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The Ruins of Gorlan: Fixed

Chapter Text

Morgarath, Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, former Baron of Gorlan in the Kingdom of Araluen, looked out over his bleak, rainswept domain and, for perhaps the thousandth time, cursed. This was all that was left to him now—a jumble of rugged granite cliffs, tumbled boulders and icy mountains. Of sheer gorges and steep narrow passes. Of gravel and rock, with never a tree or a sign of green to break the awful greys.

Even though it had been fifteen years since he had been driven back into this forbidding realm that had become his prison, he could still remember the pleasant green glades and thickly forested hills of his former fief. The streams filled with fish and the fields rich with crops and game.

Gorlan had been a beautiful, living place. The Mountains of Rain and Night were dead and desolate. In fact, they had been called the “Border Hills,” when only a few outcasts had lived there, but when Morgarath had been forced to build his home here, and the kingdom had paid it momentary attention, it had gathered itself a far more fitting name.

A platoon of Wargals was drilling in the castle yard below him. Morgarath watched them for a few seconds, listening to the guttural, arrhythmic chant that accompanied all their movements. They were stocky, misshapen beings, with features that were halfway human, but with a long muzzle and fangs like a bear or large wolf. Avoiding all contact with humans, the Wargals had lived and bred in these remote mountains since the most ancient of times. No one in living memory had ever set eyes upon one, but rumors and legends had persisted of dangerous packs of semi-intelligent creatures, living in the high hills.

Morgarath, planning a revolt against the Kingdom of Araluen, had left Gorlan Fief to seek them out, for if such creatures existed, they would give him an edge in the war that was to come. It took him months, but he eventually found them. Aside from their wordless chant, Wargals had no spoken language, relying on a form of thought awareness for communication. Their minds were simple, their intellects basic, and, as a result, they had been totally susceptible to domination by superior intelligence and willpower. Morgarath bent them to his will, and they became the perfect army for him—ugly beyond nightmares, utterly pitiless and bound totally to his mental orders.

Now, looking at them, he remembered the brightly dressed knights in glittering armor who used to compete in tourneys at Castle Gorlan, their silk-gowned sweethearts cheering them on and applauding their skills. Mentally comparing them to these grizzled, misshapen creatures, he cursed again.

The Wargals, attuned to his thoughts, sensed his disturbance and stirred uncomfortably, pausing in what they were doing. Angrily, he directed them back to their drill and the chanting resumed.

Morgarath moved away from the unglazed window, closer to the fire that seemed utterly incapable of dispelling the damp and chill from this gloomy castle. Fifteen years, he thought to himself again. Fifteen years since he had rebelled against the newly crowned King Duncan, a youth in his twenties. He had planned it all carefully as the old king’s sickness progressed, banking on the indecision and confusion that would follow his death to split the other barons and give Morgarath his opportunity to seize the throne.

Secretly, he had trained his army of Wargals, massing them up here in the mountains, ready for the moment to strike. Then, in the days of confusion and grief following the king’s death, when the barons travelled to Castle Araluen for the funeral rites, leaving their armies leaderless, he had attacked, overrunning the southeastern quarter of the kingdom in a matter of days, routing the confused, leaderless forces that tried to oppose him. Duncan, young and inexperienced, could never have stood against him. The kingdom was his for the taking. The throne was his for the asking.

Then Lord Northolt, the old king’s supreme army commander, had rallied some of the younger barons into a loyal confederation, giving strength to Duncan’s resolve and stiffening the wavering courage of the others. The armies had met at Hackham Heath, close by the Slipsunder River, and the battle swayed in the balance for five hours, with attack and counterattack and massive loss of life.

The Slipsunder was a shallow river, but its treacherous reaches of quicksand and soft mud had formed an impassable barrier, protecting Morgarath’s right flank. But then. Then.

One of those grey-cloaked meddlers known as Rangers had led a force of heavy cavalry across a secret ford ten kilometers up­stream. The horsemen, fully armed and armored, appeared at the crucial moment of the battle and fell upon the rear of Morgarath’s army. The Wargals, trained in the tumbled rocks of the mountains, almost devoid of all life but theirs, had one weakness: they feared horses. They could never have stood against a surprise cavalry attack like that. They had broken, retreating to the narrow confines of Three Step Pass, and back to the Mountains of Rain and Night. Morgarath, his rebellion defeated, went with them.

