Frances EvlinI sat cross-legged on the dirt floor of my father's hut, my journal upon my lap, and began my entry.
This morn, I wrote with trembling hand, I buried my mother and father. As their son and only heir, it was my responsibility to dig the pits. The village women prepared my parent's bodies, and when the men had lowered them into the ground, I covered them with earth. While Emory led the Solith in their mumbled prayers to Juven Dro for my father, I silently asked Beormeh to assign my mother a seat of honor in the SpritKin Hall Eterne.
A shadow fell across my page. I stopped writing and looked up. Still wearing his red wool ceremonial robe, Emory stooped to enter through the open doorway. Large framed and fair, he had been chosen village chieftain because he fit so well the Solith ideal. The coppery haze around his head spoke of repressed hostility and distrust. Mother had said that I must never reveal my ability to read Lights, and so I quelled my angry reaction to his emotions, rose and docilely bent head.
Face impassive, he spoke without preamble, his deep voice rumbling in the small hut. "Gage, son of Allet, it is the Council's decision that you leave Hafton before eventide."
I drew a quick breath. The edict was not unexpected, for one of the Solith villagers had been killed trying to defend my mother. But the urgency of it surprised me. No need to plead for time, to remind him I was half-Solith. I looked SpiritKin, with my tan skin, dark hair and dark eyes. And the Village Council had made their feelings plain enough when they had ordered that my mother be buried outside the cemetery fence.
I would not satisfy Emory with a spoken reply. I called upon my SpiritKin Discipline and willed my legs to stand strong, my heart to beat steadily, my dark gaze to meet his pale one without blinking. I motioned him toward the door.
His Lights flared deep red. "Before eventide, Gage," he snarled, then whirled to duck outside and stride away.
Beyond our stone hut, which sat on the westernmost edge of Hafton, the treeless land sloped away to the sea. Tears dimmed my vision as I looked through the doorway and saw my father's hemp fields. Bracken and heath would soon reclaim them, for the villagers cared not about making paper. They were fishermen, and scavengers of shipwrecks.
I pulled my gaze away from the outside and its spring-sun brightness to look about the hut's dim interior. The big wide-mouthed iron pot holding my mother's paper-moulds would soon enough belong to Emory, to cook mutton and millet on Juven Dro feast days.
Anything else I left behind would go to the family of Cecil. They would not know how to use our tools, but they would sell them to a passing trader. I could not begrudge them that. In fourteen years, they were the only villagers whom my parents and I could call friends. And only Cecil had run to help my mother and father when three hooded grayclad Militants had thundered up on their great strong horses and did their work with flashing blades.
My heart wrenched as I looked at my parents' pallet, which lay against the wall, opposite mine. Never again would I hear their whispered conversations, their nearly-silent couplings, when they thought I lay asleep. They would not laugh and exchange news with old Hollis when he brought us his donkey-cart of rough-cut, blacklead rods from Nighland's eastern shires. Their sure, strong hands would not guide mine as I trimmed the lead and wrapped the twine.
The hut was too quiet, too empty, without them. And although it was the only home I had ever known, I would not mind leaving it.
In a corner stood a bundle of pencyls. Twenty blacklead cylinders, each seven inches long, each wrapped with hemp twine. Strand upon strand, bonded to the blacklead with a binding agent known only to the SpiritKin. Father had asked me to wrap the pencyls before I joined him and my mother, sowing hemp seed in the fields. Had I been with them, I would have died, too.
Hands fisted, jaws clenched, I made a vow. Someday I would find my parents' killers, and I would slay them.
I had only scant descriptions to identify the hooded men. One carried his sword in a black leather scabbard. One had a long scar on his left hand. One wore boots with spurs. If the three rode together again, I would know them.
I looked at the bundle of pencyls. Ordered by Duke Rikard Blaydon, Lord Governor of Westgardshire, they were worth twenty silver full talyers. Surely enough to get me resettled in Truthrun, the SpiritKin hubcity. It was not my mother's home village, but she had lived in Truthrun, and had often corresponded with a woman friend who lived there. Besides, I must find somewhere to stay until I could reconcile myself to being alone, and make plans for the future. Truthrun was as good a place as any.
Sick with despair, I set about filling the leather pack my mother had made. I could take only what food and clothing I could carry, and of course my journal and my pencyls, along with those for Duke Blaydon. I fastened my father's dagger in its sheath at my belt, and took his three spears. No match for Militant swords, but the only weapons I had. I left at mid-day and I did not look back.
I tramped the moorland trails with wary step, ever watchful for three men on horseback, but saw only an occasional Solith cutting peat. Perhaps the grayclads would not strike again; perhaps they did not know I existed.
Neither did I see our Lord Governor's military men searching the moors. Had Duke Blaydon not been informed of the Militants' attack?
It had come without any hint of such trouble brewing. Not like eight years ago, when High Duke Wezlin had seized the throne of our small island nation. At first, he had not sought to prevent the sporadic killing of SpiritKin. But our paper and pencyls, our jewelry, our fine woolen cloth, were too valuable. Nighland's merchants and nobility had pressured Wezlin to stem the actions of the Militants. So, for more than seven years, there had been only isolated incidents of violence against SpiritKin.
I looked up at the sky, spring-fresh blue, with a scatter of thistle-down clouds. Why? I asked Beormeh. Why my mother?
But I received no sign to ease my grief.
At eventide I entered the forest and approached Duke Blaydon's mansion. I had never set foot inside the dwelling, although I had accompanied my father there several times. A handsome gray gelding stood tethered to a post outside the front door. The duke must have a guest, for only a member of the nobility could afford such a fine animal.
