Chapter 1

      Table of the Hours
      Matins (sunrise)
      Prime (the first hour of day)
      Terce (the third hour of day)
      Sext (the sixth hour of day)
      None (the ninth hour of day)
      Vespers (sunset)
      Compline (upon retiring)
      Vigils (during the night)

Day 1 : Sext

            "Let them in, Galloway," Baron Theodolf said.
            Normally I'd have nodded in obedience, but formality seemed improper while tense frowns stiffened the baron's face. I took a deep breath, seized the iron ring, and pulled open the heavy door.
            "Baron Theodolf will see you," I announced to the antechamber.
            Like diseased blood oozing across our floor, the emissaries entered. They glanced at the room; the polished woodwork of Baron Theodolf's study gleamed amid numerous candles in wall sconces and on ornate stands, the thick gold curtains sashed back from the bright, iron-barred window. Sunlight illuminated a great table littered with scrolls, quills, and ink bottles atop an ancient map drawn shortly after Aveleck succeeded from Brioenth. Shelves, pressed against the stone walls, displayed books, scrolls, and trophies of ages past. Other maps hung on the only wall not decorated with the finest swords in our barony.
            As I started to close the door, one emissary spoke.
            "We requested to talk in private!"
            Baron Theodolf's steely brown eyes flickered toward me, then back to the strangers.
            "This is as alone as I get when meeting emissaries of Queen Nettiel," Baron Theodolf replied, and I almost smiled, but I clenched my teeth tightly and forced myself to frown.
            Our door closed with a boom!, sealing the five of us inside. I wished my father was with us, instead of furiously pacing about our room. His unpredictable tirades, evidencing approaching senility, had banned him from meeting with our enemies, and he was wroth about it. I was honored to take his place, yet on my first day I stood nervous, twitchy, relying only upon the wisdom he'd taught me:

Looking calm makes
being nervous easier.