And here he had been exiled these fifteen years. Waiting, plotting, hating the people who had done this to him. Now, he thought, it was time for his revenge. His spies told him the kingdom had grown slack and complacent, and his presence there was all but forgotten. The name Morgarath was a name of legend nowadays, a name mothers used to hush fractious children, threatening that if they did not behave, the cruel lord Morgarath would come for them. The time was ripe. Once again, he would lead his Wargals into an attack.

But this time, he would have allies. This time, these allies would help him to sow the ground with uncertainty and confusion before the war even began. This time none of those who conspired against him previously would be left alive to aid King Duncan. For the Wargals were not the only ancient, terrifying creatures he had found in these somber mountains. He had two other allies, even more fearsome still – the dreadful beasts known as the Kalkara.

The time was ripe to unleash them.

Chapter Text

“Try to eat something, Will. Tomorrow’s a big day, after all.” Jenny, energetic, hearty, and cheerful, gestured toward Will’s barely touched plate and smiled encouragingly at him. Her white teeth made a glowing contrast with her dark skin, and her broad hands were spread as if to offer help: a smile from Jenny never failed to light up a room. Will made an attempt to return the smile, but it was a dismal failure. He picked at the plate before him, piled high with his favorite foods. Tonight, his stomach knotted tight with tension and anticipation, he could hardly bring himself to swallow a bite. Tomorrow would be a big day, he knew. He knew it all too well, in fact. Tomorrow would be the biggest day in his life, because tomorrow was the Choosing Day and it would determine how he spent the rest of his life.

“Nerves, I imagine,” said George, setting down his loaded fork and seizing the edges of his tunic in a judicious manner. He was a thin, gangly and studious boy, fascinated by rules and regulations and with a penchant for examining and debating both sides of any question—sometimes at great length. “Dreadful thing, nervousness. It can just freeze you up so you can’t think, can’t eat, can’t speak.”

“I’m not nervous,” Will said quickly, noticing that Horace had looked up, ready to form a sarcastic comment. George nodded several times, considering Will’s statement.

“On the other hand,” he added, “a little nervousness can actually improve performance. It can heighten your perceptions and sharpen your reactions. So, the fact that you are worried, if, in fact, you are, is not necessarily something to be worried about, of itself—so to speak.”

In spite of himself, a wry smile touched Will’s mouth. George would be a natural in the legal profession, he thought. He would almost certainly be the Scribemaster’s choice on the following morning. Perhaps, Will thought, that was at the heart of his own problem. He was the only one of the wardmates who had any fears about the Choosing that would take place within twelve hours.

“He ought to be nervous!” Horace scoffed. “After all, which Craftmaster is going to want him as an apprentice?”

“I’m sure we’re all nervous,” Alyss said. She directed one of her rare smiles at Will. “We’d be stupid not to be.”

“Well, I’m not!” Horace said, then reddened as Alyss raised one eyebrow and Jenny giggled. It was typical of Alyss, Will thought. He knew that the tall, dignified girl had already been promised a place as an apprentice by Lady Pauline, head of Castle Redmont’s Diplomatic Service. Her pretence that she was nervous about the following day, and her tact in refraining from pointing out Horace’s gaffe, showed that she was already a diplomat of some skill.

Jenny, of course, would gravitate immediately to the castle kitchens, domain of Master Chubb, Redmont’s head chef. He was a man renowned throughout the kingdom for the banquets served in the castle’s massive dining hall. Jenny loved food and cooking, and her easygoing nature and unfailing good humor would make her an invaluable staff member in the turmoil of the castle kitchens.

Battleschool would be Horace’s choice. Will glanced at his wardmate now, hungrily tucking into the roast turkey, ham and potatoes that he had heaped onto his plate. Horace was big for his age, his hair bunched behind him in neat coils and his Ward uniform several inches too small. He was a natural athlete, and the chances that he would be refused were virtually nonexistent. Horace was exactly the type of recruit that Sir Rodney looked for in his warrior apprentices. Strong, athletic, fit. And, thought Will a trifle sourly, not too bright. Battleschool was the path to knighthood for boys like Horace—born commoners but with the physical abilities to serve as knights of the kingdom.

Which left Will. What would his choice be? More importantly, as Horace had pointed out, what Craftmaster would accept him as an apprentice? For Choosing Day was the pivotal point in the life of the castle wards.