Beyond the gardens surrounding the huge quarried-stone building, I glimpsed the stables, the kennels and the poultry pens. Numerous Solith common folk bent to their tasks, but none gave me more than a curious glance.
A cold-eyed guard directed me toward a side entrance, where he ordered me to set spears and pack aside before he'd allow me to enter. Inside, a servant met me, his nose wrinkling with disapproval as his gaze slid over my rough-woven garments, and my long hair tied at my nape. With the duke's bundle of pencyls in hand, I followed the servant down a carpeted hall. He announced me, and I entered a room which would have held my parents' hut five times over.
Only then did I truly understand the villagers' bitter resentment of Westgard's tax levy. The fine wall tapestries, the satin-upholstered furnishings, the thick pile carpet--our labors paid for this. I heard my gentle mother telling me not to judge all nobility by the actions of a few. But indignation left me short-breathed as I pulled my gaze away from the opulence and looked at the heavy-set man who must be the duke's guest.
His Lights shone violet and gray with compassion and sorrow, although his expression revealed neither. I wondered at his emotions. Even if he had heard about my parents' deaths, why would a member of the Solith nobility care?
I turned my attention to Duke Blaydon, a man of middle years, who sat behind a large walnut-wood desk. Although the glow from the room's oil lamps softened his heavy features, his Lights revealed his avarice and arrogance. His sixteen-year old son, Jask, whom I'd seen before only from a distance, lounged in a chair at his father's left.
The boy wore brown velvet, and his dark blond hair was cut in the style of noble-born males--straight across the brow and with the sides and back bobbed at chin level. I had anticipated his contempt, for I looked so obviously his inferior, but the reddish-black haze around his head bespoke a depth of enmity that astonished me.
Curbing my answering hostility, I approached the duke and bowed. "Your Grace. I bring your order of pencyls, crafted by my father, Allet, for the sum of twenty talyers."
The servant had already taken them from me and handed them to the duke, who untied the bundle and examined the pencyls individually. His yellow-green Lights told me he was pleased, but even as I watched, they darkened and took on the deeper hue of duplicity.
"Gage, is it?" he asked.
I nodded. Although the servant had announced me, I was surprised the duke had taken notice of my name.
"I don't remember promising Allet twenty talyers for these," he said, one soft, white hand gesturing toward the leads. "Think they're worth it, Jask?" He chose a pencyl and tossed it to his son.
Jask caught it, looked it over, and tried to run a thumbnail between its wrappings. I had bound them too tightly, too perfectly. With a grunt of irritation, he thrust himself out of the chair, stepped to his father's desk and scribbled a few words on a piece of paper. Even upside down to me, I could read them. "Offer him half."
Rage boiled up within me. Their great hall suffocated me with its wealth. And yet, for all that, father and son did not want to pay for work well done.
"Your Grace," I said, anger over-riding deference, "I will not accept half."
The duke's expression hardened at my insolent words, and the servant sniffed. The surprise in Jask's Lights revealed he had forgotten that SpiritKin teach their children to read and write.
"Stout lad!" said the sturdy nobleman.
Duke Blaydon’s irritation shifted from me to his guest. "Sometimes I wonder where your sympathies lie, Merrestone," the duke growled.
Laughing, my defender waved a broad, ring-bedecked hand. "With the losers, of course. Don't I always back the wrong horses at the Matches?
Upon hearing the nobleman's name, I understood why he'd reacted as he had to my presence. He had known my father, who, before he'd wed my mother, had hunted boar for Earl Merrestone. Father had always spoken well of him.
The earl's tone grew serious as he continued. "And this stripling has lost much. My fishmonger tells me that some Militants killed his parents, as well as a Solith villager, early this morning."
Duke Blaydon regarded me with surprise. "Your parents were killed in that attack?"
I saw no deception in his Lights; he had not known the identities of those who had died. But I saw no concern, either, as he said, "I'm sorry to hear it. Allet was a skilled worker." He leaned back in his chair, tapping one pencyl against the desk's edge. "I've sent out a patrol, but there's little hope of catching the Militants."
Earl Merrestone sighed. "Perhaps this new Containment Decree is for the best. Scattered SpiritKin will be safer from such random blood sport when they get re-settled with the rest of their kind on the Boar's Head."
"I've been lax about beginning the purge," the duke said. "In view of today's incident, though, I'd better implement it."
I had heard nothing of a "Containment Decree" and wondered why the High Duke had ordered it.
Jask's hostile gaze raked me. "These Royalists, at least, won't be hard to identify."
So, a crackdown on Royalist sympathizers. And, I thought bitterly, we SpiritKin were selected because our coloring would make us easy to find. I had never been so aware of my heritage as at that moment, standing before the pale duke in his fine dwelling.
"Your Grace," I said stiffly. "If I may have my twenty full tals, I will be on my way north."
He leaned forward and fingered the pencyls again. "Did your father wrap these, or you?" he asked.
"I did some of them, sir," I replied and knew by his Lights what would be forthcoming.
"I would pay well for Allet's work," he muttered, "but not for yours." He took a bag of coins from a drawer, dumped them upon the desktop, and selected fifteen silvers. Leaning forward, he set the stack of talyers within my reach.
No need to argue that my work was as carefully done as my father's. Duke Blaydon had every right to withhold payment. I swallowed my disappointment, took the coins and put them into my jerkin pocket. Murmuring words of obeisance, I bowed to each of the nobles and left the room.
I tramped the long corridor, collected my pack and spears from the guard and turned my steps toward the estate gates. But although I strode with pretended confidence, my heart shuddered at what might lie ahead for a half-blood, commonborn orphan.