Prologue: The Gathering

Seranere 17th, YED 4068
FOR ALL OF the things that were said of the merit of skill at letters. For how highly vaunted reading might be amongst the nobility, and the clergy of Ralstaa. For how secretly feared it was that the common churls and villeins might learn letters amongst the more staid of the noblemen. For all of that, Faran thought, it was undoubtedly the greatest thief of time he had ever encountered. And in his more sardonic moods he had wondered if perhaps the nobility should fear that the people might fall idle, their attentions forever entrapped by some delicate vellum, more than they should fear rebellion and chaos. But then there was usually a lass about to close the heavy leather covers of whatever tome had engrossed him best lately, and to turn his attentions elsewhere from such dry philosophizing. And that was most often welcome - for a time at least.
Tomes were unique things. Each had a personality - Faran supposed that of its author, but faceless, oft nameless, usually passed into the mists, only the book remained to decry their existence and their knowledge. And he would gladly listen. His chambers at Brooke-Taloth Hold (that ivy-clad and dignified tor from which his father ruled all of Tael) were off limits to the servants, lest they discover the wealth of pilfered parchment, heaped in chests, under the bed, in the closets, and anywhere else a welcoming space invited itself. By now someone must surely have noticed the depletion of the holds meagre library, but no one had yet raised it.
And in a crack in the wall, that one, tiny and ill kept grimoire, with its cracked cover and missing pages. Tantalizing but dangerous. Faran was no fool. He was not about to delve into such peril. And so he studied the simple and safe pages. The first pages. Those of herbalism and potion making. And left the last pages untouched, lest they tempt him beyond his resistance.
But the day of the gathering was not a day for books. Faran had a lesson on swordplay with the swordmaster Gallagher, and he found such pursuits to be of equal parts detestable and impossible. The young noble had no talent for combat, and less interest in it, and the aged veteran, drawn from the cream of House Voere's standing army, was not a man trained in such niceties as would allow him to conceal his exasperation at his student's ineptitude and disinterest.
Faran had discovered that his chamber offered no escape from these lessons, as he was too easily found, and so he and his regular compatriots - his cousin Bartel and Aden the blacksmith's burly son - had gathered at the far edge of the woodland pool that the hold overlooked, to enjoy the balmy midsummer heat that was so fleeting in the Knives.
Bartel, two winters Faran's elder, had stripped off his shirt, and lounged lazily by the waterside, seemingly in a half-doze. He had seen some training at arms, and demonstrated far more propensity for it than Faran, and while his golden hair was kept modestly short, in the past year he had begun to tie it back, and sport a neat beard. He was growing broad of chest and strong too, but the imperious lines of his long face prevented him from being handsome - even more so as he became a man.
Aden whose birth coincided with Faran's but for three days, skimmed stones across the still water. Sandy-haired, pale, freckled, and lanky, but with enormous hands that seemed incapable of subtlety or gentility, he had a certain nervous energy about him. And why not? If the other two boys were caught shirking their lessons then a few sharp words would be the worst they'd suffer. But Aden would undoubtedly be flogged by the master of the household for abandoning his duties. And then possibly again by his massive-limbed and stern father.
Faran himself had tried to fish, but found (not for the first time) he had neither the patience nor the skill for such things, and little interest in the fish it would yield, and so he had settled to doff his stockings and settle on a rocky outcrop, dangling his feet in the water in place of a rod (which he had discarded somewhere in the scrub with a decent throw) and gazing back with no particular attentiveness at his ancestral tor.
They had chosen this spot because, though it offered a clear view back to the hold (and any pursuing authority figures coming from that direction) it also offered shelter from the view of the hold, in the form of several nearby willows. And, of course, to the south the milking shed of the nearest farm could be seen, replete with an abundance of maids tasked with milking the cows. And who didn't enjoy a roll with a nice villein girl now and then after all?
Lost in reverie as he was, it was Aden who first spotted the column of men approaching Brooke-Taloth Hold, and he was quick to point them out to his two fellows.
"What a queer lot they are."
Hearing the young servant's exclamation of surprise, Faran followed his gaze across the water, to the narrow lane that led up a gentle incline to the outer gates of the tor, where a small party were making their way towards the gates. The pond was no great lake, and Faran could see, with the benefit of the low evening sun at his back, what had struck Aden about them.
At their lead was an enormous knight (for he wore his full battle raiment and resplendent plate armour) clad in a war helm (though his long grey hair trailed out beneath it), but with no banner signifying his house or allegiance on his back, strode with dignity and presence, despite the weight of his arms and armour, leading a heavy black horse with a shaggy mane and defiant gait. Behind him followed a dwarf in a trailing black robe, looking like little more than a child in his father's cloak, but for his wizened head poking from the neck, and his gnarled walking stick (not half as gnarled as the dwarf himself). He leaned on the arm of a regally attired woman, whose face was hidden by a hood of rich royal blue, but whose grace and silhouette held great promise to Faran's connoisseur's eye. Then came a narrow shouldered Irian, with his bald head and bare arms showing the swirling indigo tattoos of his people. A scattering of men at arms followed at a respectful distance, and then at the rear strode a hooded figure, with every limb covered and a hood pulled low over its face even in the summer sun. For an instant the wind caught the hood, and Faran was afforded a glimpse of a creature he had never sighted before so far south, but knew by reputation. Bestial, stealthy, dark-furred, if the savage looking myr was anything but a cruel wulfen, one of the Ghanish slave-beasts then he knew nothing of the beastmen.
Perhaps today was not the day to absent himself from the family tor after all.

Prologue Chapter 1