They were orphaned children raised by the generosity of Baron Arald, the Lord of Redmont Fief. For the most part, their parents had died in the service of the fief, and the Baron saw it as his responsibility to care for and raise the children of his former subjects — and to give them an opportunity to improve their station in life wherever possible. They were fed, and clothed, and given shelter. They were also, separated by age group into classes, taught basic skills like sewing, and knowledge like Araulen’s recent history.

Choosing Day provided the Baron’s opportunity to improve the wards’ stations. Each year, castle wards turning fifteen could apply to be apprenticed to the masters of the various crafts that served the castle and its people. Ordinarily, apprentices were selected by dint of their parents’ occupations or influence with the Craftmasters. The castle wards were gifted no such influence, and this was their chance to win a future for themselves.

Those wards who weren’t chosen, or for whom no openings could be found, would be sent to farming families in the nearby villages, providing farm labor to raise the crops and animals that fed the castle inhabitants. It was rare for this to happen, Will knew. The Baron and his Craftmasters usually went out of their way to fit the wards into one craft or another. But it could happen, and it was the fate he feared more than anything.

Horace caught his eye now and gave him a smug smile. “Still planning on applying for Battleschool, Will?” he asked through a mouthful of turkey and potatoes. “Better eat something then. You’ll need to build yourself up a little.” He snorted with laughter and Will glowered at him.

A few weeks previously, Horace had overheard Will confiding to Alyss that he desperately wanted to be selected for Battleschool, and he had made Will’s life a misery ever since, pointing out on every possible occasion that Will’s slight build was totally unsuited for the rigors of Battleschool training. The fact that Horace was probably right only made matters worse. Where Horace was tall and broad, Will was small and wiry. He was agile and fast and surprisingly strong, but he simply didn’t have the size that he knew was required of Battleschool apprentices. He’d hoped against hope for the past few years that he would have what people called the “growing spurt” before his Choosing Day came around. But it had never happened, and now the day was nearly here.

As Will said nothing, Horace sensed that he had scored a verbal hit. This was a rarity in their turbulent relationship. Over the past few years, he and Will had fought nearly continuously. Being the bigger and stronger of the two, Horace usually got the better of Will in their physical clashes, although very occasionally Will’s speed and agility allowed him to get in a surprise kick or a punch and then escape before Horace could catch him. But while Horace generally had the best of their fistfights, it was unusual for him to win any of their verbal encounters. Will’s wit was as agile as the rest of him and he almost always managed to have the last word. In fact, it was this tendency that often led to trouble between them: Will was yet to learn that having the last word was not always a good idea. Horace decided now to press his advantage.

“You need muscles to get into Battleschool, Will. Real muscles,” he said, glancing at the others around the table to see if anyone disagreed. The other wards, uncomfortable at the growing tension, concentrated on their plates.

“Particularly between the ears,” Will replied and, unfortunately, Jenny couldn’t refrain from giggling.

Horace’s face flushed and he started to rise from his seat. But Will was quicker and he was already at the door before Horace could disentangle himself from his chair. He contented himself with hurling a final insult after his retreating wardmate. “That’s right! Run away, Will No-Name! You’re a no-name and nobody will want you as an apprentice!”

In the anteroom outside, Will heard the parting sally and felt blood flush to his cheeks. It was the taunt he hated most, although he had tried never to let Horace know that, sensing that he would provide the bigger boy with a weapon if he did. The truth was, nobody knew Will’s second name. Nobody knew who his parents had been. Unlike his agemates, who had lived in the fief before their parents had died and whose family histories were known, Will had appeared, virtually out of nowhere, as a newborn baby. He had been found, wrapped in a small blanket and placed in a basket, on the steps of the ward building fifteen years ago. A note had been attached to the blanket, reading simply:

His mother died in childbirth. His father died a hero.

Please care for him. His name is Will.

That year, there had been only one other ward.  Alyss’s mother was a cavalry lieutenant who had died in the battle at Hackham Heath, when Morgarath’s Wargal army had been defeated and driven back to the mountains.  Her wife, devastated by the loss, succumbed to a fever some weeks after giving birth. With Alyss the one infant, there was plenty of room in the Ward for the unknown boy, and Baron Arald was, at heart, a kindly man. Even though the circumstances were unusual, he had given permission for Will to be accepted as a ward of Castle Redmont.  It seemed logical to assume that, if the note were true, Will’s father had died in the war against Morgarath, and since Baron Arald had taken a leading part in that war, he felt duty bound to honor the unknown father’s sacrifice. So Will had become a Redmont ward, raised and educated by the Baron’s generosity.

