What to do about the boy…
It was early morning, and Kier was late. He sprinted from his room, through the kitchen and out the door before his mother could stop him. He could hear her cries of dismay as he disappeared around the corner but he did not look back. If he was late again Ulfan swore he would turn Kier away. The inn owned by Ulfan was half way across the city, but if the market was still quiet Kier would make it on time. He had worked at the inn for several years now, when it was obvious no school would take him. He was now fifteen years old, and in his young mind he assumed he would work there forever.
Kier lived in the south of the city, in the chaotic housing district known as the maze. With room in the city running out, houses were built on houses, with every bit of space used. Soon he was in the market district, an older and more planned part of the city. The streets widened and the buildings were made of old cut stone.
Tendrils of fog clung to every corner of the road, and Kier tripped as he ran, cursing the uneven stones of the road. As he nursed his swollen ankle. Kier took a moment and looked around him. He had made it half way through the market, and he watched the first early merchants set up their stalls. The market was small, a huddling of several three story buildings looking out on a central courtyard. Soon the entire square would be filled with stalls and hundreds of morning shoppers, but for now it was quiet. Kier stood and tested his ankle carefully. It would hold, but he would pay for it tomorrow. He cursed his ill luck once more before continuing on. As Kier continued, and as he got closer to the centre of the city he saw more and more people starting their day. Kier crossed the border of the market into the section of the city known as the guild quarter, where the most powerful men and women made decisions. As well, it was the home of Ulfan’s Inn, The Black Pony. Kier turned the last corner and could hear Ulfan’s voice rising in anger. Suddenly Kier’s blood ran cold.
Have the heralds already called the day to start? Did I miss it?
He quickened his step and although his ankle felt like it was on fire, he hurried across the road towards the inn.
“Damn this curse-able fog! How can I do business if I canna see?” Shouted Ulfan.
Ulfan was standing outside the door to the inn, flailing his legs wildly at the thick soup of fog that clung to the ground. He was a large barrel-chested man with arms as thick as a blacksmith’s and a head of thinning grey hair. Kier had known him all his life, and he had become the only father figure he had known. The inn was small, the common room comfortably seating a score or so of patrons. Ulfan’s bulk and stern eye was enough to keep even the rowdiest of drinker calm and Kier could not remember ever seeing a fight in the Black Pony. Kier looked on as Ulfan continued to fight against the fog by the door to the inn. Suppressing the urge to laugh as he watched the spectacle, he coughed softly to get Ulfan’s attention. With a start, Ulfan turned around and ceased his attacks.
“Dunna ya know its not good to be sneaking up on a man like that?” Ulfan asked, wiping his hands absently on his apron.
“I’m sorry sir.” Kier responded slowly. “I didn’t want to interrupt you.”
“Well you dunna think about it, ye just get in there and start working. I’ve got nuf to worry bout without you under foot. Now get!”
Ulfan playfully kicked at Kier as he ran into the inn, a wide smile spreading across his gruff features. For a moment the fog was forgotten. Ulfan followed the boy to find a man standing inside. Ulfan studied him for a moment with an innkeeper’s eye and tried to remember where he had seen him before. He was old, perhaps one of the oldest men in the city, but seemed to stand with the strength usually reserved for the young. His face was obscured by a beard of stark white, wisps of it straying from a few small braids. Ulfan followed his gaze to find the stranger was staring at one of the walls of the inn. More specifically, he was staring at one of the larger decorations in the inn: A sculpture of dark iron. Ulfan looked at the sculpture himself a moment, and was suddenly struck that he didn’t know what it was a sculpture of. It was large, heavy enough that it would take three men to carry it if Ulfan ever wanted it moved. It started at the topmost with a small circle wide enough for someone to put a hand through it. The metal extended down from that in a long thick shaft, branching into two arms that curved upwards. At each end of the arms was a wicked looking point. Ulfan was startled as the stranger suddenly spoke to him.
“It is a stunning item. Do you know what it is?” The stranger asked.
Ulfan was about to answer that he did not know when a spark of recognition came to him.
