And Durand knew that he was mad, for who but a madman would linger so near his master's wife and hope to be loyal? Every glimpse of her was treason. He could not breathe.
When Durand managed to look away, he found Berchard and Ouen peering at him, gauging his mood for signs of past troubles returning.
"The Writ of the Beacons," the priest was saying. He fumbled among scrolls and catch-pots, finding a scroll. "Here," he said. A red gobbet of sealing wax spun on a bit of ribbon.
Deorwen was about to slip back through the chamber door, vanishing.
"By the Lord of Dooms, man, what are you waiting for?"
Lamoric followed the priest's glance to his wife. "Deorwen!"
She stopped. "I thought I'd—"
"You're better are you?" She must have come up with some excuse to avoid the feast. "Well come and hear! It seems the king knows where we are, after all. The good father is just telling us what orders have come from the palace. And then, Heaven willing, we will learn more about the matter of the frogspawn."
Reluctantly, Deorwen descended into the hall, while Durand kept his eyes from the twitch of her skirts.
"Ladyship," said the priest, bobbing.
"Go on, Father. Let's hear it," said Lamoric.
The priest scratched, and then read, "‘To celebrate the anniversary of his coronation, Ragnal, King of Errest, Bearer of the Evenstar Crown, Heir of the Hazelwood Throne, commands that every beacon from the Blackroot Mountains to the Westering Sea, from the Winter Sea to the Bourne of Jade, be lit so that this good news can march from the Mount of Eagles in Eldinor to every corner of the realm, every prominence crowned with fire, the whole kingdom shining like the stars in the Vault of Heaven.'"
Deorwen took up her place at her husband's side, a red wisp curled against the pale skin of her neck.
And Durand shut his eyes. With better weather, he would have been on the road and gone by now. A stronger man might have dared flooded roads and cold nights long ago.
"Father," said Lamoric, straightening, "what do those in the Mount of Eagles wish from us down here in the damp of Burrstone Walls?"
"Every beacon in the kingdom must be put in order for First Sight of the Sowing Moon."
Lamoric dropped into his seat. "Beacon?"
"Should Errest be attacked, a message of fire can stride the high places of the kingdom from the Mount of Eagles to every corner of the realm."
"And so Burrstones is counted among the high places of the kingdom. I confess surprise."
"White Osbald is Watcher of the Beacon Tower," said the priest.
"The pale fellow with the pink eyes?"
"Ten generations have passed since the last invader threatened." The priest scratched his beard with another faint whistle. "It may need seeing to."
Durand opened his eyes—and found Deorwen looking back at him. Her eyes trembled, brown and shadowed. He could stay no longer.
"I'll go," said Durand.
Curious faces turned his direction.
"I'll see how this beacon looks."
As he made to step from the hall, conscious of what a fool he looked, a crash echoed in the courtyard: a sound full of iron rings and the clatter of an axe handle. Down the long yard, he saw the castle's gatekeeper land on his armored shoulders. Someone was coming.
Durand closed a hand on his sword's grip, and—along with every armed man in the hall—braced himself.
"And," conceded the priest, "there is a messenger."
"Lord of Dooms . . ." Lamoric said. A blade in his hand, he looked to tall Coensar, his captain.
The priest said, "We could not delay the Accounting any further just because some errand boy—"
"Are you mad, priest? You've left him out in this rain? Who is it?"
"He has had the gatehouse for shelter. But there was no time to ask his name. The Accounting was already—"
A tall figure stalked toward them down the courtyard.
Copyright © 2008 by David Keck. All rights reserved.