As time passed, the others had gradually joined him and Alyss until there were five children in their age group. But while the others had memories of their parents or, in Alyss’s case, people who had known them and who could tell her about them, Will knew nothing of his past. That was why he had invented the story that had sustained him throughout his childhood in the Ward. And, as the years passed and he added detail and color to the story, he eventually came to believe it himself. His father, he knew, had died a hero’s death. So it made sense to create a picture of a hero—a knighted warrior in full armor, fighting against the Wargal hordes, cutting them down left and right until eventually overcome by sheer weight of numbers. Will had pictured the tall figure so often in his mind, seeing every detail of armor and equipment, but he was never able to visualize his father’s face.

As a warrior, his father must have expected him to follow in his footsteps. That was why selection for Battleschool was so important to Will. And that was why the more unlikely it became that he would be selected, the more desperately he clung to the hope that he might.

He exited from the Ward building into the darkened castle yard.  The sun was long down and the torches placed every twenty meters or so on the castle walls shed a flickering, uneven light. He hesitated a moment.  He would not return to the Ward and face Horace’s continued taunts. To do so would only lead to another fight between them—a fight that Will knew he would lose.

Alyss, George and Jenny might try to comfort him, he knew.  George would probably try to analyze the situation for him, looking at both sides of the question and thoroughly confusing the issue.  Alyss, who had grown up with him, would make more sense.  But at the moment he didn’t want their sympathy and he couldn’t face Horace’s taunts, so he headed for the one place where he knew he could find solitude.

 The huge oak tree growing close by the castle’s central tower had often afforded him a haven. Heights held no fear for Will and he climbed smoothly into the tree, continuing long after another might have stopped, until he was in the lighter branches at the very top— branches that swayed and dipped under his weight. In the past, he had often escaped from Horace up here. The bigger boy couldn’t match Will’s speed in the tree and he was unwilling to follow as high as this.

Will found a convenient fork and wedged himself in it, his body giving slightly to the movement of the tree as the branches swayed in the evening breeze. Below, the foreshortened figures of the watch made their rounds of the castle yard. He heard the door of the Ward building open and, glancing down, saw Alyss emerge, looking around the yard for him in vain. She hesitated a few moments, then, seeming to shrug, turned back inside. The elongated rectangle of light that the open door threw across the yard was cut off as she closed the door softly behind her. Strange, he thought, how seldom people tend to look up.

There was a rustle of soft feathers and a barn owl landed on the next branch, its head swiveling, its huge eyes catching every last ray of the faint light. It studied him without concern, seeming to know it had nothing to fear from him. It was a hunter. A silent flyer. A ruler of the night. “At least you know who you are,” he said softly to the bird. It swiveled its head again, then launched itself off into the darkness, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

Gradually, as he sat there, the lights in the castle windows went out, one by one. The torches burnt down to smoldering husks and were replaced at midnight by the change of watch.  Eventually, there was only one light left burning and that, he knew, was in the Baron’s study, where the Lord of Redmont was still presumably at work, poring over reports and papers. The study was virtually level with Will’s position in the tree and he could see the burly figure of the Baron seated at his desk.  Finally Baron Arald rose, stretched, and leaned forward to extinguish the lamp as he left the room, heading for his sleeping quarters on the floor above. 

Now the castle was asleep, except for the guards on the walls, who kept constant watch.  In less than nine hours, Will realized, he would face the Choosing. Silently, miserably, fearing the worst, he climbed down from the tree and made his way to his bed in the oldest boys’ dormitory of the Ward.

Chapter Text

“All right, candidates! This way! And look lively!”

The speaker, or more correctly the shouter, was Martin, secretary to Baron Arald. As his voice echoed around the anteroom, the five wards rose uncertainly from the long wooden benches where they had been seated. Suddenly nervous now that the day had finally arrived, they began to shuffle forward, each one reluctant to be the first through the great ironbound door that Martin now held open for them.

“Come on, come on!” Martin bellowed.

Alyss finally elected to lead the way, as Will had guessed she would; the others trailed after her. Now that someone had decided to lead, the rest of them were content to follow. Will looked around curiously as he entered the Baron’s study. He’d never been in this part of the castle before. This tower, containing the administrative section and the Baron’s private apartments, was seldom visited by those of low rank, such as servants – or castle wards. The room was huge. The ceiling seemed to tower above him and the walls were constructed of massive stone blocks, fitted together with only the barest lines of mortar between them. On the eastern wall was a huge window space—open to the elements but with massive wooden shutters that could be closed in the event of bad weather. It was the same window he had seen through last night, he realized. Today, sunlight streamed in and fell on the huge oak table that Baron Arald used as a desk.

