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Old 03-28-2017
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I fell in love with this book years ago, the whole series in fact. It introduced me to characters I got to know and cared for, I found a world I lived and immersed myself in.
I came across this free online edition and thought I'd put it in a thread for anyone who might care to read it. If you do, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did/still do. And of course I called my SPW name after the main character

I hope you enjoy it
Your friend, Pug.
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Chapter one: STORM

The storm had broken.

Pug danced along the edge of the rocks, his feet finding scant purchase as he made his way among the tide pools His dark eyes darted about as he peered into each pool under the cliff face, seeking the spiny creatures driven into the shallows by the recently passed storm. His boyish muscles bunched under his light shirt as he shifted the sack of sandcrawlers, rockclaws, and crabs plucked from this water garden.

The afternoon sun sent sparkles through the sea spray swirling around him, as the west wind blew his sun-streaked brown hair about Pug set his sack down, checked to make sure it was securely tied, then squatted on a clear patch of sand. The sack was not quite full, but Pug relished the extra hour or so that he could relax Megar the cook wouldn’t trouble him about the time as long as the sack was almost full Resting with his back against a large rock, Pug was soon dozing in the sun’s warmth.

A cool wet spray woke him hours later. He opened his eyes with a start, knowing he had stayed much too long. Westward, over the sea, dark thunderheads were forming above the black outline of the Six Sisters, the small islands on the horizon. The roiling, surging clouds, with rain trailing below like some sooty veil, heralded another of the sudden storms common to this part of the coast in early summer To the south, the high bluffs of Sailors Grief reared up against the sky, as waves crashed against the base of that rocky pinnacle. Whitecaps started to form behind the breakers, a sure sign the storm would quickly strike. Pug knew he was in danger, for the storms of summer could drown anyone on the beaches, or if severe enough, on the low ground beyond.

He picked up his sack and started north, toward the castle. As he moved among the pools, he felt the coolness in the wind turn to a deeper, wetter cold. The day began to be broken by a patchwork of shadows as the first clouds passed before the sun, bright colors fading to shades of grey. Out to sea, lightning flashed against the blackness of the clouds, and the distant boom of thunder rode over the noise of the waves.

Pug picked up speed when he came to the first stretch of open beach. The storm was coming in faster than he would have thought possible, driving the rising tide before it. By the time he reached the second stretch of tide pools, there was barely ten feet of dry sand between water’s edge and cliffs.
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Pug hurried as fast as was safe across the rocks, twice nearly catching his foot. As he reached the next expanse of sand, he mistimed his jump from the last rock and landed poorly. He fell to the sand, grasping his ankle. As if waiting for the mishap, the tide surged forward, covering him for a moment. He reached out blindly and felt his sack carried away. Frantically grabbing at it, Pug lunged forward, only to have his ankle fail. He went under, gulping water. He raised his head, sputtering and coughing. He started to stand when a second wave, higher than the last, hit him in the chest, knocking him backward. Pug had grown up playing in the waves and was an experienced swimmer, but the pain of his ankle and the battering of the waves were bringing him to the edge of panic. He fought it off and came up for air as the wave receded. He half swam, half scrambled toward the cliff face, knowing the water would be only inches deep there.

Pug reached the cliffs and leaned against them, keeping as much weight off the injured ankle as possible. He inched along the rock wall, while each wave brought the water higher. When Pug finally reached a place where he could make his way upward, water was swirling at his waist. He had to use all his strength to pull himself up to the path. He lay panting a moment, then started to crawl up the pathway, unwilling to trust his balky ankle on this rocky footing.

The first drops of rain began to fall as he scrambled along, bruising knees and shins on the rocks, until he reached the grassy top of the bluffs. Pug fell forward exhausted, panting from the exertion of the climb. The scattered drops grew into a light but steady rain.

When he had caught his breath, Pug sat up and examined the swollen ankle. It was tender to the touch, but he was reassured when he could move it: it was not broken. He would have to limp the entire way back, but with the threat of drowning on the beach behind him, he felt relatively buoyant.

Pug would be a drenched, chilled wretch when he reached the town. He would have to find a lodging there, for the gates of the castle would be closed for the night, and with his tender ankle he would not attempt to climb the wall behind the stables. Besides, should he wait and slip into the keep the next day, only Megar would have words for him, but if he was caught coming over the wall, Swordmaster Fannon or Horsemaster Algon would surely have a lot worse in store for him than words.

While he rested, the rain took on an insistent quality and the sky darkened as the late-afternoon sun was completely engulfed in storm clouds. His momentary relief was replaced with anger at himself for losing the sack of sandcrawlers. His displeasure doubled when he considered his folly at falling asleep. Had he remained awake, he would have made the return trip unhurriedly, would not have sprained his ankle, and would have had time to explore the streambed above the bluffs for the smooth stones he prized so dearly for slinging. Now there would be no stones, and it would be at least another week before he could return. If Megar didn’t send another boy instead, which was likely now that he was returning empty-handed.

Pug’s attention shifted to the discomfort of sitting in the rain, and he decided it was time to move on. He stood and tested his ankle. It protested such treatment, but he could get along on it. He limped over the grass to where he had left his belongings and picked up his rucksack, staff, and sling. He swore an oath he had heard soldiers at the keep use when he found the rucksack ripped apart and his bread and cheese missing. Raccoons, or possibly sand lizards, he thought. He tossed the now useless sack aside and wondered at his misfortune.

Taking a deep breath, he leaned on his staff as he started across the low rolling hills that divided the bluffs from the road. Stands of small trees were scattered over the landscape, and Pug regretted there wasn’t more substantial shelter nearby, for there was none upon the bluffs. He would be no wetter for trudging to town than for staying under a tree.

The wind picked up, and Pug felt the first cold bite against his wet back. He shivered and hurried his pace as well as he could. The small trees started to bend before the wind, and Pug felt as if a great hand were pushing at his back. Reaching the road, he turned north. He heard the eerie sound of the great forest off to the east, the wind whistling through the branches of the ancient oaks, adding to its already foreboding aspect. The dark glades of the forest were probably no more perilous than the King’s road, but remembered tales of outlaws and other, less human, malefactors stirred the hairs on the boy’s neck.

Cutting across the King’s road, Pug gained a little shelter in the gully that ran alongside it. The wind intensified and rain stung his eyes, bringing tears to already wet cheeks. A gust caught him, and he stumbled off balance for a moment. Water was gathering in the roadside gully, and he had to step carefully to keep from losing his footing in unexpectedly deep puddles.
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For nearly an hour he made his way through the ever growing storm. The road turned northwest, bringing him almost full face into the howling wind. Pug leaned into the wind, his shirt whipping out behind him. He swallowed hard, to force down the choking panic rising within him. He knew he was in danger now, for the storm was gaining in fury far beyond normal for this time of year Great ragged bolts of lightning lit the dark landscape, briefly outlining the trees and road in harsh, brilliant white and opaque black. The dazzling afterimages, black and white reversed, stayed with him for a moment each time, confusing his senses. Enormous thunder peals sounding overhead felt like physical blows. Now his fear of the storm outweighed his fear of imagined brigands and goblins. He decided to walk among the trees near the road, the wind would be lessened somewhat by the boles of the oaks.

As Pug closed upon the forest, a crashing sound brought him to a halt. In the gloom of the storm he could barely make out the form of a black forest boar as it burst out of the undergrowth. The pig tumbled from the brush, lost its footing, then scrambled to its feet a few yards away. Pug could see it clearly as it stood there regarding him, swinging its head from side to side. Two large tusks seemed to glow in the dim light as they dripped rainwater. Fear made its eyes wide, and it pawed at the ground. The forest pigs were bad-tempered at best, but normally avoided humans. This one was panic-stricken by the storm, and Pug knew if it charged he could be badly gored, even killed.

Standing stock-still, Pug made ready to swing his staff, but hoped the pig would return to the woods. The boar’s head raised, testing the boy’s smell on the wind. Its pink eyes seemed to glow as it trembled with indecision. A sound made it turn toward the trees for a moment, then it dropped its head and charged.

Pug swung his staff, bringing it down in a glancing blow to the side of the pig’s head, turning it. The pig slid sideways in the muddy footing, hitting Pug in the legs. He went down as the pig slipped past. Lying on the ground, Pug saw the boar skitter about as it turned to charge again.

Suddenly the pig was upon him, and Pug had no time to stand. He thrust the staff before him in a vain attempt to turn the animal again. The boar dodged the staff and Pug tried to roll away, but a weight fell across his body. Pug covered his face with his hands, keeping his arms close to his chest, expecting to be gored.

After a moment he realized the pig was still. Uncovering his face, he discovered the pig lying across his lower legs, a black-feathered, cloth-yard arrow protruding from its side. Pug looked toward the forest. A man garbed in brown leather was standing near the edge of the trees, quickly wrapping a yeoman’s longbow with an oilcloth cover. Once the valuable weapon was protected from further abuse by the weather, the man crossed to stand over the boy and beast.

He was cloaked and hooded, his face hidden. He knelt next to Pug and shouted over the sound of the wind, “Are you ‘right, boy?” as he lifted the dead boar easily from Pug’s legs. “Bones broken?”

“I don’t think so,” Pug yelled back, taking account of himself. His right side smarted, and his legs felt equally bruised. With his ankle still tender, he was feeling ill-used today, but nothing seemed broken or permanently damaged.