            Stalwart, Uncle Osric stood beside the baron. Their kinship was obvious; matching long, thick beards, brown but age-flecked with red and gold. Although three years older, Baron Theodolf was Uncle Osric's nephew, sired by Baron Theodolf's grandfather's last, aged indiscretion with a young maid-servant. Both appeared sturdy, portly with age, with squat, wide noses, and overgrown eyebrows that hung like gypsy moss over deep-set umber eyes. Uncle Osric stood half a handspan taller, but their leathery faces seldom showed their brooding, sour expressions. I stood silently near them, a bristling pup beside two snarling boarhounds.
            I furrowed my brow and glowered at the emissaries, lean and richly dressed in furry purple robes trimmed with ermine, and stinking of scented oils. They stood uncannily straight, as if stretched on a rack, with obviously false grins.
            "Your Excellency, this one's just a boy," the shorter of the emissaries said.
            I bristled; no one needed to point out my youth! My anger rose, but I couldn't let it show. I needed some chamomile tea!
            "Galloway's father was my trusted seneschal for decades," Baron Theodolf explained. "I've known Galloway since he was born, and he has my trust."
            I tried not to smile.
            "Very well," said the taller of the two emissaries, and he took a deep breath as if preparing to recite a well-rehearsed speech. "Queen Nettiel sends to Baron Theodolf her fond greetings and most dire warning. Your blasphemous King Hallek has broken the Treaty of Vainob, which clearly states that all lands east of the Vainob River belong to Aveleck as long as the river runs."
            "Beware how you speak of King Hallek," Baron Theodolf interrupted, his deep voice growling. "How has the Treaty of Vainob been violated?"
            "The Vainob River has ceased to run."
            "Impossible!" Uncle Osric scowled.
            "True, I assure you," the taller emissary said.
            "I'll verify that myself," Uncle Osric snarled.
            "By all means, do," the emissary smiled. "Remember that succession of Aveleck from Brioenth concludes when the Vainob River ceases to run. The Holy Church of the Red Order verified its cessation; your kingdom legally reverts to its parent, Brioenth."
            The shorter emissary attempted a wide smile, but quickly resumed his smirk.
            "Queen Nettiel waits to accept your homage," the taller emissary continued. "If you swear fealty to her, and pay her an annual tribute, she'll allow you to keep your lands and barony, and endow you with additional Brioenthian lands, titles, and honors."
            "Otherwise ...?" Uncle Osric demanded.
            "You're aware, I know, of the army Queen Nettiel has raised," the taller emissary warned. "It's said to be the largest force ever gathered."
            "Are you threatening me?" Baron Theodolf growled.
            "Certainly not," the taller emissary said. "When Queen Nettiel's army arrives, should you welcome them, and provide them with comfort and supplies, I'm promising you great reward."
            "You dare ask Theodolf, Baron of Blecily, to betray Hallek, King of Aveleck?" Uncle Osric shouted.
            "According to the Treaty of Vainob, Aveleck is no longer a kingdom. Hallek is no longer a king. Great Queen Nettiel is your rightful liege now; it's your feudal duty to acknowledge her claim."
            "Until I've proof that the Vainob River has ceased to flow, which I greatly doubt, your words are but the prattlings of fools," Baron Theodolf said. "Tell Queen Nettiel that, should I choose to reply, I'll send my own messengers. Now get out of my sight ... before I have you thrown from my castle!"
            Insulted, but pretending courtesy, both emissaries bowed deeply with forced smiles, and then swept from our presence. I didn't dare open the door; I suspected that Baron Theodolf wouldn't tolerate any more courtesy toward them, even if they did bear a royal messenger's badge.
            "What a joke!" Uncle Osric exclaimed as soon as the door was closed. "Vainob cease ...? Whole fleets sail up that river!"
            "Quiet!" Baron Theodolf whispered. "They're not out of hearing yet."
            Uncle Osric snorted disgustedly. Baron Theodolf turned to me.
            "Galloway, write a report of this and send it to King Hallek with our fastest messengers," Baron Theodolf said. "Make sure they're armed, and send guards with them as far as Clemondcy."
            "Do you wish to see the message before I send it?" I asked.
            Baron Theodolf looked surprised, then sighed.
            "Yes," he said. "You're not your father yet."
            I silently kicked myself before I made it out into the hallway. Father wouldn't have asked Baron Theodolf to proofread his message; I shouldn't have. Then again, I didn't want my first letter to the king to be other than what the baron wanted. Not asking would've been worse, if I'd miswritten the message.
            I needed tea! Or, as Gregory would suggest, strong drink!
            I drank little alcohol. As Father had taught me:

Liquor is a fool's drink,
afterwards if not before.

            Father drank mostly chamomile tea which had been boiled hard and left to cool. Sometimes he put other spices in it, but usually he just drank it plain, as hot as he could stand. Chamomile is very soothing, and I needed calmness.

A clear mind solves
problems best.

            "What happened ...?"
            Diana blocked my way as I reached the top of the stairs.
            'Not on my first day ...!' I thought.
            "Queen Nettiel wants your father's fealty," I answered with a deferential bow.
            "Is she invading for certain?" Diana asked, pushing her thick chestnut hair back over her shoulders.
            I tried not to look directly at her, hopeful that she wouldn't notice the admiration in my eyes. Diana's oval face, perfect skin, and lapis eyes under heavy lids were dangerous to comment upon: the last fool who'd called her 'beautiful' had a heavy chair thrown at him, and afterwards required several ugly stitches.
            "Her emissaries said that her troops would arrive here soon," I answered.
            "What did my father say?"
            "He sent them away unanswered. Please excuse me; your father wants a message written to the king."
            "I'll take it." Diana said.
            "Your father wouldn't allow ..."
            "Your opinion has no authority!" Diana shouted at me.
            "Fine," I said respectfully. "I'm to show the letter to your father before I send it; you can get it from him."
            I glanced up, my challenge indisputable. Diana fumed in silence, staring daggers into my unblinking eyes.
            "Doesn't trust you to write it, does he?" she quipped, and she stormed past me and stomped down the stairs.
            Insufferable, I thought with a sigh, yet my eyes lingered on her graceful, fleeing form. Then I headed for the scribe's room. I was born low, and even a chief seneschal was still a servant; Diana would never consider me worthy.