“Come on now! Stand in line, stand in line!” Martin seemed to be enjoying his moment of authority. The group shuffled slowly into line and he studied them, his mouth twisted in disapproval. “In size place! Tallest this end!”

He indicated where he wanted the them to stand, and gradually the group rearranged itself. Horace, of course, was the tallest. After him, Alyss took her position. Then George, half a head shorter than she and painfully thin. He stood in his usual stoop-shouldered posture, tugging down his sleeves but the brown of his wrists still slipping through. Will and Jenny hesitated. Jenny smiled at Will and gestured for him to go before her, even though she was slightly taller than he was. That was typical of Jenny. She knew how Will agonized over the fact that he was the smallest of all the castle wards.

As Will moved into the line, Martin’s voice stopped him. “Not you! The girl’s next.”

Jenny shrugged apologetically and moved into the place Martin had indicated. Will took the last place in the line, wishing Martin hadn’t made his lack of height so apparent.

“Come on! Smarten up, smarten up! Let’s see you at attention there,” Martin continued, then broke off as a deep voice interrupted him.

“I don’t believe that’s totally necessary, Martin.” It was Baron Arald, who had entered, unobserved, by way of a smaller door behind his massive desk. Now it was Martin who brought himself to what he considered to be a position of attention, with his elbows held out from his sides, his heels forced together so that his unmistakably bowed legs were widely separated at the knees, and his head thrown back. Baron Arald raised his eyes to the heavens. Sometimes his secretary’s zeal on these occasions could be a little overwhelming.

The Baron was a big man, broad in shoulder and waist and heavily muscled, as was necessary for a knight of the realm. It was well known, however, that Baron Arald was fond of his food and drink, so his considerable bulk was not totally attributable to muscle. He had a short, neatly trimmed black beard that, like his hair, was beginning to show the traces of gray that went with his forty-two years. He had a strong jaw, a large nose and dark, piercing eyes under heavy brows. It was a powerful face, but not an unkind one, Will thought. There was a surprising hint of humor in those dark eyes. Will had noted it before, on the occasions when Arald had made his infrequent visits to the wards’ quarters to see how their lessons and personal development were progressing.

“Sir!” Martin said at top volume, causing the Baron to wince slightly. “The candidates are assembled!”

“I can see that,” Baron Arald replied patiently. “Perhaps you might be good enough to ask the Craftmasters to step in as well?”

“Sir!” Martin responded, making an attempt to click his heels to­gether. As he was wearing shoes of a soft, pliable leather, the attempt was doomed to failure. He marched toward the main door of the study, all elbows and knees. Will was reminded of a rooster.

As Martin laid his hand on the door handle, the Baron stopped him once more. “Martin?” he said softly.  As the secretary turned an inquiring look back at him, he continued in the same quiet tone, “Ask them. Don’t bellow at them. Craftmasters don’t like that.”

“Yes, sir,” said Martin, looking somewhat deflated. He opened the door and, making an obvious effort to speak in a lower tone, said, “Craftmasters. The Baron is ready now.”

The Craftschool heads entered the room in no particular order of precedence. As a group, they admired and respected one another and so rarely stood on strict ceremonial procedure. Sir Rodney, head of the Battleschool, came first. Tall and broad-shouldered like the Baron, he wore the standard battledress of chain mail shirt under a white surcoat emblazoned with his own crest, a scarlet wolfshead. He had earned that crest as a young man, fighting the wolfships of the Skandian sea raiders who constantly harried the kingdom’s east coast. He wore a sword belt and sword, of course. No knight would be seen in public without one. He was around the Baron’s age, with bright eyes and a face that would have been remarkably handsome if it weren’t for the massively broken nose. He sported an enormous mustache but, unlike the Baron, he had no beard.

Next came Ulf, the Horsemaster, responsible for the care and training of the castle’s mighty battlehorses. He had keen brown eyes and skin, strong, muscular forearms and heavy wrists. He wore a simple leather vest over his woolen shirt and leggings. Tall riding boots of soft leather reached up past his knees.