Large, meaty hands lifted him to his feet. “Here,” the man commanded, handing him his staff and the bow. Pug took them while the stranger quickly gutted the boar with a large hunter’s knife. He completed his work and turned to Pug. “Come with me, boy. You had best lodge with my master and me. It’s not far, but we’d best hurry. This storm’ll get worse afore it’s over. Can you walk?”

Taking an unsteady step, Pug nodded. Without a word the man shouldered the pig and took his bow. “Come,” he said, as he turned toward the forest. He set off at a brisk pace, which Pug had to scramble to match.

The forest cut the fury of the storm so little that conversation was impossible. A lightning flash lit the scene for a moment, and Pug caught a glimpse of the man’s face. Pug tried to remember if he had seen the stranger before. He had the look common to the hunters and foresters that lived in the forest of Crydee: large-shouldered, tall, and solidly built. He had dark hair and beard and the raw, weather-beaten appearance of one who spends most of his time outdoors.

For a few fanciful moments the boy wondered if he might be some member of an outlaw band, hiding in the heart of the forest. He gave up the notion, for no outlaw would trouble himself with an obviously penniless keep boy.

Remembering the man had mentioned having a master, Pug suspected he was a franklin, one who lived on the estate of a landholder.

He would be in the holder’s service, but not bound to him as a bondsman. The franklins were freeborn, giving a share of crop or herd in exchange for the use of land. He must be freeborn. No bondsman would be allowed to carry a longbow, for they were much too valuable—and dangerous. Still, Pug couldn’t remember any landholdings in the forest. It was a mystery to the boy, but the toll of the day’s abuses was quickly driving away any curiosity.
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Old 03-29-2017
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After what seemed to be hours, the man walked into a thicket of trees. Pug nearly lost him in the darkness, for the sun had set some time before, taking with it what faint light the storm had allowed. He followed the man more from the sound of his footfalls and an awareness of his presence than from sight. Pug sensed he was on a path through the trees, for his footsteps met no resisting brush or detritus. From where they had been moments before, the path would be difficult to find in the daylight, impossible at night, unless it was already known. Soon they entered a clearing, in the midst of which sat a small stone cottage Light shone through a single window, and smoke rose from the chimney. They crossed the clearing, and Pug wondered at the storm’s relative mildness in this one spot in the forest.

Once before the door, the man stood to one side and said, “You go in, boy. I must dress the pig.”

Nodding dumbly, Pug pushed open the wooden door and stepped in.

“Close that door, boy! You’ll give me a chill and cause me my death.”

Pug jumped to obey, slamming the door harder than he intended.

He turned, taking in the scene before him. The interior of the cottage was a small single room. Against one wall was the fireplace, with a good-size hearth before it. A bright, cheery fire burned, casting a warm glow. Next to the fireplace a table sat, behind which a heavyset, yellow-robed figure rested on a bench. His grey hair and beard nearly covered his entire head, except for a pair of vivid blue eyes that twinkled in the firelight. A long pipe emerged from the beard, producing heroic clouds of pale smoke.

Pug knew the man. “Master Kulgan . . . ,” he began, for the man was the Duke’s magician and adviser, a familiar face around the castle keep.

Kulgan leveled a gaze at Pug, then said in a deep voice, given to rich rolling sounds and powerful tones, “So you know me, then?”

“Yes, sir. From the castle.”

“What is your name, boy from the keep?”

“Pug, Master Kulgan.”

“Now I remember you.” The magician absently waved his hand. “Do not call me ‘Master,’ Pug—though I am rightly called a master of my arts,” he said with a merry crinkling around his eyes. “I am higher-born than you, it is true, but not by much. Come, there is a blanket hanging by the fire, and you are drenched. Hang your clothes to dry, then sit there.” He pointed to a bench opposite him.

Pug did as he was bid, keeping an eye on the magician the entire time. He was a member of the Duke’s court, but still a magician, an object of suspicion, generally held in low esteem by the common folk. If a farmer had a cow calve a monster, or blight strike the crops, villagers were apt to ascribe it to the work of some magician lurking in nearby shadows. In times not too far past they would have stoned Kulgan from Crydee as like as not. His position with the Duke earned him the tolerance of the townsfolk now, but old fears died slowly.

After his garments were hung, Pug sat down. He started when he saw a pair of red eyes regarding him from just beyond the magician’s table. A scaled head rose up above the tabletop and studied the boy.

Kulgan laughed at the boy’s discomfort. “Come, boy. Fantus will not eat you.” He dropped his hand to the head of the creature, who sat next to him on his bench, and rubbed above its eye ridges. It closed its eyes and gave forth a soft crooning sound, not unlike the purring of a cat.

Pug shut his mouth, which had popped open with surprise, then asked, “Is he truly a dragon, sir?”

The magician laughed, a rich, good-natured sound. “Betimes he thinks he is, boy. Fantus is a firedrake, cousin to the dragon, though of smaller stature.” The creature opened one eye and fastened it on the magician “But of equal heart,” Kulgan quickly added, and the drake closed his eye again. Kulgan spoke softly, in conspiratorial tones. “He is very clever, so mind what you say to him. He is a creature of finely fashioned sensibilities.”

Pug nodded that he would. “Can he breathe fire?” he asked, eyes wide with wonder. To any boy of thirteen, even a cousin to a dragon was worthy of awe.

“When the mood suits him, he can belch out a flame or two, though he seems rarely in the mood. I think it is due to the rich diet I supply him with, boy. He has not had to hunt for years, so he is something out of practice in the ways of drakes. In truth, I spoil him shamelessly.”
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Pug found the notion somehow reassuring. If the magician cared enough to spoil this creature, no matter how outlandish, then he seemed somehow more human, less mysterious. Pug studied Fantus, admiring how the fire brought golden highlights to his emerald scales. About the size of a small hound, the drake possessed a long, sinuous neck atop which rested an alligatorlike head. His wings were folded across his back, and two clawed feet extended before him, aimlessly pawing the air, while Kulgan scratched behind bony eye ridges. His long tail swung back and forth, inches above the floor.

The door opened and the big bowman entered, holding a dressed and spitted loin of pork before him. Without a word he crossed to the fireplace and set the meat to cook. Fantus raised his head, using his long neck to good advantage to peek over the table. With a flick of his forked tongue, the drake jumped down and, in stately fashion, ambled over to the hearth. He selected a warm spot before the fire and curled up to doze away the wait before dinner.

The franklin unfastened his cloak and hung it on a peg by the door “Storm will pass afore dawn, I’m thinking.” He returned to the fire and prepared a basting of wine and herbs for the pig. Pug was startled to see a large scar that ran down the left side of the man’s face, showing red and angry in the firelight.

Kulgan waved his pipe in the franklin’s direction. “Knowing my tight-lipped man here, you’ll not have made his proper acquaintance. Meecham, this boy is Pug, from the keep at Castle Crydee.” Meecham gave a brief nod, then returned to tending the roasting loin.

Pug nodded back, though a bit late for Meecham to notice. “I never thought to thank you for saving me from the boar.”

Meecham replied, “There’s no need for thanks, boy. Had I not startled the beast, it’s unlikely it would have charged you.” He left the hearth and crossed over to another part of the room, took some brown dough from a cloth-covered bucket, and started kneading.

“Well, sir,” said Pug to Kulgan, “it was his arrow that killed the pig. It was indeed fortunate that he was following the animal.”

Kulgan laughed. “The poor creature, who is our most welcome guest for dinner, happened to be as much a victim of circumstance as yourself.”

Pug looked perplexed. “I don’t follow, sir.”

Kulgan stood and took down an object from the topmost shelf on his bookcase and placed it on the table before the boy. It was wrapped in a cover of dark blue velvet, so Pug knew at once it must be a prize of great value for such an expensive material to be used for covering Kulgan removed the velvet, revealing an orb of crystal that gleamed in the firelight. Pug gave an ah of pleasure at the beauty of it, for it was without apparent flaw and splendid in its simplicity of form.

Kulgan pointed to the sphere of glass. “This device was fashioned as a gift by Althafain of Carse, a most puissant artificer of magic, who thought me worthy of such a present, as I have done him a favor or two in the past—but that is of little matter. Having just this day returned from the company of Master Althafain, I was testing his token. Look deep into the orb, Pug.”

Pug fixed his eyes on the ball and tried to follow the flicker of firelight that seemed to play deep within its structure. The reflections of the room, multiplied a hundredfold, merged and danced as his eyes tried to fasten upon each aspect within the orb. They flowed and blended, then grew cloudy and obscure. A soft white glow at the center of the ball replaced the red of firelight, and Pug felt his gaze become trapped by its pleasing warmth. Like the warmth of the kitchen at the keep, he thought absently.

Suddenly the milky white within the ball vanished, and Pug could see an image of the kitchen before his eyes. Fat Alfan the cook was making pastries, licking the sweet crumbs from his fingers. This brought the wrath of Megar, the head cook, down upon his head, for Megar considered it a disgusting habit. Pug laughed at the scene, one he had witnessed before many times, and it vanished. Suddenly he felt tired.

Kulgan wrapped the orb in the cloth and put it away. “You did well, boy,” he said thoughtfully. He stood watching the boy for a moment, as if considering something, then sat down. “I would not have suspected you of being able to fashion such a clear image in one try, but you seem to be more than you first appear to be.”

“Sir?”