            I reread my message carefully, making sure that I'd copied King Hallek's titles correctly from an old scroll that father had written. I still didn't like it, but Baron Theodolf was waiting, so I sprinkled some resin powder over it to dry the wet ink, and held it open as I went in search of the baron.

            "Fine, fine," Baron Theodolf said after reading it. "A little formal, but ... that never hurts. Send it at once."
            "Yes, Your Excellency," I said. "Could ... could you summon your daughter?"
            "Which one?"
            "So she doesn't try to take the message herself ..."
            Theodolf's brows knit. "Diana!"
            Uncle Osric opened the door to the baron's study. With him stood Sir Theodal and Sir Theof, Diana's elder brothers, and several knightly retainers, all armed and wearing cloaks.
            "Theodal will take the message," Uncle Osric said, and I rolled up the scroll and handed it to Theodal. He snatched it from my hand contemptuously, without looking at me.
            I ignored his snub. Knighthood comes with an intrinsic conceit: knights are often called upon to lay down their lives ... and they seldom failed to do so. Knights felt this distinction justified haughty pride. A knight would be snubbed by his peers if he didn't show arrogance at every opportunity, and as Baron Theodolf's eldest son, Theodal was heir to his father's throne. Someday I'd have to swear loyalty to Sir Theodal; I wasn't looking forward to that day.

If you believe that someone is a pig
then don't be surprised
when they act like one.

            "Galloway, there's trouble in the kitchen!"
            Halfway up the stairs, Jacen, my favorite of the young pages, shouted down toward me.
            "Coming," I said, glad for the distraction.
            Trouble in the kitchen: this I understood; a normal seneschal's job. Few people understood what it meant to be a seneschal: we ran the master's household. Father was an expert baronial seneschal, resolving minor disputes, ordering which fields should be planted and which should lie fallow, and where the shepherds should graze the sheep. Dinners wouldn't have been served, horses fed, or firewood stacked beside each fireplace, and we'd never have had enough linens, candles, or blank scrolls; without Father, Castle Horcrust would've fallen to ruin.
            Now I was seneschal ... and I was only seventeen years old.
            The cook's booming, angry shouts filled my ears before I entered the kitchen. Three granite fireplaces, one so tall you could stand inside it, dominated the kitchen, before which Fruston cursed and waved his heavy iron ladle threateningly. I scanned the room, looking for the source of his ire; six stout wooden tables, barrels of flour and dried grains, large racks of spice jars, and well-scrubbed pots hung from iron hooks upon the high walls. Large washbasins filled the far side, although hidden from my sight by the elderly kitchen-maids, standing stock-still, looking up at the tall, stacked kegs of ale, beer, and water.
            Gregory was drunk again, straddling the top-most of the stacked kegs, waving his sword in one hand, with a foamy, dripping stein in the other. Fruston stopped cursing as he spied me and shouldered his heavy iron ladle like a soldier's spear. I gave Fruston an equally exasperated frown, and he assumed a stony silence, his thick arms crossed.
            "Get down from there!" I shouted at Gregory.
            "Gallen-way!" Gregory laughed. "Climb on up!"
            "Get down!" I shouted. "Now, or you'll be a shepherd again, just like last winter, I swear it!"
            "Oh, the new lord and master now, are we?" Gregory sneered.
            "Seneschal," I replied. "Come on, Gregory! Please ...?"

Being polite is usually
the fastest way
to get what you want.

            Of Father's many sayings, I hated that one most, but it worked surprisingly often. Gregory frowned, and then grudgingly climbed down, singing nonsense in his snarky off-key falsetto.
            "A little power
            By the hour
            Makes a tyrant
            Sure as dogs pant ..."
            I waited, shaking my head, as Gregory climbed down off the stacked kegs. I liked Gregory; he was my best friend. We even looked alike, although he was two fingers taller and a lot stronger. But Gregory wasn't raised by a wise, aged seneschal; Gregory's father had his sixteenth birthday only a week before Gregory was born, and his mother had still been fourteen. All they did was fight, and the older that Gregory got, the worse they fought. Gregory once got stabbed by a knife intended for his father. Several times he'd been picked up and thrown at his mother. When Gregory was only ten, his father had finally killed his mother during a violent argument, and quickly suffered a hangman's noose. I'll never forget that horrible day; Gregory's father's neck didn't snap; he took nearly half an hour to die, while his only son knelt beneath him and alternated between crying unabashedly and throwing rocks at him.
            "Lost forever
            Come back never
            No prize won
            Having no fun ..."
            "That's enough, Gregory," I said, taking him by the arm. "Come."
            Under the furious glare of Fruston, Gregory offered no resistance, but he stumbled from side to side as I steered him toward the doorway. I struggled to keep him from slamming face-first into the hard doorframe, failed with a loud thump!, and then I pushed him out of the kitchen.