“Well it’s a…” Suddenly, as quickly as it came, the spark was gone, but a shadow of a memory lingered. “I kept it from the Pony when we returned from.. Wait.. Returned from.” Ulfan stopped, the memory gone.
The stranger put his arm on Ulfan’s and smiled softly. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll have some men by later to get it from you. I’m sure you have better things to put up anyways, that old thing is just another piece of metal to rust.” The stranger said, in his soft voice. He placed his hand on Ulfan’s shoulder and added. “Im sure you’ve always wanted to get rid of it.”
Ulfan looked like he was hesitant, but nodded his head slowly in acquiescence. Remembering that the man was still there in front of him, Ulfan straightened his back and smiled his sweetest smile while straightening his apron.
“Me name’s Ulfan good sir. I’m the keeper here at the Pony. What can I get ya?” Ulfan asked.
The stranger let his gaze drop from the sculpture and smiled.
“Pleasure to meet you Master Ulfan. You have a proud inn here. A bowl of tea would be wonderful.” The stranger answered.
Ulfan disappeared into the kitchen to get the tea, and Kier was left standing in the common room with the stranger. He examined him carefully as the stranger found a seat. He was old, that was obvious, but Kier noticed that his motions were fluid and strong. The only real sign of age was the stranger’s long white hair and a collection of wrinkles around his eyes. He sat at one of the many tables in the inn and turned to face Kier.
“Hello son.” The stranger said.
Kier struggled to find his voice, but the stranger’s deep grey eyes seemed to bore into him and he stood there dumb. Although the stranger said nothing, he smiled and continued to wait for an answer.
“Hello sir. Sorry sir.” Kier finally responded.
The stranger smiled again and nodded his head. “No need to apologize son. Always think carefully before speaking, that way you are sure to say the things you should.”
Kier thought about that for a moment and chuckled. The stranger tilted his head slightly.
“Did I say something funny?” He asked.
“No sir.” Kier responded. “Just that most of the nobles that come here talk so much, I’m not sure if they have time to think about what they are saying.”
The stranger lowered his eyes and Kier suddenly realized he might have insulted the stranger. He silently cursed his stupidity and lowered his own eyes. There was an uncomfortable silence, but when he finally looked up he found the stranger laughing softly.
“I am not a noble, young man, and I do agree with you. And now, you see my point exactly. If you think about what you are going to say, then you will always be sure of the result.” The stranger paused as Ulfan re-entered the room bearing a tray laden with a teapot, mugs, and biscuits. When Ulfan had once again disappeared into the kitchen he continued.
“Now, enough of lessons. What is your name son?”
“Kiervalan Telkaror, sir.” Kier said.
“A fine name indeed young Kiervalan. And you work at this inn?” The stranger asked.
“Yes sir I do. May I ask your name sir?”
The stranger poured some of the dark tea into a cup and nodded.
“I am the Master Keeper Kiervalan.” He responded.
Kier couldn’t remember ever hearing about a keeper in the city and was about to ask what the stranger kept, but he was interrupted by another man entering the inn. The newcomer was dressed in a similar robe to the Keeper, but it was a much lighter shade of grey. He had brown hair cut close to his head and was no older then Kier. He rushed to the Keeper’s side and whispered something in his ear. The Keeper nodded slowly and waited until the younger man finished then smiled.
“Very good Jacob very good indeed. Now if you could respond to the prince with this message?”
The Keeper then reached out and touched Jacob’s arm softly and Jacob nodded and quickly departed from the inn. Kier waited until the Keeper turned to face him before speaking.
“Sir, how is he going to give the message if you did not tell him what to say?”
The Keeper tilted his head again, a movement that reminded Kier more and more of an old bird studying a prospective dinner, and smiled again.
“You have not heard of me then?” he asked.
Kier shook his head but remained silent.
The Keeper nodded. “Do you take any schooling Kiervalan?”
Kier shook his head again, a scarlet red coming to his cheeks. His mother could not get Kier into any of the schools in the city, and it was decided that working for Ulfan was the best and only choice for him.