“Never mind, Pug.” He paused for a moment, then said, “I was using that toy for the first time, judging how far I could send my sight, when I spied you making for the road. From your limp and bruised condition, I judged that you would never reach the town, so I sent Meecham to fetch you.”

Pug looked embarrassed by the unusual attention, color rising to his cheeks. He said, with a thirteen-year-old’s high estimation of his own ability, “You needn’t have done that, sir. I would have reached the town in due time.”

Kulgan smiled. “Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. The storm is unseasonably severe and perilous for traveling.”
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Old 03-30-2017
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Pug listened to the soft tattoo of rain on the roof of the cottage. The storm seemed to have slackened, and Pug doubted the magician’s words. As if reading the boy’s thought, Kulgan said, “Doubt me not, Pug This glade is protected by more than the great boles. Should you pass beyond the circle of oaks that marks the edge of my holding, you would feel the storm’s fury. Meecham, how do you gauge this wind?”


Meecham put down the bread dough he was kneading and thought for a moment. “Near as bad as the storm that beached six ships three years back.” He paused for a moment, as if reconsidering the estimate, then nodded his endorsement. “Yes, nearly as bad, though it won’t blow so long.”

Pug thought back three years to the storm that had blown a Quegan trading fleet bound for Crydee onto the rocks of Sailor’s Grief. At its height, the guards on the castle walls were forced to stay in the towers, lest they be blown down. If this storm was that severe, then Kulgan’s magic was impressive, for outside the cottage it sounded no worse than a spring rain.

Kulgan sat back on the bench, occupied with trying to light his extinguished pipe. As he produced a large cloud of sweet white smoke, Pug’s attention wandered to a case of books standing behind the magician. His lips moved silently as he tried to discern what was written on the bindings, but could not.

Kulgan lifted an eyebrow and said, “So you can read, aye?”

Pug started, alarmed that he might have offended the magician by intruding on his domain. Kulgan, sensing his embarrassment, said, “It is all right, boy. It is no crime to know letters.”

Pug felt his discomfort diminish. “I can read a little, sir. Megar the cook has shown me how to read the tallies on the stores laid away for the kitchen in the cellars. I know some numbers, as well.”

“Numbers, too,” the magician exclaimed good-naturedly. “Well, you are something of a rare bird.” He reached behind himself and pulled out one volume, bound in red-brown leather, from the shelf. He opened it, squinting at one page, then another, and at last found a page that seemed to meet his requirements. He turned the open book around and lay it upon the table before Pug. Kulgan pointed to a page illuminated by a magnificent design of snakes, flowers, and twining vines in a colorful design around a large letter in the upper left corner. “Read this, boy.”

Pug had never seen anything remotely like it. His lessons had been on plain parchment with letters fashioned in Megar’s blunt script, using a charcoal stick. He sat, fascinated by the details of the work, then realized the magician was staring at him. Regaining his wits, he began to read.

“And then there came a sum . . . summons from . . .” He looked at the word, stumbling over the complex combinations that were new to him. “. . . Zacara.” He paused, looking at Kulgan to see if he was correct. The magician nodded for him to continue. “For the north was to be forgot . . . forgotten, lest the heart of the empire Ian . . . languish and all be lost. And though of Bosania from birth, those soldiers still were loyal to Great Kesh in their service. So for her great need, they took up their arms and put on their armor and quit Bosania, taking ship to the south, to save all from destruction.”

Kulgan said, “That’s enough,” and gently closed the cover of the book. “You are well gifted with letters for a keep boy.”

“This book, sir, what is it?” asked Pug, as Kulgan took it from him. “I have never seen anything like it.”

Kulgan looked at Pug for a moment, with a gaze that made him uncomfortable again, then smiled, breaking the tension. As he put the book back, he said, “It is a history of this land, boy. It was given as a gift by the abbot of an Ishapian monastery. It is a translation of a Keshian text, over a hundred years old.”

Pug nodded and said, “It all sounded very strange. What does it tell of?”

Kulgan once more looked at Pug as if trying to see something inside of the boy, then said, “A long time ago, Pug, all these lands, from the Endless Sea across the Grey Tower Mountains to the Bitter Sea, were part of the Empire of Great Kesh. Far to the east existed a small kingdom, on one small island called Rillanon. It grew to engulf its neighboring island kingdoms, and it became the Kingdom of the Isles. Later it expanded again to the mainland, and while it is still the Kingdom of Isles, most of us simply call it ‘the Kingdom.’ We, who live in Crydee, are part of the Kingdom, though we live as far from the capital city of Rillanon as one can and still be within its boundaries.

“Once, many long years ago, the Empire of Great Kesh abandoned these lands, for it was engaged in a long and bloody conflict with its neighbors to the south, the Keshian Confederacy.”
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Pug was caught up in the grandeur of lost empires, but hungry enough to notice Meecham was putting several small loaves of dark bread in hearth oven. He turned his attention back to the magician. “Who were the Keshian Con— . . . ?”


“The Keshian Confederacy,” Kulgan finished for the boy. “It is a group of small nations who had existed as tributaries to Great Kesh for centuries. A dozen years before that book was written, they united against their oppressor. Each alone was insufficient to contest with Great Kesh, but united they proved its match. Too close a match, for the war dragged on year after year. The Empire was forced to strip its northern provinces of their legions and send them south, leaving the north open to the advances of the new, younger Kingdom.

“It was Duke Borric’s grandfather, youngest son of the King, who brought the army westward, extending the Western Realm. Since then all of what was once the old imperial province of Bosania, except for the Free Cities of Natal, has been called the Duchy of Crydee.”

Pug thought for a moment, then said, “I think I would like to travel to this Great Kesh someday.”

Meecham snorted, something close to a laugh. “And what would you be traveling as, a freebooter?”

Pug felt his face flush. Freebooters were landless men, mercenaries who fought for pay, and who were regarded as being only one cut above outlaws.

Kulgan said, “Perhaps you might someday, Pug. The way is long and full of peril, but it is not unheard of for a brave and hearty soul to survive the journey. Stranger things have been known to happen.”

The talk at the table turned to more common topics, for the magician had been at the southern keep at Carse for over a month and wanted the gossip of Crydee. When the bread was done baking, Meecham served it hot, carved the pork loin, and brought out plates of cheese and greens. Pug had never eaten so well in his life. Even when he had worked in the kitchen, his position as keep boy earned him only meager fare. Twice during dinner, Pug found the magician regarding him intently.

When the meal was over, Meecham cleared the table, then began washing the dishes with clean sand and fresh water, while Kulgan and Pug sat talking. A single scrap of meat remained on the table, which Kulgan tossed over to Fantus, who lay before the fire. The drake opened one eye to regard the morsel. He pondered the choice between his comfortable resting place and the juicy scrap for a moment, then moved the necessary six inches to gulp down the prize and closed his eye again.

Kulgan lit his pipe, and once he was satisfied with its production of smoke, he said, “What are your plans when you reach manhood, boy?”

Pug was fighting off sleep, but Kulgan’s question brought him alert again. The time of Choosing, when the boys of the town and keep were taken into apprenticeship, was close, and Pug became excited as he said, “This Midsummer’s Day I hope to take the Duke’s service under Swordmaster Fannon.”

Kulgan regarded his slight guest. “I would have thought you still a year or two away from apprenticeship, Pug.”

Meecham gave out a sound somewhere between a laugh and a grunt. “Bit small to be lugging around sword and shield, aren’t you, boy?”

Pug flushed. He was the smallest boy of his age in the castle. “Megar the cook said I may be late coming to my growth,” he said with a faint note of defiance. “No one knows who my parents were, so they have no notion of what to expect.”

“Orphan, is it?” asked Meecham, raising one eyebrow, his most expressive gesture yet.

Pug nodded. “I was left with the Priests of Dala, in the mountain abbey, by a woman who claimed she found me in the road. They brought me to the keep, for they had no way to care for me.”

“Yes,” injected Kulgan, “I remember when those who worship the Shield of the Weak first brought you to the castle. You were no more than a baby fresh from the teat. It is only through the Duke’s kindness that you are a freeman today. He felt it a lesser evil to free a bondsman’s son than to bond a freeman’s. Without proof, it was his right to have you declared bondsman.”

Meecham said in a noncommittal tone, “A good man, the Duke.”

Pug had heard the story of his origin a hundred times before from Magya in the kitchen of the castle. He felt completely wrung out and could barely keep his eyes open. Kulgan noticed and signaled Meecham. The tall franklin took some blankets from a shelf and prepared a sleeping pallet. By the time he finished, Pug had fallen asleep with his head on the table. The large man’s hands lifted him gently from the stool and placed him on the blankets, then covered him.

Fantus opened his eyes and regarded the sleeping boy. With a wolfish yawn, he scrambled over next to Pug and snuggled in close. Pug shifted his weight in his sleep and draped one arm over the drake’s neck. The firedrake gave an approving rumble, deep in his throat, and closed his eyes again.
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Chapter Two: APPRENTICE

The forest was quiet.

The slight afternoon breeze stirred the tall oaks and cut the day’s heat, while rustling the leaves only slightly. Birds who would raise a raucous chorus at sunrise and sundown were mostly quiet at this time of morning. The faint tang of sea salt mixed with the sweet smell of flowers and pungency of decaying leaves.

Pug and Tomas walked slowly along the path, with the aimless weaving steps of boys who have no particular place to go and ample time to get there. Pug shied a small rock at an imagined target, then turned to look at his companion. “You don’t think your mother was mad, do you?” he asked.