            The only thing that Gregory's father ever taught him to do was drink, and Gregory indulged with legendary expertise. But you can't survive a hellish life without building strong reflexes. Once calmed, Gregory wasn't stupid. He liked me to read to him, as he'd never learned his letters, but Gregory couldn't sit still or pay attention to anything for long. He had a ready mind, but wild, and he jumped topics like a waterbug scampering across a stony creek. I tried to make him share my chamomile tea as often as possible, but only weak tea in small doses; strong chamomile tea quickly put him to sleep.
            I opened a door and pushed Gregory into a nearby storeroom full of buckets and rags, and pulled the door mostly closed behind me.
            "Gregory, what're you trying to do to me?"
            "Just having a little fun ...!"
            "On my first day as seneschal, I don't need you having fun!"
            "Oooohhh, little boy can't handle his big job ...?"
            "Are you purposely embarrassing me?"
            Gregory slurped from his stein, then looked about the storeroom, staring as if curious about mops.
            "Don't you think my job's hard enough?" I asked.
            "Who cares what I think?" Gregory demanded. "Your father says I've never had a real thought ..."
            "I'd never say that," I interrupted him. "Look, we're in trouble ..."
            "Trouble ...?"
            "Bah!" Gregory scoffed. "Queen Nettiel wouldn't dare ...!"
            "Her emissaries just left."
            "What'd they want?"
            "They want Baron Theodolf to support their invasion."
            "He'll never ...!"
            "No, but there's no need to tell them that. He sent them back with no reply."
            "What're we going to do?"
            "Prepare for war."
            "Wow!" Gregory said. "Tough first day!"
            "I need some tea," I said. "You could use some, too."
            "Hemlock's the last thing I need," Gregory said.
            "It's chamomile, not hemlock."
            "Same thing."
            "You'd better go sleep this off ... and not let anyone see you."
            "Why not?"
            "Because you don't want to get left behind."
            "They can't leave me behind! I'm a soldier!"
            "If not for me, you'd still be a shepherd," I reminded him. "If you don't want Baron Theodolf sending you back to the flocks, don't let him see you like this."
            "What about you?" Gregory asked.
            "I'll probably stay here," I said. "Run the castle, send supplies, ..."
            "Left behind?"
            "You won't hear me complain."
            "You're crazy!"
            "Managing this castle's a lot of work."
            "Feeling overwhelmed?"
            "A little."
            "I'll help."
            "By getting drunk?"
            "No, I'll sober up."
            "Good. Look, I've gotta get going; work to do, you know."
            "Good luck."
            "I'll need it."
            I aimed Gregory at his bunk, applied an admonishing push, then headed back to the rich furnishings of Baron Theodolf's study.