Lady Pauline followed Ulf. Calm, silver-haired and elegant, she had been a formidable agent in her youth, and now even more so. Lady Pauline, who had been awarded the title on her own merits, not by her birth, for her foreign policy work for the kingdom, was head of the Diplomatic Service in Redmont. Baron Arald regarded her abilities highly and she was one of his close confidants and advisers.

It was perhaps only natural that Nigel, the Scribemaster, followed close behind Lady Pauline. They had been discussing matters of mutual interest while they waited for Martin to summon them. Nigel and Lady Pauline were close friends as well as professional colleagues. It was Nigel’s trained scribes who prepared the official documents and communiqués that were so often delivered by Lady Pauline’s diplomats. He also advised on the exact wording of such documents, having an extensive background in legal matters. Nigel was a small, wiry man with a quick, inquisitive face that reminded Will of a ferret. His hair was glossy black, his features were thin and golden and his dark eyes never ceased roaming the room.

Master Chubb, the castle cook, came in last of all. Inevitably, he was a white-aproned, round-bellied man. He was known to have a terrible temper that could flare as quickly as oil spilled on a fire, and most of the wards treated him with considerable caution. Florid-faced and with red, rapidly receding hair, Master Chubb carried a wooden ladle with him wherever he went. It was an unofficial staff of office. It was also used quite often as an offensive weapon, landing with a resounding crack on the heads of careless, disrespectful or slow-moving kitchen apprentices. Alone among the group, Jenny saw Chubb as something of a hero. It was her avowed intention to work for him and learn his skills, wooden ladle or no wooden ladle.

There were other Craftmasters, of course. The Armorer and the Blacksmith were two. But only those Craftmasters who currently had vacancies for new apprentices would be represented today.

“The Craftmasters are assembled, sir!” Martin said, his voice rising in volume. Martin seemed to equate volume and the importance of the occasion in direct proportion. Once again, the Baron raised his eyes to the heavens.

“So I see,” he said quietly, then added, in a more formal tone, “Good morning, Lady Pauline. Good morning, gentlemen.” They replied and the Baron turned to Martin once more. “Perhaps we might proceed?”

Martin nodded several times, consulted a sheaf of notes he held in one hand and marched to confront the line of candidates. “Right, the Baron’s waiting! The Baron’s waiting! Who’s first?”

Will, eyes down, shifting nervously from one foot to the other, suddenly had the sensation that someone was watching him. He looked up, and actually jumped with surprise as his eyes met the dark, fathomless gaze of the Ranger, Halt. Will hadn’t seen him come into the room. He realized that the mysterious figure must have slipped in through a side door while everyone’s attention was on the Craftmasters as they made their entrance. Now he stood behind the Baron’s chair and slightly to one side, dressed in his usual brown and green clothes and wrapped in his long, shifting grey and green Ranger’s cloak.

Halt was an unnerving person. He had a habit of coming up on you when you least expected it – and you never heard his approach. The towsfolk believed that Rangers practiced a form of magic that, among other applications, made them invisible to the ordinary people. Will wasn’t sure if he believed that—but he wasn’t sure he disbelieved it either. He wondered why Halt was here today. He wasn’t recognized as one of the Craftmasters and, as far as Will knew, he hadn’t attended a Choosing session prior to this one.

Abruptly, Halt’s gaze cut away from him, and it was as if a bright lamp had been extinguished. Will realized that Martin was talking once more. He noticed that the secretary had a habit of repeating statements, as if he were followed by his own personal echo. “Now then, who’s first? Who’s first?”

This time, the Baron sighed audibly. “Why don’t we take the first in line?” he suggested, his tone reasonable, and Martin nodded several times.

“Of course, my lord. Of course. First in line, step forward and face the Baron.” After a moment’s hesitation, Horace stepped forward out of the line and stood at attention. The Baron studied him for a few seconds.

“Name?” he said, and Horace answered, stumbling slightly over the correct method of address for the Baron.

“Horace Altman, sir . . . my lord.”

“And do you have a preference, Horace?” the Baron asked, with the air of one who knows what the answer is going to be before they hear it.

“Battleschool, sir!” Horace said firmly. The Baron nodded. He’d expected as much. He glanced at Rodney, who was studying the boy thoughtfully, assessing his suitability.