Tomas smiled. “No, she understands how things are. She’s seen other boys the day of Choosing. And truthfully, we were more of hindrance than a help in the kitchen today.”

Pug nodded. He had spilled a precious pot of honey as he carried it to Alfan, the pastry cook. Then he had dumped an entire tray of fresh bread loaves as he took them from the oven. “I made something of a fool of myself today, Tomas.”

Tomas laughed. He was a tall boy, with sandy hair and bright blue eyes. With his quick smile, he was well liked in the keep, in spite of a boyish tendency to find trouble. He was Pug’s closest friend, more brother than friend, and for that reason Pug earned some measure of acceptance from the other boys, for they all regarded Tomas as their unofficial leader.

Tomas said, “You were no more the fool than I. At least you didn’t forget to hang the beef sides high.” Pug grinned. “Anyway, the Duke’s hounds are happy.” He snickered, then laughed. “She is angry, isn’t she?”

Tomas laughed along with his friend. “She’s mad. Still, the dogs only ate a little before she shooed them off. Besides, she’s mostly mad at Father. She claims the Choosing’s only an excuse for all the Craftmasters to sit around smoking pipes, drinking ale, and swapping tales all day. She says they already know who will choose which boy.”

Pug said, “From what the other women say, she’s not alone in that opinion.” Then he grinned at Tomas. “Probably not wrong, either.”

Tomas lost his smile. “She truly doesn’t like it when he’s not in the kitchen to oversee things. I think she knows this, which is why she tossed us out of the keep for the morning, so she wouldn’t take out her temper on us. Or at least you,” he added with a questioning smile. “I swear you’re her favorite.”

Pug’s grin returned and he laughed again. “Well, I do cause less trouble.”

With a playful punch to the arm, Tomas said, “You mean you get caught less often.”

Pug pulled his sling out from within his shirt. “If we came back with a brace of partridge or quail, she might regain some of her good temper.”

Tomas smiled. “She might,” he agreed, taking out his own sling. Both boys were excellent slingers, Tomas being undoubted champion among the boys, edging Pug by only a little. It was unlikely either could bring down a bird on the wing, but should they find one at rest, there was a fair chance they might hit it. Besides, it would give them something to do to pass the hours and perhaps for a time forget the Choosing.

With exaggerated stealth they crept along, playing the part of hunters. Tomas led the way as they left the footpath, heading for the watering pool they knew lay not too far distant. It was improbable they would spot game this time of the day unless they simply blundered across it, but if any were to be found, it most likely would be near the pool. The woods to the northeast of the town of Crydee were less forbidding than the great forest to the south. Many years of harvesting trees for lumber had given the green glades a sunlit airiness not found in the deep haunts of the southern forest. The keep boys had often played here over the years. With small imagination, the woods were transformed into a wondrous place, a green world of high adventure. Some of the greatest deeds known had taken place here. Daring escapes, dread quests, and mightily contested battles had been witnessed by the silent trees as the boys gave vent to their youthful dreams of coming manhood. Foul creatures, mighty monsters, and base outlaws had all been fought and vanquished, often accompanied by the death of a great hero, with appropriate last words to his mourning companions, all managed with just enough time left to return to the keep for supper.

Tomas reached a small rise that overlooked the pool, screened off by young beech saplings, and pulled aside some brush so they could mount a vigil. He stopped, awed, and softly said, “Pug, look!” Standing at the edge of the pool was a stag, head held high as he sought the source of something that disturbed his drinking. He was an old animal, the hair around his muzzle nearly all white, and his head crowned by magnificent antlers.
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Pug counted quickly. “He has fourteen points.”


Tomas nodded agreement. “He must be the oldest buck in the forest.” The stag turned his attention in the boys’ direction, flicking an ear nervously. They froze, not wishing to frighten off such a beautiful creature. For a long, silent minute the stag studied the rise, nostrils flaring, then slowly lowered his head to the pool and drank.

Tomas gripped Pug’s shoulder and inclined his head to one side. Pug followed Tomas’s motion and saw a figure walking silently into the clearing. He was a tall man dressed in leather clothing, dyed forest green. Across his back hung a longbow and at his belt a hunter’s knife. His green cloak’s hood was thrown back, and he walked toward the stag with a steady, even step. Tomas said, “It’s Martin.”

Pug also recognized the Duke’s Huntmaster. An orphan like Pug, Martin had come to be known as Longbow by those in the castle, as he had few equals with that weapon. Something of a mystery, Martin Longbow was still well liked by the boys, for while he was aloof with the adults in the castle, he was always friendly and accessible to the boys. As Huntmaster, he was also the Duke’s Forester. His duties absented him from the castle for days, even weeks at a time, as he kept his trackers busy looking for signs of poaching, possible fire dangers, migrating goblins, or outlaws camping in the woods. But when he was in the castle, and not organizing a hunt for the Duke, he always had time for the boys. His dark eyes were always merry when they pestered him with questions of woodlore or for tales of the lands near the boundaries of Crydee. He seemed to possess unending patience, which set him apart from most of the Craftmasters in the town and keep.

Martin came up to the stag, gently reached out, and touched his neck. The great head swung up, and the stag nuzzled Martin’s arm.

Softly Martin said, “If you walk out slowly, without speaking, he might let you approach.”

Pug and Tomas exchanged startled glances, then stepped into the clearing. They walked slowly around the edge of the pool, the stag following their movements with his head, trembling slightly. Martin patted him reassuringly and he quieted. Tomas and Pug came to stand beside the hunter, and Martin said, “Reach out and touch him, slowly so as not to frighten him.”

Tomas reached out first, and the stag trembled beneath his fingers. Pug began to reach out, and the stag retreated a step. Martin crooned to the stag in a language Pug had never heard before, and the animal stood still. Pug touched him and marveled at the feel of his coat—so like the cured hides he had touched before, yet so different for the feel of life pulsing under his fingertips.

Suddenly the stag backed off and turned. Then, with a single bounding leap, he was gone among the trees. Martin Longbow chuckled and said, “Just as well. It wouldn’t do to have him become too friendly with men. Those antlers would quickly end up over some poacher’s fireplace.”

Tomas whispered, “He’s beautiful, Martin.”

Longbow nodded, his eyes still fastened upon the spot where the stag had vanished into the woods. “That he is, Tomas.”

Pug said, “I thought you hunted stags, Martin. How—”

Martin said, “Old Whitebeard and I have something of an understanding, Pug. I hunt only bachelor stags, without does, or does too old to calve. When Whitebeard loses his harem to some younger buck someday, I may take him. Now each leaves the other to his own way. The day will come when I will look at him down the shaft of an arrow.” He smiled at the boys. “I won’t know until then if I shall let the shaft fly. Perhaps I will, perhaps not.” He fell silent for a time, as if the thought of Whitebeard’s becoming old was saddening, then as a light breeze rustled the branches said, “Now, what brings two such bold hunters into the Duke’s woods in the early morning? There must be a thousand things left undone with the Midsummer festival this afternoon.”

Tomas answered. “My mother tossed us out of the kitchen. We were more trouble than not. With the Choosing today . . .” His voice died away, and he felt suddenly embarrassed. Much of Martin’s mysterious reputation stemmed from when he first came to Crydee. At his time for the Choosing, he had been placed directly with the old Huntmaster by the Duke, rather than standing before the assembled Craftmasters with the other boys his age. This violation of one of the oldest traditions known had offended many people in town, though none would dare openly express such feelings to Lord Borric. As was natural, Martin became the object of their ire, rather than the Duke. Over the years Martin had more than justified Lord Borric’s decision, but still most people were troubled by the Duke’s special treatment of him that one day. Even after twelve years some people still regarded Martin Longbow as being different and, as such, worthy of distrust.
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Tomas said, “I’m sorry, Martin.”


Martin nodded in acknowledgment, but without humor. “I understand, Tomas. I may not have had to endure your uncertainty, but I have seen many others wait for the day of Choosing. And for four years I myself have stood with the other Masters, so I know a little of your worry.”

A thought struck Pug and he blurted, “But you’re not with the other Craftmasters.”

Martin shook his head, a rueful expression playing across his even features. “I had thought that, in light of your worry, you might fail to observe the obvious. But you’ve a sharp wit about you, Pug.”

Tomas didn’t understand what they were saying for a moment, then comprehension dawned. “Then you’ll select no apprentices!”

Martin raised a finger to his lips. “Not a word, lad. No, with young Garret chosen last year, I’ve a full company of trackers.”

Tomas was disappointed. He wished more than anything to take service with Swordmaster Fannon, but should he not be chosen as a soldier, then he would prefer the life of a forester, under Martin. Now his second choice was denied him. After a moment of dark brooding, he brightened: perhaps Martin didn’t choose him because Fannon already had.

Seeing his friend entering a cycle of elation and depression as he considered all the possibilities, Pug said, “You haven’t been in the keep for nearly a month, Martin.” He put away the sling he still held and asked, “Where have you kept yourself?”

Martin looked at Pug as the boy instantly regretted his question. As friendly as Martin could be, he was still Huntmaster, a member of the Duke’s household, and keep boys did not make a habit of questioning the comings and goings of the Duke’s staff.

Martin relieved Pug’s embarrassment with a slight smile. “I’ve been to Elvandar. Queen Aglaranna has ended her twenty years of mourning the death of her husband, the Elf King. There was a great celebration.”