“Well that is a shame. But alas I must be leaving, come over here and help an old man up.” The Keeper held out his hand and beckoned to Kier.
Kier quickly crossed the room to the Keeper and took his hand to help him stand.
Kier could hear a woman’s screams, then suddenly the sound of a baby crying. He could hear the hushed sounds of people conversing, low and unintelligible. The smell of fresh laundry drying in the morning sun filled the room. An argument over a small boy of limited skills filled his head, then the gruff yet calm voice of Ulfan reassuring him over a broken platter and a day’s worth of baking on the ground.
Then, there was only the wrinkled face of the Keeper and his deep grey eyes watching Kier carefully. A fine sweat had broken over Kier’s forehead, and the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end.
“Are you okay Kiervalan?” The keeper asked.
As quickly as the memories had flooded his mind, they were gone, and Kier was left with a feeling of calm.
“Yes sir, I’m sorry, I must have run here too quickly.” Kier replied.
The Keeper nodded knowingly and chuckled.
“Have a good day Kiervalan. And remember what I taught you today. I’m sure you will remember it, and it will serve you well.”
Kier nodded and watched the Keeper leave. He collected the teapot, cup, and plate and took them back to the kitchen. A song came unbidden to his mind and he found himself softly humming it for the most of the rest of the day. It was a melody his mother used to sing to him years ago, and he had thought he had forgotten it.
* * *
The Keeper strode quickly through the halls of the outer keep. Guards snapped to attention as he passed but he paid them no attention. Crossing one of the hundreds of courtyards he quickly chose the door he required. It had been whispered the league of Keepers had the castle designed to their specifications so only they would be able to navigate it, but the current master of the order did not pay attention to what was whispered in the courts. Crossing two more courtyards identical to the first one, he came to an unmarked door. He paused for a moment then pushed on the heavy wooden door to open it. Inside was a man dressed in a grey robe sitting behind a small wooden desk. He was a small frail man with thinning red hair and a long sharp nose. He looked up as the Keeper entered and nodded silently.
“There is a sculpture at the Inn of the Black Pony. It is to be collected and sent to the forge to be destroyed.”
“Yes sir.” The man responded. He made several notes in a large book and rang a small bell on the desk. Two large men in brown robes entered from a door behind the desk and he handed them a roll of parchment. They silently read the paper and departed. The Keeper watched them leave and turned back to the clerk.
“Durgan has been placed under the Keepers again?” He asked.
The clerk nodded.
“He was having disturbing dreams again, attacked several guards at Sotgat this morning saying he had to leave. The guards brought him here unconscious. We had to cleanse several weeks from him and he has been placed with us until we are sure that he is alright.”
The Keeper nodded and walked by the clerk to the far door. Entering another non descript hallway, he navigated deeper into the building until he came to a narrow spiral staircase. The climb was a long one but he was glad for the chance to be alone for a while, and he was sure that no one would disturb him in the tower. Besides the fact that it was known to the order that the tower was his place to escape to, few had the desire to look out from the tower’s balconies. Reaching the top of the staircase the Keeper found himself in a small antechamber with a high roof. The room was circular, taking up the entirety of the top of the tower. Four doors faced each other, and windows took up the space between those. In the centre of the room there was a large circular table of dark wood, and chairs and sofas surrounded it. Crossing the room from the staircase the Keeper opened one of the doors and walked to the edge of the balcony. A soft breeze blew, and he could hear the distant sound of swallows that had taken up residence on the many roofs of the Keepers’ Hall. From where he was standing he could see most of the city as it sprawled to the south. His keen eyesight caught every detail of the roofs and walls. Directly south of the tower he could see the guild district with its neatly ordered buildings and well maintained roads. Beyond that lay the market district, where buildings were less structured, and the roads were narrower. To the south of that and from the east right to the west was the residential district. There, homes seemed to grow out of every available space. Often one home was built upon the roof of another, looking like a giant’s child had thrown down its building blocks in rage. Beyond the collection of homes and hostels was the city wall. He knew that this was one of the only vantage points that could see the top of the walls and what lay beyond. The wall was high, and topped with a large causeway wide enough for twenty men to walk abreast. It was empty now, as it usually was, for nothing lay beyond it. Few could look out from the wall without a feeling of unease and scan the horizon of grey cloud and sky without feeling completely isolated. That is what Daer’Kalon was, isolated. It was the only land in a sea of abyss that no one would put a name to. The city took up every bit of space it could, and the wall surrounded that, as if to hold the entire populace in fear of them falling off its solid surface into nothing.