“Battlemaster?” the Baron said. Normally he would address Rodney by his first name, not his title, but this was a formal occasion. By the same token, Rodney would usually address the Baron as “sir,” or “Arald” when not in public. But on a day like today, “my lord” was the proper form. The big knight stepped forward, his chain mail chinking slightly as he moved closer to Horace. He eyed the boy up and down, then circled behind him. Horace’s head started to turn with him.

“Still,” Sir Rodney said, and the boy ceased his movement, staring straight ahead. “Looks strong enough, my lord, and I can always use new trainees.” He rubbed one hand over his chin. “You ride, Horace Altman?”

A look of uncertainty crossed Horace’s face as he realized this might be a hurdle to his selection. “Well . . . no, sir. I . . .” He was about to add that castle wards had little chance to learn to ride, but Sir Rodney interrupted him, crossing back to the front of the room.

“No matter. That can be taught.” Looking to the Baron at his side, he nodded. “Very well, my lord. I’ll take him for Battleschool, subject to the usual three-month probationary period.”

The Baron made a note on a sheet of paper before him and smiled briefly at the relieved, and ecstatic, youth before him. “Congratulations, Horace. Report to Battleschool tomorrow morning. Eight o’clock sharp.”

“Yes, sir!” Horace replied, grinning widely. He turned to Sir Rodney and bowed. “Thank you, sir!”

“Don’t thank me yet,” he replied cryptically. “You don’t know what you’re in for.”

Chapter Text

“Who’s next then?” Martin was calling as Horace, grinning broadly, stepped back into the line.

Alyss stepped forward gracefully, annoying Martin, who had wanted to nominate her as the next candidate. “Alyss Mainwaring, my lord,” she said in her quiet, level voice. Then, before she could be asked, she continued, “I request an appointment to the Diplomatic Service, please, my lord.”

Arald smiled at the solemn-looking girl. She had an air of self-confidence and poise that would suit her well in the Service. He glanced at Lady Pauline.

“My lady?” he said. She nodded her head several times. “I’ve already spoken to Alyss, my lord. I believe she will be an excellent candidate. Approved and accepted.” Alyss dipped her head in the direction of the woman who would be her mentor. Will thought how alike they were—both tall and low-voiced, both grave in manner. He felt a small surge of pleasure for his oldest agemate, knowing how much she had wanted this selection.

Alyss stepped back in line and Martin, not to be forestalled this time, was already pointing to George. “Right! You’re next! You’re next! Address the Baron.” George stepped forward. His mouth opened and closed several times, but nothing came out. The other wards watched in surprise. George, long regarded by them all as the unofficial advocate for just about everything, was overcome with stage fright. He finally managed to say something in a low voice that nobody in the room could hear.

Baron Arald leaned forward, one hand cupped behind his ear. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that,” he said. George looked up at the Baron and, with an enormous effort, spoke in a just-audible voice. “G-George Carter, sir. Scribeschool, sir.” Martin, ever a stickler for the proprieties, drew breath to berate him for the truncated nature of his address. Before he could do so, and to everyone’s evident relief, Baron Arald stepped in.

“Very well, Martin. Let it go.” Martin looked a little aggrieved, but subsided. The Baron glanced at Nigel, his chief scribe and legal officer, one eyebrow raised in question.

“Acceptable, my lord,” he said, adding, “I’ve seen some of George’s work and he really does have a gift for calligraphy.”

The Baron looked doubtful. “He’s not the most forceful of speakers, though, is he, Scribemaster? That could be a problem if he has to offer legal counsel at any time in the future.”

Nigel shrugged the objection aside. “I promise you, my lord, with proper training that sort of thing represents no problem. Absolutely no problem at all, my lord.” The Scribemaster folded his hands together into the wide sleeves of habit he wore – rather in the style of the monks of the New Gods – as he warmed to his theme. “I remember a boy who joined us some seven years back, rather like this one here, as a matter of fact. He had that same habit of mumbling to his shoes—but we soon showed him how to overcome it. Some of our most reluctant speakers have gone on to develop absolute eloquence, my lord, absolute eloquence.” The Baron drew breath to comment, but Nigel continued in his discourse. “It may even surprise you to hear that as a boy, I myself suffered from a most terrible nervous stutter. Absolutely terrible, my lord. Could barely put two words together at a time.”

“Hardly a problem now, I see,” the Baron managed to put in dryly, and Nigel smiled, taking the point. He bowed to the Baron. “Exactly, my lord. We’ll soon help young George overcome his shyness. Nothing like the rough and tumble of Scribeschool for that. Absolutely.”