Pug was surprised by the answer. To him, as to most people in Crydee, the elves were little more than legend. But Martin had spent his youth near the elven forests and was one of the few humans to come and go through those forests to the north at will. It was another thing that set Martin Longbow apart from others. While Martin had shared elvish lore with the boys before, this was the first time in Pug’s memory he had spoken of his relationship to the elves. Pug stammered, “You feasted with the Elf Queen?”

Martin assumed a pose of modest inconsequence. “Well, I sat at the table farthest from the throne, but yes; I was there.” Seeing the unasked questions in their eyes, he continued. “You know as a boy I was raised by the monks of Silban’s Abbey, near the elven forest. I played with elven children, and before I came here, I hunted with Prince Calin and his cousin, Galain.”

Tomas nearly jumped with excitement. Elves were a subject holding particular fascination for him. “Did you know King Aidan?”

Martin’s expression clouded, and his eyes narrowed, his manner suddenly becoming stiff. Tomas saw Martin’s reaction and said, “I’m sorry, Martin. Did I say something wrong?”

Martin waved away the apology. “No fault of yours, Tomas,” he said, his manner softening somewhat. “The elves do not use the names of those who have gone to the Blessed Isles, especially those who have died untimely. They believe to do so recalls those spoken of from their journey there, denying them their final rest. I respect their beliefs.

“Well, to answer you, no, I never met him. He was killed when I was only a small boy. But I have heard the stories of his deeds, and he was a good and wise King by all accounts.” Martin looked about. “It approaches noon. We should return to the keep.”

He began to walk toward the path, and the boys fell in beside him.

“What was the feast like, Martin?” asked Tomas.

Pug sighed as the hunter began to speak of the marvels of Elvandar. He was also fascinated by tales of the elves, but to nowhere near the degree Tomas was. Tomas could endure hours of tales of the people of the elven forests, regardless of the speaker’s credibility. At least, Pug considered, in the Huntmaster they had a dependable eye witness. Martin’s voice droned on, and Pug’s attention wandered, as he again found himself pondering the Choosing. No matter that he told himself worry was useless: he worried. He found he was facing the approaching of this afternoon with something akin to dread.
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The boys stood in the courtyard. It was Midsummer, the day that ended one year and marked the beginning of another. Today everyone in the castle would be counted one year older. For the milling boys this was significant, for today was the last day of their boyhood. Today was the Choosing.

Pug tugged at the collar of his new tunic. It wasn’t really new, being one of Tomas’s old ones, but it was the newest Pug had ever owned. Magya, Tomas’s mother, had taken it in for the smaller boy, to ensure he was presentable before the Duke and his court. Magya and her husband, Megar the cook, were as close to being parents to the orphan as anyone in the keep. They tended his ills, saw that he was fed, and boxed his ears when he deserved it. They also loved him as if he were Tomas’s brother.

Pug looked around. The other boys all wore their best, for this was one of the most important days of their young lives. Each would stand before the assembled Craftmasters and members of the Duke’s staff, and each would be considered for an apprentice’s post. It was a ritual, its origins lost in time, for the choices had already been made. The crafters and the Duke’s staff had spent many hours discussing each boy’s merits with one another and knew which boys they would call.

The practice of having the boys between eight and thirteen years of age work in the crafts and services had proved a wise course over the years in fitting the best suited to each craft. In addition, it provided a pool of semiskilled individuals for the other crafts should the need arise. The drawback to the system was that certain boys were not chosen for a craft or staff position. Occasionally there would be too many boys for a single position, or no lad judged fit even though there was an opening. Even when the number of boys and openings seemed well matched, as it did this year, there were no guarantees. For those who stood in doubt, it was an anxious time.

Pug scuffed his bare feet absently in the dust. Unlike Tomas, who seemed to do well at anything he tried, Pug was often guilty of trying too hard and bungling his tasks. He looked around and noticed that a few of the other boys also showed signs of tension. Some were joking roughly, pretending no concern over whether they were chosen or not. Others stood like Pug, lost in their thoughts, trying not to dwell on what they would do should they not be chosen.

If he was not chosen, Pug—like the others—would be free to leave Crydee to try to find a craft in another town or city. If he stayed, he would have to either farm the Duke’s land as a franklin, or work one of the town’s fishing boats. Both prospects were equally unattractive, but he couldn’t imagine leaving Crydee.

Pug remembered what Megar had told him, the night before. The old cook had cautioned him about fretting too much over the Choosing. After all, he had pointed out, there were many apprentices who never advanced to the rank of journeyman, and when all things were taken into account, there were more men without craft in Crydee than with. Megar had glossed over the fact that many fishers’ and farmers’ sons forsook the choosing, electing to follow their fathers. Pug wondered if Megar was so removed from his own Choosing he couldn’t remember that the boys who were not chosen would stand before the assembled company of Craftmasters, householders, and newly chosen apprentices, under their gaze until the last name was called and they were dismissed in shame.

Biting his lower lip, Pug tried to hide his nervousness. He was not the sort to jump from the heights of Sailor’s Grief should he not be chosen, as some had done in the past, but he couldn’t bear the idea of facing those who had been chosen.

Tomas, who stood next to his shorter friend, threw Pug a smile. He knew Pug was fretting, but could not feel entirely sympathetic as his own excitement mounted. His father had admitted that he would be the first called by Swordmaster Fannon. Moreover, the Swordmaster had confided that should Tomas do well in training, he might be found a place in the Duke’s personal guard. It would be a signal honor and would improve Tomas’s chance for advancement, even earning him an officer’s rank after fifteen or twenty years in the guard.

He poked Pug in the ribs with an elbow, for the Duke’s herald had come out upon the balcony overlooking the courtyard. The herald signaled to a guard, who opened the small door in the great gate, and the Craftmasters entered. They crossed to stand at the foot of the broad stairs of the keep. As was traditional, they stood with their backs to the boys, waiting upon the Duke.

The large oaken doors of the keep began to swing out ponderously, and several guards in the Duke’s brown and gold darted through to take up their positions on the steps. Upon each tabard was emblazoned the golden gull of Crydee, and above that a small golden crown, marking the Duke a member of the royal family.
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The herald shouted, “Hearken to me! His Grace, Borric conDoin, third Duke of Crydee, Prince of the Kingdom; Lord of Crydee, Carse, and Tulan; Warden of the West; Knight-General of the King’s Armies; heir presumptive to the throne of Rillanon.” The Duke stood patiently while the list of offices was completed, then stepped forward into the sunlight.

Past fifty, the Duke of Crydee still moved with the fluid grace and powerful step of a born warrior. Except for the grey at the temples of his dark brown hair, he looked younger than his age by twenty years. He was dressed from neck to boot in black, as he had been for the last seven years, for he still mourned the loss of his beloved wife, Catherine. At his side hung a black-scabbarded sword with a silver hilt, and upon his hand his ducal signet ring, the only ornamentation he permitted himself.

The herald raised his voice. “Their Royal Highnesses, the Princes Lyam conDoin and Arutha conDoin, heirs to the House of Crydee; Knight-Captains of the King’s Army of the West; Princes of the royal house of Rillanon.”

Both sons stepped forward to stand behind their father. The two young men were six and four years older than the apprentices, the Duke having wed late, but the difference between the awkward candidates for apprenticeship and the sons of the Duke was much more than a few years in age. Both Princes appeared calm and self-possessed.

Lyam, the older, stood on his father’s right, a blond, powerfully built man. His open smile was the image of his mother’s, and he looked always on the verge of laughter. He was dressed in a bright blue tunic and yellow leggings and wore a closely trimmed beard, as blond as his shoulder-length hair.

Arutha was to shadows and night as Lyam was to light and day. He stood nearly as tall as his brother and father, but while they were powerfully built, he was rangy to the point of gauntness. He wore a brown tunic and russet leggings. His hair was dark and his face clean-shaven. Everything about Arutha gave one the feeling of quickness. His strength was in his speed: speed with the rapier, speed with wit. His humor was dry and often sharp. While Lyam was openly loved by the Duke’s subjects, Arutha was respected and admired for his ability, but not regarded with warmth by the people.

Together the two sons seemed to capture most of the complex nature of their sire, for the Duke was capable of both Lyam’s robust humor and Arutha’s dark moods. They were nearly opposites in temperament, but both capable men who would benefit the Duchy and Kingdom in years to come. The Duke loved both his sons.

The herald again spoke. “The Princess Carline, daughter of the royal house.”

The slim and graceful girl who made her entrance was the same age as the boys who stood below, but already beginning to show the poise and grace of one born to rule and the beauty of her late mother. Her soft yellow gown contrasted strikingly with her nearly black hair. Her eyes were Lyam’s blue, as their mother’s had been, and Lyam beamed when his sister took their father’s arm. Even Arutha ventured one of his rare half smiles, for his sister was dear to him also.

Many boys in the keep harbored a secret love for the Princess, a fact she often turned to her advantage when there was mischief afoot. But even her presence could not drive the day’s business from their minds.