“You seem to be looking for something Master Keeper.” A voice interrupted.
The last words were sharp, as if the speaker spoke them with distain. The Master Keeper recognized the voice immediately but hesitated turning around to face the speaker.
“I see all that I would look for young prince.” He finally replied, letting his voice carry as little emotion as possible.
“You may not look, but I do. I am always looking.” The Master Keeper heard the prince stand and walk over to the railing where he stood. When he was sure there was no hope the prince would leave he turned and bowed as low as protocol dictated, but no lower.
“And what would you be looking for prince Verin?” He asked.
“Anything. My learned men say they can make me a glass I can use to see farther then any man or beast. From this tower I could look past all this, perhaps there are other places beside this city.”
The Keeper paused, thinking of several replies before choosing the best suited one.
“Your, learned men, as you call them would do well to look through the map room. They will find that there is nothing else to see. If there was, we would know about it.” He turned and faced the prince.
Verin was dressed in his usual finery, a collection of blue silks that were impossibly expensive, and a rapier sheathed at his side. He was young, twenty years old by the Keeper’s memory. His features would have been described as bold and handsome, if not for the callous sneer, and brightness in his eyes that went beyond intelligence into realms the Keeper cared to not speculate.
“We do not know about everything. Even the precious Keepers don’t know everything.” The prince responded with a snarl.
The prince leaned over the side and the Keeper dismissed thoughts of what would happen if the prince were to slip, though he tucked a few of them into his memory to ponder when he was alone once again.
“I want to go to the west cordon of the city with the builders.” The prince stated. Standing again to look the Keeper in the eyes.
“You know the west cordon is restricted to all by order of your father. Even you cannot disobey his word.”
The Keeper immediately regretted the words as they left his lips and he watched the blood rise in the prince’s face.
“How dare you speak to me of what I can and cannot do!” The prince bellowed. His hand had moved to the hilt of his rapier and he seemed as if to draw it before calming suddenly and turning to face the city.
“My father is not well I hear. My brother sees him of course, but I do not. Do you know why?”
The question was a trick and the Keeper saw it. It was a well known yet never spoken truth that the prince and his father would not speak to each other. The king had gone so far as to forbid the prince from entering his quarters. Only the two of them knew for sure what had happened between them to create such a rift, and even the Keeper did not ask.
“I do not know my prince.”
There was a pause, and the Keeper smiled as he realized he had not only evaded the trap, but had sprung one of his own.
“I do not like to see my father ill. I will remember him as a strong man. Not as a doddering old fool.” He paused before continuing, “When the crown is mine, I shall have to see what is in the western cordon that is so dangerous that we are not allowed to build there. Our people continue to grow, and we are hard pressed to find places for their beds. Perhaps we can turn over Keeper Hall to them for a roost. If your esteemed order cannot find solutions to the simple problems that plague us, then perhaps honest people would better use the space you covet.”
With that, the prince turned on his heels and re-entered the tower. The Keeper listened to the sound of the prince’s boots striking each stair as he descended before looking out on the city once more. He glanced briefly to the west, in the direction of the western Cordon. The wall was as high there as it was all over the city, but there was a gate there. It was, and always had been off limits to anyone.
“We shall have to do something about that young upstart. He will bring darkness to this little point of light we have created.” He whispered to himself.
The Keeper stood on the tower’s balcony until the sun faded over the horizon and the city went dark. He watched the procession of lanterns weave through the streets as the Night watch patrolled, and listened to the final songs of the swallows before he too, turned and descended the tower steps to find his bed.