            "Where've you been?" Baron Theodolf bellowed as I entered.
            "Um ... sorry, sir. There was a ... problem in the kitchen."
            "Let your father handle it," the baron said. "We're facing a crisis."
            "We need to start fortifying the castle!" Uncle Osric said forcefully.
            "We can't let their army make it here," Baron Theodolf argued. "If King Hallek meets them in the pass, any preparations that we begin here will be a waste."
            "Which pass?" Uncle Osric asked.
            "Murdlong Pass," Baron Theodolf said.
            "What about Sligh Pass?"
            "Sligh Pass is too high and a hundred miles out of their way. Why would they go there?"
            "Because we have a wall at Murdlong Pass," Uncle Osric said. "If they send half their forces through Sligh Pass, then they can attack us from both sides. To hold one pass, we have to hold both."
            "Splitting our forces sounds foolish," Baron Theodolf said. "What do you think, Galloway?"
            Although I knew the borders of our lands by heart, I glanced at the map of Aveleck and Brioenth covering the table.
            "We could post scouts in Sligh Pass," I said. "Defend Murdlong Pass until our scouts spy Brioenthian troops, then draw back to Horcrust. We'd arrive two days before them."
            "Not a bad idea," Uncle Osric said.
            "If Castle Horcrust's besieged, even if we win, we're devastated," Baron Theodolf said. "To keep Queen Nettiel's troops from resupplying, we'll have to torch our crops and slaughter our flocks. We'll have no harvest this year and no flocks next year. King Hallek must defeat Queen Nettiel in Murdlong Pass!"
            "We don't know how big their army is ... or where it is," Uncle Osric said.
            "Then we should find out," I said.
            Both Theodolf and Uncle Osric stared at me.
            "How do you suggest we do that?" Uncle Osric asked.
            "Send spies," I said.
            "Armies watch for spies ...," Baron Theodolf said. "and kill any they find."
            "Send a lot," I said. "Some should get back with enough information to justify any losses."
            "You're sentencing men to die," Uncle Osric said.
            "I know these men," I said. "They'd be willing to go; they want to be heroes."
            "Who ...?" asked Baron Theodolf. "You ... you're not talking about ... the village boys?"
            "They have good eyes, ride fast, and they're brave," I said. "They won't let you down."
            "Like your friend Gregory?" Uncle Osric asked.
            "Gregory just needs a chance."
            "To puke on my feet again?"
            I shot an evil glare at Uncle Osric, but he only chuckled at my expression; Uncle Osric and I had been close since I was a child.
            "Gregory will gladly lead them," I said. "What've you got to lose?"
            "They'll have to leave at once," Baron Theodolf said. "How many boys can you get tonight?"
            "At least nine, maybe a dozen," I said, trying to count in my head.
            "Order them to meet me in the great hall for breakfast tomorrow at dawn," Baron Theodolf said. "We'll give them instructions then."
            "Yes, sir."
            "They'll need horses and rations," Uncle Osric said.
            "I'll see to it."
            "How will they get across the Vainob River?" Baron Theodolf asked.
            "They'll have to swim," I replied, "they and their horses."
            "Well, at least we'll get some information," Uncle Osric said. "Meanwhile, what about fortifications?"
            "We can't plan anything until we know which defense King Hallek prefers," Baron Theodolf said. "Without his troops, we can't withstand Brioenth. What do you think we should do, Galloway?"
            I paused, straining for an answer, the kind that Father would give. Uncle Osric and Baron Theodolf were both war veterans; what could I say that wouldn't sound idiotic?
            "We could ... start ... making supplies, like arrows and spears ... right away," I said hesitantly, "We'll need them ... whether we fight here or in the passes.
            Baron Theodolf nodded, but Uncle Osric bristled.
            "Even with supplies, it'll take us weeks to fortify Horcrust," Uncle Osric argued.
            "True," Baron Theodolf said, "but Paultine is four hundred miles away, across desert and mountains. Armies move slowly; the bulk of their forces'll take two weeks to arrive, while we can march to Murdlong Pass in four days. My sons should be back with King Hallek's response in a fortnight."
            "This is insane," Uncle Osric said. "The Vainob River cease to flow? It's madness!"
            "True," Baron Theodolf said, "but Queen Nettiel's army's real."
            "I'd best get going," I said, "... to alert the scouts."
            "Do that, then hurry back," Baron Theodolf said, "Osric, get the fletchers and smiths started. Double our arsenal. Fell lumber, and tell the smith we need nails."
            Grumbling, Uncle Osric hurried out the door, and I turned to follow him.
            "Galloway," Baron Theodolf called me back.
            "Yes, sir?"
            "Your father will be proud of you," Baron Theodolf said.
            "Thank you, sir."
            I walked out conflicted; compliments are nice, but also a reminder that Baron Theodolf still thought of me as a child. I'd yet to prove myself.

End of Chapter 1