The Duke’s court then entered. Pug and Tomas could see that all the members of the Duke’s staff were present, including Kulgan. Pug had glimpsed him in the castle from time to time since the night of the storm, and they had exchanged words once, Kulgan inquiring as to his well-being, but mostly the magician was absent from sight. Pug was a little surprised to see the magician, for he was not properly considered a full member of the Duke’s household, but rather a sometime adviser. Most of the time Kulgan was ensconced in his tower, hidden from view as he did whatever magicians do in such places.
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The magician was deep in conversation with Father Tully, a priest of Astalon the Builder and one of the Duke’s oldest aides. Tully had been adviser to the Duke’s father and had seemed old then. He now appeared ancient—at least to Pug’s youthful perspective—but his eyes betrayed no sign of senility. Many a keep boy had been impaled upon the pointed gaze of those clear grey eyes. His wit and tongue were equally youthful, and more than once a keep boy had wished for a session with Horsemaster Algon’s leather strap rather than a tongue-lashing from Father Tully. The white-haired priest could nearly strip the skin from a miscreant’s back with his caustic words.

Nearby stood one who had experienced Tully’s wrath upon occasion, Squire Roland, son of Baron Tolburt of Tulan, one of the Duke’s vassals. He was companion to both Princes, being the only other boy of noble birth in the keep. His father had sent him to Crydee the year before, to learn something of the management of the Duchy and the ways of the Duke’s court. In the rather rough frontier court Roland discovered a home away from home. He was already something of a rogue when he arrived, but his infectious sense of humor and ready wit often eased much of the anger that resulted from his prankish ways. It was Roland, more often than not, who was Princess Carline’s accomplice in whatever mischief she was embarked upon. With light brown hair and blue eyes, Roland stood tall for his age. He was a year older than the gathered boys and had played often with them over the last year, as Lyam and Arutha were frequently busy with court duties. Tomas and he had been boyish rivals at first, then fast friends, with Pug becoming his friend by default, because where Tomas was, Pug was certain to be nearby. Roland saw Pug fidgeting near the edge of the assembled boys and gave him a slight nod and wink. Pug grinned briefly, for while he was as often the butt of Roland’s jokes as any other, he still found himself liking the wild young Squire.

After all his court was in attendance, the Duke spoke. “Yesterday was the last day of the eleventh year of the reign of our Lord King, Rodric the Fourth. Today is the Festival of Banapis. The following day will find these boys gathered here counted among the men of Crydee, boys no longer, but apprentices and freemen. At this time it is proper for me to inquire if any among you wishes to be released from service to the Duchy. Are there any among you who so wish?” The question was formal in nature and no response was expected, for few ever wished to leave Crydee. But one boy did step forward.

The herald asked, “Who seeks release of his service?”

The boy looked down, clearly nervous. Clearing his throat, he said, “I am Robert, son of Hugen.” Pug knew him, but not well. He was a netmender’s son, a town boy, and they rarely mixed with the keep boys. Pug had played with him upon a few occasions and had a sense the lad was well regarded. It was a rare thing to refuse service, and Pug was as curious as any to hear the reasons.

The Duke spoke kindly. “What is your purpose, Robert, son of Hugen?”

“Your grace, my father is unable to take me into his craft, for my four brothers are well able to ascend to the craft as journeymen and masters after him, as are many other netmender’s sons. My eldest brother is now married and has a son of his own, so my family no longer has room for me in the house. If I may not stay with my family and practice my father’s craft, I beg your grace’s leave to take service as a sailor.”

The Duke considered the matter. Robert was not the first village boy to be called by the lure of the sea. “Have you found a master willing to take you into his company?”

“Yes, Your Grace. Captain Gregson, master of the ship Green Deep from Margrave’s Port is willing.”

“I know this man,” said the Duke. Smiling slightly he said, “He is a good and fair man. I recommend you into his service and wish you well in your travels. You will be welcomed at Crydee whenever you return with your ship.”

Robert bowed, a little stiffly, and left the courtyard, his part in the Choosing done. Pug wondered at Robert’s adventuresome choice. In less than a minute the boy had renounced his ties with his family and home and was now a citizen of a city he had never seen. It was custom that a sailor was considered to owe his loyalty to the city that was his ship’s home port. Margrave’s Port was one of the Free Cities of Natal, on the Bitter Sea, and was now Robert’s home.

The Duke indicated the herald should continue.

The herald announced the first of the Craftmasters, Sailmaker Holm, who called the names of three boys. All three took service, and none seemed displeased. The Choosing went smoothly, as no boy refused service. Each boy went to stand next to his new master.
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As the afternoon wore on and the number of boys diminished, Pug became more and more uncomfortable. Soon there were only two boys besides Pug and Tomas standing in the center of the court. All the Craftmasters had called their apprentices, and only two of the Duke’s household staff beside the Swordmaster had not been heard from. Pug studied the group on the top of the steps, his heart pounding with anxiety. The two Princes regarded the boys, Lyam with a friendly smile, Arutha brooding on some thought or another. The Princess Carline was bored by the entire affair and took little pains to hide the fact, as she was whispering to Roland. This brought a disapproving look from Lady Marna, her governess.

Horsemaster Algon came forth, his brown-and-golden tabard bearing a small horsehead embroidered over his left breast. The Horsemaster called the name of Rulf, son of D!ck, and the stocky son of the Duke’s stableman walked over to stand behind the master. When he turned, he smiled condescendingly at Pug. The two boys had never gotten along, the pock-scarred boy spending many hours taunting and tormenting Pug. While they both worked in the stable under ****, the stableman had looked the other way whenever his son sprang a trap on Pug, and the orphan was always held responsible for any difficulty that arose. It had been a terrible period for Pug, and the boy had vowed to refuse service rather than face the prospect of working next to Rulf the rest of his life.

Housecarl Samuel called the other boy, Geoffry, who would become a member of the castle’s serving staff, leaving Pug and Tomas standing alone. Swordmaster Fannon then stepped forward, and Pug felt his heart stand still as the old soldier called, “Tomas, son of Megar.”

There was a pause, and Pug waited to hear his own name called, but Fannon stepped back and Tomas crossed over to stand alongside him. Pug felt dwarfed by the gaze of all upon him. The courtyard was now larger than he had ever remembered it, and he felt ill fashioned and poorly dressed. His heart sank in his chest as he realized that there was no Craftmaster or staff member present who had not taken an apprentice. He would be the only boy uncalled. Fighting back tears, he waited for the Duke to dismiss the company.

As the Duke started to speak, sympathy for the boy showing clearly in his face, he was interrupted by another voice. “Your Grace, if you would be so kind.”

All eyes turned to see Kulgan the magician step forward. “I have need of an apprentice and would call Pug, orphan of the keep, to service.”

A wave of murmuring swept through the assembled Craftmasters. A few voices could be heard saying it wasn’t proper for a magician to participate in the Choosing. The Duke silenced them with a sweep of his gaze, his face stern. No Craftmaster would challenge the Duke of Crydee, the third-ranking noble in the Kingdom, over the standing of one boy. Slowly all eyes returned to regard the boy.

The Duke said, “As Kulgan is a recognized master of his craft, it is his right to choose. Pug, orphan of the keep, will you take service?” Pug stood rigid. He had imagined himself leading the King’s army into battle as a Knight-Lieutenant, or discovering someday he was the lost son of nobility. In his boyish imaginings he had sailed ships, hunted great monsters, and saved the nation. In quieter moments of reflection he had wondered if he would spend his life building ships, making pottery, or learning the trader’s skill, and speculated on how well he would do in each of those crafts. But the one thing he never thought of, the one dream that had never captured his fantasies, was that of becoming a magician.

He snapped out of his shocked state, aware the Duke patiently awaited his response. He looked at the faces of those before him. Father Tully gave him one of his rare smiles, as did Prince Arutha. Prince Lyam nodded a slight yes, and Kulgan regarded him intently. There were signs of worry upon the magician’s face, and suddenly Pug decided. It might not be an entirely proper calling, but any craft was better than none. He stepped forward and caught his own heel with his other foot, and landed face down in the dust. Picking himself up, he half scrambled, half ran to the magician’s side. The misstep broke the tension, and the Duke’s booming laughter filled the courtyard. Flushing with embarrassment, Pug stood behind Kulgan. He looked around the broad girth of his new master and found the Duke watching, his expression tempered by a kind nod at the blushing Pug. The Duke turned back to those who stood waiting for the Choosing to end.

“I declare that each boy present is now the charge of his master, to obey him in all matters within the laws of the Kingdom, and each shall be judged a true and proper man of Crydee. Let the apprentices attend their masters. Until the feasting, I bid you all good day.” He turned and presented his left arm to his daughter. She placed her hand lightly upon it and they passed into the keep between the ranks of the courtiers, who drew aside. The two Princes followed, and the others of the court. Pug saw Tomas leave in the direction of the guard barracks, behind Master Fannon.

He turned his attention back to Kulgan, who was standing lost in thought. After a moment the magician said, “I trust neither of us has made a mistake this day.”
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“Sir?” Pug asked, not understanding the magician’s meaning. Kulgan waved one hand absently, causing his pale yellow robe to move like waves rippling over the sea. “It is no matter, boy. What’s done is done. Let us make the best of things.”


He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Come, let us retire to the tower where I reside. There is a small room below my own that should do for you. I had intended it for some project or another, but have never managed to find the time to prepare it.”

Pug stood in awe. “A room of my own?” Such a thing for an apprentice was unheard of. Most apprentices slept in the workrooms of their master, or protected herds, or the like. Only when an apprentice became a journeyman was it usual for him to take private quarters.