The Baron smiled in spite of himself. The Scribeschool was a studious place where voices were rarely, if ever, raised and where logical, reasoned debate reigned supreme. Personally, on his visits to the place, he had found it mind-numbing in the extreme. Anything less like a rough and tumble atmosphere was something he could not imagine. “I’ll take your word for it,” he replied, then to George he said, “Very well, George, request granted. Report to Scribeschool tomorrow.”
George shuffled his feet awkwardly. “Mumble-mumble-mumble,” he said and the Baron leaned forward again, frowning as he tried to make out the low-pitched words.

“What was that?” he asked.

George finally looked up and managed to whisper “thank you, my lord.” He hurriedly shuffled back to the relative anonymity of the line.

“Oh,” said the Baron, a little taken aback. “Think nothing of it. Now, next is. . .”

Jenny was already stepping forward. Keen-eyed and on the short side, she was also possessed of a seemingly innate warmth that she extended to wards and castle staff alike. “Master Chubb, sir!” she said now, stepping forward right to the edge of the Baron’s desk. The Baron looked into the round face, saw the eagerness shining there, and couldn’t help smiling at her.

“What about him?” he asked gently. She hesitated, realizing that, in her enthusiasm, she had breached the protocol of the Choosing.

“Oh! Your pardon, sir . . . my . . . Baron . . . your lordship,” she hastily improvised, her tongue running away with her as she mangled the correct form of address.

“My lord!” Martin prompted her.

Baron Arald looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Yes, Martin?” he said. “What is it?”

Martin had the grace to look embarrassed. He knew that his master was intentionally misunderstanding his interruption, as he was often wont to do, this time as a way of reassuring the young ward. He took a deep breath, and said in an apologetic tone, “I . . . simply wanted to inform you that the candidate’s name is Jennifer Dalby, sir.”

The Baron nodded at him, and Martin, his devoted servant, was gladdened by the look of approval in his lord’s eyes. “Thank you, Martin. Now, Jennifer Dalby . . .”

“Jenny, sir,” she said, irrepressible as always, and he shrugged in resignation.

“Jenny, then. I assume that you are applying to be apprenticed to Master Chubb?”

“Oh, yes, please, sir!” Jenny replied, turning earnestly to the Cook.

Chubb scowled thoughtfully and considered her. “Mmmmm . . . could be, could be,” he muttered, walking back and forth in front of her.

“I’d work hard, sir,” she told him earnestly.

“I know you would!” he replied with some spirit. “I’d make sure of it, girl. No slacking or lollygagging in my kitchen, let me tell you.”

Fearing that her opportunity might be slipping away, Jenny played her trump card. “I have the right shape for it,” she said.  Arald, not for the first time that morning, hid a smile.

“She has a point there, Chubb,” he put in, and Chubb turned to him in agreement.

“Shape is important, sir. All great cooks tend to be rounded.” He turned back to the girl, still considering. It was all very well for the others to accept their trainees in the wink of an eye, he thought. But cooking was something special. “Tell me,” he said to her, “what would you do with a turkey pie?”

Jenny smiled dazzlingly, and answered immediately. “Eat it.”

Chubb rapped her on the head with the ladle he carried; it bounced harmlessly off her gathered curls. “I meant what would you do about cooking it?”

Jenny hesitated, gathered her thoughts, then plunged into a lengthy technical description of how she would go about constructing such a dish. The other four wards, the Baron, his Craftmasters and Martin listened in some awe, with absolutely no comprehension of what she was saying.

Chubb, however, nodded several times as she spoke, interrupting as she detailed the rolling of the pastry. “Nine times, you say?” he said curiously and Jenny nodded, sure of her ground.

“My mother always said: ‘Eight times to make it flaky and once more for love’,” she said. Chubb nodded thoughtfully.

“Interesting. Interesting,” he said, then, looking up at the Baron, he nodded. “I’ll take her, my lord.”

“What a surprise,” the Baron said mildly, then added, “very well, report to the kitchens in the morning, Jennifer.”

“Jenny, sir,” she corrected him again, her joy lighting up the office like she were a sunbeam come to life.

Baron Arald smiled, then he glanced at the small group before him. “And that leaves us with one more candidate.” He glanced at his list, then looked up to meet Will’s agonized gaze, gesturing encouragement. Will stepped forward, nervousness suddenly drying his throat so that his voice came out in barely a whisper.

“Will, sir. My name is Will.”