Kulgan arched one bushy eyebrow. “Of course. Can’t have you underfoot all the time. I would never get anything done. Besides, magic requires solitude for contemplation. You will need to be untroubled as much as or perhaps more than I will.” He took out his long, thin pipe from a fold of his robe and started to stuff it full of tabac from a pouch that had also come from within the robe.

“Let’s not bother with too much discussion of duties and such, boy. For in truth, I am not prepared for you. But in short order I will have things well in hand. Until then we can use the time by becoming acquainted with one another. Agreed?” Pug was startled. He had little notion of what a magician was about, in spite of the night spent with Kulgan weeks ago, but he readily knew what Craftmasters were like, and none would have thought to inquire whether or not an apprentice agreed with his plans. Not knowing what to say, Pug just nodded.

“Good, then,” said Kulgan, “let us be off to the tower to find you some new clothes, and then we will spend the balance of the day feasting. Later there will be ample time to learn how to be master and apprentice.” With a smile for the boy, the stout magician turned Pug around and led him away.





The late afternoon was clear and bright, with a gentle breeze from the sea cooling the summer heat. Throughout the keep of Castle Crydee, and the town below, preparations for the Festival of Banapis were in progress.

Banapis was the oldest known holiday, its origins lost in antiquity. It was held each Midsummer’s Day, a day belonging to neither the past nor the coming year. Banapis, known by other names in other nations, was celebrated over the entire world of Midkemia according to legend. It was believed by some that the festival was borrowed from the elves and dwarves, for the long-lived races were said to have celebrated the feast of Midsummer as far back as the memory of both races could recall. Most authorities disputed this allegation, citing no reason other than the unlikelihood of humans borrowing anything from the elven or dwarven folk. It was rumored that even the denizens of the Northlands, the goblin tribes and the clans of the Brotherhood of the Dark Path, celebrated Banapis, though no one had ever reported seeing such a celebration.

The courtyard was busy. Huge tables had been erected to hold the myriad varieties of foods that had been in preparation for over a week. Giant barrels of dwarven ale, imported from Stone Mountain, had been hauled out of the cellars and were resting on protesting, overburdened wood frames. The workmen, alarmed at the fragile appearance of the barrel ricks, were quickly emptying some of the contents. Megar came out of the kitchen and angrily shooed them away. “Leave off, there will be none left for the evening meal at this rate! Back to the kitchen, dolts! There is much work to be done yet.”

The workers went off, grumbling, and Megar filled a tankard to ensure the ale was at proper temperature. After he drained it dry and satisfied himself that all was as it should be, he returned to the kitchen.

There was no formal beginning to the feast. Traditionally, people and food, wine and ale, all accumulated until they reached a certain density, then all at once the festivities would be in full swing.

Pug ran from the kitchen. His room in the northmost tower, the magician’s tower as it had become known, provided him with a shortcut through the kitchen, which he used rather than the main doors of the keep. He beamed as he sped across the courtyard in his new tunic and trousers. He had never worn such finery and was in a hurry to show his friend Tomas.

He found Tomas leaving the soldiers’ commons, nearly as much in a hurry as Pug. When the two met, they both spoke at once.

“Look at the new tunic—” said Pug.

“Look at my soldier’s tabard—” said Tomas.

Both stopped and broke into laughter.

Tomas regained his composure first. “Those are very fine clothes, Pug,” he said, fingering the expensive material of Pug’s red tunic. “And the color suits you.”
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Pug returned the compliment, for Tomas did cut a striking figure in his brown-and-gold tabard. It was of little consequence that he wore his regular homespun tunic and trouser underneath. He would not receive a soldier’s uniform until Master Fannon was satisfied with his worthiness as a man-at-arms.

The two friends wandered from one heavily laden table to another. Pug’s mouth watered from the rich fragrances in the air. They came to a table heaped with meat pies, steam rising from their hot crusts, pungent cheeses, and hot bread. At the table a young kitchen boy was stationed with a shoo-fly. His job was to keep pests from the food, whether of the insect variety or the chronically hungry apprentice variety. Like most other situations involving boys, the relationship between this guardian of the feast and the older apprentices was closely bound by tradition. It was considered ill-mannered and in poor taste merely to threaten or bully the smaller boy into parting with food before the start of the feast. But it was considered fair to use guile, stealth, or speed in gaining a prize from the table.

Pug and Tomas observed with interest as the boy, named Jon, delivered a wicked whack to the hand of one young apprentice seeking to snag a large pie. With a nod of his head, Tomas sent Pug to the far side of the table. Pug ambled across Jon’s field of vision, and the boy watched him carefully. Pug moved abruptly, a feint toward the table, and Jon leaned in his direction. Then suddenly Tomas snatched a puff-pastry from the table and was gone before the shoo-fly lash began to descend. As they ran from the table, Pug and Tomas could hear the distressed cries of the boy whose table they had plundered.

Tomas gave Pug half the pie when they were safely away, and the smaller apprentice laughed. “You’re the quickest hand in the castle, I bet.”

“Or young Jon was slow of eye for keeping it on you.”

They shared a laugh. Pug popped his half of the pie into his mouth. It was delicately seasoned, and the contrast between the salty pork filling and the sweet puff-pastry crust was delicious.

The sound of pipes and drums came from the side courtyard as the Duke’s musicians approached the main courtyard. By the time they had emerged around the keep, a silent message seemed to pass through the crowd. Suddenly the kitchen boys were busy handing out wooden platters for the celebrants to heap food upon, and mugs of ale and wine were being drawn from the barrels.

The boys dashed to a place in line at the first table. Pug and Tomas used their size and quickness to good advantage, darting through the throng, snagging food of every description and a large mug of foamy ale each.

They found a relatively quiet corner and fell to with ravenous hunger. Pug tasted his first drink of ale and was surprised at the robust, slightly bitter taste. It seemed to warm him as it went down, and after another experimental taste he decided that he liked it.

Pug could see the Duke and his family mingling with the common folk. Other members of his court could also be seen standing in line before the tables. There was no ceremony, ritual, or rank observed this afternoon. Each was served as he arrived, for Midsummer’s Day was the time when all would equally share in the bounties of the harvest.

Pug caught a glimpse of the Princess and felt his chest tighten a little. She looked radiant as many of the boys in the courtyard complimented her on her appearance. She wore a lovely gown of deep blue and a simple, broad-brimmed hat of the same color. She thanked each author of a flattering remark and used her dark eyelashes and bright smile to good advantage, leaving a wake of infatuated boys behind.

Jugglers and clowns made their appearance in the courtyard, the first of many groups of traveling performers who were in the town for the festival. The actors of another company had set up a stage in the town square and would give a performance in the evening. Until the early hours of the next morning the festivities would continue. Pug knew that many of the boys the year before had to be excused duty the day following Banapis, for their heads and stomachs were in no condition for honest work. He was sure that scene would be repeated tomorrow.
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Pug looked forward to the evening, for it was the custom for new apprentices to visit many of the houses in the town, receiving congratulations and mugs of ale. It was also a ripe time for meeting the town girls. While dalliance was not unknown, it was frowned upon. But mothers tended to be less vigilant during Banapis. Now that the boys had crafts, they were viewed less as bothersome pests and more as potential sons-in-law, and there had been more than one case of a mother looking the other way while a daughter used her natural gifts to snare a young husband. Pug, being of small stature and youthful appearance, got little notice from the girls of the keep. Tomas, however, was more and more the object of girlish flirtation as he grew in size and good looks, and lately Pug had begun to be aware that his friend was being sized up by one or another of the castle girls. Pug was still young enough to think the whole thing silly, but old enough to be fascinated by it.

Pug chewed an improbable mouthful and looked around. People from the town and keep passed, offering congratulations on the boys’ apprenticeship and wishing them a good new year. Pug felt a deep sense of Tightness about everything. He was an apprentice, even if Kulgan seemed completely unsure of what to do with him. He was well fed, and on his way to being slightly intoxicated—which contributed to his sense of well-being. And, most important, he was among friends. There can’t be much more to life than this, he thought.
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Chapter Three - KEEP


Pug sat sulking on his sleeping pallet.

Fantus the firedrake pushed his head forward, inviting Pug to scratch him behind his eye ridges. Seeing that he would get little satisfaction, the drake made his way to the tower window and with a snort of displeasure, complete with a small puff of black smoke, launched himself in flight. Pug didn’t notice the creature’s leaving, so engrossed was he in his own world of troubles. Since he had taken on the position of Kulgan’s apprentice fourteen months ago, everything he had done seemed to go wrong.

He lay back on the pallet, covering his eyes with a forearm; he could smell the salty sea breeze that blew in through his window and feel the sun’s warmth across his legs. Everything in his life had taken a turn for the better since his apprenticeship, except the single most important thing, his studies.

For months Kulgan had been laboring to teach him the fundamentals of the magician’s arts, but there was always something that caused his efforts to go awry. In the theories of spell casting, Pug was a quick study, grasping the basic concepts well. But each time he attempted to use his knowledge, something seemed to hold him back. It was as if a part of his mind refused to follow through with the magic, as if a block existed that prevented him from passing a certain point in the spell. Each time he tried he could feel himself approach that point, and like a rider of a balky horse, he couldn’t seem to force himself over the hurdle.

Kulgan dismissed his worries, saying that it would all sort itself out in time. The stout magician was always sympathetic with the boy, never reprimanding him for not doing better, for he knew the boy was trying.

Pug was brought out of his reverie by someone’s opening the door. Looking up, he saw Father Tully entering, a large book under his arm. The cleric’s white robes rustled as he closed the door. Pug sat up.

“Pug, it’s time for your writing lesson—” He stopped himself when he saw the downcast expression of the boy. “What’s the matter, lad?”

Pug had come to like the old priest of Astalon. He was a strict master, but a fair one. He would praise the boy for his success as often as scold him for his failures. He had a quick mind and a sense of humor and was open to questions, no matter how stupid Pug thought they might sound.

Coming to his feet, Pug sighed. “I don’t know, Father. It’s just that things don’t seem to be going right. Everything I try I manage to make a mess of.”

“Pug, it can’t be all black,” the priest said, placing a hand on Pug’s shoulder. “Why don’t you tell me what is troubling you, and we can practice writing some other time.” He moved to a stool by the window and adjusted his robes around him as he sat. As he placed the large book at his feet, he studied the boy.

Pug had grown over the last year, but was still small. His shoulders were beginning to broaden a bit, and his face was showing signs of the man he would someday be. He was a dejected figure in his homespun tunic and trousers, his mood as grey as the material he wore. His room, which was usually neat and orderly, was a mess of scrolls and books, reflecting the disorder in his mind.

Pug sat quietly for a moment, but when the priest said nothing, started, to speak. “Do you remember my telling you that Kulgan was trying to teach me the three basic cantrips to calm the mind, so that the working of spells could be practiced without stress? Well, the truth is that I mastered those exercises months ago. I can bring my mind to a state of calm in moments now, with little effort. But that is as far as it goes. After that, everything seems to fall apart.”

“What do you mean?”
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“The next thing to learn is to discipline the mind to do things that are not natural for it, such as think on one thing to the exclusion of everything else, or not to think of something, which is quite hard once you’ve been told what it is. I can do those things most of the time, but now and again I feel like there are some forces inside my head, crashing about, demanding that I do things in a different way. It’s like there was something else happening in my head than what Kulgan told me to expect.

“Each time I try one of the simple spells Kulgan has taught me, like making an object move, or lifting myself off the ground, these things in my head come flooding in on my concentration, and I lose my control. I can’t even master the simplest spell.” Pug felt himself tremble, for this was the first chance he had had to speak about this to anyone besides Kulgan “Kulgan simply says to keep at it and not worry.” Nearing tears, he continued. “I have talent. Kulgan said he knew it from the first time we met, when I used the crystal. You’ve told me that I have talent. But I just can’t make the spells work the way they’re supposed to I get so confused by it all.”

“Pug,” said the priest, “magic has many properties, and we understand little of how it works, even those of us who practice it. In the temples we are taught that magic is a gift from the gods, and we accept that on faith. We do not understand how this can be so, but we do not question. Each order has its own province of magic, with no two quite alike. I am capable of magic that those who follow their orders are not. But none can say why.

“Magicians deal in a different sort of magic, and their practices are very different from our practices in the temples Much of what they do, we cannot. It is they who study the art of magic, seeking its nature and workings, but even they cannot explain how magic works. They only know how to work it, and pass that knowledge along to their students, as Kulgan is doing with you.”

“Trying to do with me, Father. I think he may have misjudged me.”

“I think not, Pug I have some knowledge of these things, and since you have become Kulgan’s pupil, I have felt the power growing in you Perhaps you will come to it late, as others have, but I am sure you will find the proper path.”

Pug was not comforted. He didn’t question the priest’s wisdom or his opinion, but he did feel he could be mistaken “I hope you’re right, Father. I just don’t understand what’s wrong with me.”

“I think I know what’s wrong,” came a voice from the door. Startled, Pug and Father Tully turned to see Kulgan standing in the doorway. His blue eyes were set in lines of concern, and his thick grey brows formed a V over the bridge of his nose. Neither Pug nor Tully had heard the door open. Kulgan hiked his long green robe and stepped into the room, leaving the door open.

“Come here, Pug,” said the magician with a small wave of his hand Pug went over to the magician, who placed both hands on his shoulders “Boys who sit in their rooms day after day worrying about why things don’t work make things not work. I am giving you the day for yourself. As it is Sixthday, there should be plenty of other boys to help you in whatever sort of trouble boys can find.” He smiled, and his pupil was filled with relief “You need a rest from study Now go.” So saying, he fetched a playful cuff to the boy’s head, sending him running down the stairs. Crossing over to the pallet, Kulgan lowered his heavy frame to it and looked at the priest. “Boys,” said Kulgan, shaking his head. “You hold a festival, give them a badge of craft, and suddenly they expect to be men. But they’re still boys, and no matter how hard they try, they still act like boys, not men.” He took out his pipe and began filling it “Magicians are considered young and inexperienced at thirty, but in all other crafts thirty would mark a man a journeyman or master, most likely readying his own son for the Choosing.” He put a taper to the coals still smouldering in Pug’s fire pot and lit his pipe.

Tully nodded. “I understand, Kulgan. The priesthood also is an old man’s calling. At Pug’s age I still had thirteen years of being an acolate before me.” The old priest leaned forward “Kulgan, what of the boy’s problem?”

“The boy’s right, you know,” Kulgan stated flatly. “There is no explanation for why he cannot perform the skills I’ve tried to teach. The things he can do with scrolls and devices amaze me. The boy has such gifts for these things, I would have wagered he had the makings of a magician of mighty arts. But this inability to use his inner powers . . .”
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“Do you think you can find a solution?”


“I hope so I would hate to have to release him from apprenticeship. It would go harder on him than had I never chosen him.” His face showed his genuine concern. “It is confusing, Tully I think you’ll agree he has the potential for a great talent. As soon as I saw him use the crystal in my hut that night, I knew for the first time in years I might have at last found my apprentice. When no master chose him, I knew fate had set our paths to cross. But there is something else inside that boy’s head, something I’ve never met before, something powerful. I don’t know what it is, Tully, but it rejects my exercises, as if they were somehow . . . not correct, or . . . ill suited to him. I don’t know if I can explain what I’ve encountered with Pug any better. There is no simple explanation for it.”

“Have you thought about what the boy said?” asked the priest, a look of thoughtful concern on his face.

“You mean about my having been mistaken?”

Tully nodded. Kulgan dismissed the question with a wave of his hand “Tully, you know as much about the nature of magic as I do, perhaps more. Your god is not called the God Who Brought Order for nothing. Your sect unraveled much about what orders this universe. Do you for one moment doubt the boy has talent?”

“Talent, no. But his ability is the question for the moment.”

“Well put, as usual. Well, then, have you any ideas? Should we make a cleric out of the boy, perhaps?”

Tully sat back, a disapproving expression upon his face. “You know the priesthood is a calling, Kulgan,” he said stiffly.

“Put your back down, Tully. I was making a joke.” He sighed. “Still, if he hasn’t the calling of a priest, nor the knack of a magician’s craft, what can we make of this natural ability of his?”

Tully pondered the question in silence for a moment, then said, “Have you thought of the lost art?”

Kulgan’s eyes widened. “That old legend?” Tully nodded. “I doubt there is a magician alive who at one time or another hasn’t reflected on the legend of the lost art. If it had existed, it would explain away many of the shortcomings of our craft.” Then he fixed Tully with a narrowed eye, showing his disapproval. “But legends are common enough Turn up any rock on the beach and you’ll find one. I for one prefer to look for real answers to our shortcomings, not blame them on ancient superstitions.”

Tully’s expression became stern and his tone scolding. “We of the temple do not count it legend, Kulgan! It is considered part of the revealed truth, taught by the gods to the first men.”

Nettled by Tully’s tone, Kulgan snapped, “So was the notion the world was flat, until Rolendirk—a magician, I’ll remind you—sent his magic sight high enough to disclose the curvature of the horizon, clearly demonstrating the world to be a sphere! It was a fact known by almost every sailor and fisherman who’d ever seen a sail appear upon the horizon before the rest of the ship since the beginning of time!” His voice rose to a near shout.

Seeing Tully was stung by the reference to ancient church canon long since abandoned, Kulgan softened his tone “No disrespect to you, Tully. But don’t try to teach an old thief to steal. I know your order chops logic with the best of them, and that half your brother clerics fall into laughing fits when they hear those deadly serious young acolytes debate theological issues set aside a century ago. Besides which, isn’t the legend of the lost art an Ishapian dogma?”

Now it was Tully’s turn to fix Kulgan with a disapproving eye. With a tone of amused exasperation, he said, “Your education in religion is still lacking, Kulgan, despite a somewhat unforgiving insight into the inner workings of my order.” He smiled a little. “You’re right about the moot gospel courts, though. Most of us find them so amusing because we remember how painfully grim we were about them when we were acolytes.” Then turning serious, he said, “But I am serious when I say your education is lacking. The Ishapians have some strange beliefs, it’s true, and they are an insular group, but they are also the oldest order known and are recognized as the senior church in questions pertaining to interdenominational differences.”

“Religious wars, you mean,” said Kulgan with an amused snort.

Tully ignored the comment. “The Ishapians are caretakers for the oldest lore and history in the Kingdom, and they have the most extensive library in the Kingdom I have visited the library at their temple in Krondor, and it is most impressive.”

Kulgan smiled and with a slight tone of condescension said, “As have I, Tully, and I have browsed the shelves at the Abbey of Sarth, which is ten times as large. What’s the point?”
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