Authors: Matthew Ballard
Soft, warm light radiated from a broad fire dancing in a wide stone hearth against the shop’s far wall. Like the firelight’s welcoming glow, a warm smile stretched across Theon Renau’s face. The well-muscled bowyer removed a pair of thick reading glasses and pushed off a tall stool beside his workbench. Lean sinewy muscle corded the bowyer’s arms and shoulders surprising for a man near Connal Deveaux’s age.
On Renau's long wooden counter, a marble chessboard sat arranged as if in mid-game.
Ronan’s gaze locked on the chessboard. Sir Alcott taught him the game during his twelfth season. He’d had difficulty mastering chess’s subtle nuances, but loved it despite his lack of skill. He’d spent many late nights teaching Rika chess, but she played more to please him than from pure enjoyment.
That Theon Renau shared two of his greatest passions, archery and chess, drew Ronan to the man like a toddler to saltwater taffy.
“Ah, Lady Finn. I’m so happy to see you.” Renau bowed before Rika as his glance flickered between Ronan and the chessboard.
“Master Renau, It’s so good to see you again,” Rika said. “I’d like to introduce you to Ronan.” She gestured toward Ronan, who stood with his gaze locked on the chessboard. “Ronan, please meet Theon Renau, the finest bowyer in the Heartwood.”
Renau extended his large callused hand toward Ronan in greeting. “Your Majesty, it’s so good to meet you. I couldn’t help noticing your interest in the board. Do you play?”
Ronan returned the bowyer’s handshake watching his hand disappear underneath Theon Renau’s gargantuan palm. “I dabble in the game, but I have great appreciation for those with true skill.” Ronan cocked his head. “But, I’m curious. Chess is a Meranthian game. Where did you learn to play?”
Renau’s gaze flickered to Rika and back before answering.
Rika offered the barest nod.
“Patron Tyrell taught me the game.” He gestured toward the board. “In fact, he gave me this chessboard as a gift before leaving the Heartwood many years ago.”
The news hit Ronan like a sucker punch. Tyrell had spoken of Theon Renau many times while teaching Ronan the bow, but he never knew Master Tyrell played chess. Even when Ronan learned the game from Sir Alcott, his training master never spoke a word. He’d give anything for ten minutes with Patron Tyrell over a chessboard. Renau’s revelation tore open half-healed wounds.
“I’m sorry Your Majesty, had I known —”
Ronan waved away Renau’s apology. “No. You’ve nothing to apologize for. I never knew Master Tyrell played chess, and I thought I knew everything about him. The news caught me unarmed. I miss him.”
“I’ll not speak of it again,” Renau said.
“No. Please don’t hold back,” Ronan said. “I love hearing old stories about Master Tyrell. When he taught me the bow, he mentioned your craftsmanship many times. Your work is legendary among the knights who served under his command.”
Renau’s cheeks reddened. “You’re much too kind Your Majesty.”
“Please call me Ronan. I’m not very good with formal titles.”
Renau nodded. “Okay Ronan. Did Patron ever mention the bow I built for him?”
Ronan tipped his head back and laughed. “Only about a million times. I learned how to shoot using your bow. No other bow holds a candle to it. It’s the crown jewel of my collection.”
Renau laughed. “I’m glad to hear it, and I’m glad to hear the bow’s still serviceable.”
“Master Renau, why don’t you show Ronan the bow we spoke about last week,” Rika said.
“Yes. Of course Lady Finn.” Renau glanced around the room appearing lost. He scratched his head and furrowed his brow. “Here I go on and on, and I’m sure you’re very busy.” His eyes widened, and he smiled turning to his workbench. He slipped on his thick glasses, knelt, and peered into the murky shadows near its thick legs. He shoved aside handfuls of wood shavings and leaned forward, reaching far beneath his workbench. “Ah yes. Here it is.” The bowyer pulled free a long piece of loose canvas masking something inside.
Ronan’s eyes tracked the bundle while his pulse quickened.
Renau hoisted the wrapped package onto the counter stirring Ronan’s curiosity.
“Your father mentioned that you and he had the occasion to hunt together in the Heartwood,” Renau said. “He also told me of your skill with the bow.”
“My father has a tendency to embellish the facts when it comes to his children,” Ronan said. “I can assure you, whatever he said, I’m not as good as he made it sound.”
“He asked that I craft for you a bow,” Renau said, ignoring Ronan’s try at modesty. “The bow under this cloth is unlike any I’ve crafted.”
“He shouldn’t have made you go to the trouble.” Ronan said.
Renau paused lowering his head for a long moment. When he raised his head again, his green eyes glistened with moisture. “My sister…,” his voice cracked, and he paused for another moment before continuing. “My sister almost died in Merric Pride’s camp.” He nodded. “If not for your heroism, she wouldn’t be alive today.”
Rika leaned into Ronan and squeezed his hand.
Renau wiped the moisture from his eyes and smiled. “So you see, the honor is mine.”
Ronan thought it rude to further refuse. He tipped his head in gratitude. “Thank you.”
“And thank your sister for supplying the necessary wood,” Renau said.
“I assume it was her. I found the material waiting for me one day in my shop. There wasn’t a note with it, but I don’t know any other person that could’ve supplied such exotic wood.” He rolled back the canvas flap and revealed an Ayralen longbow made from a single piece of deep crimson heartwood.
Ronan’s jaw dropped, and he gawked at the priceless treasure.
“I’ve never made anything rivaling the quality of this bow. It’s crafted from living heartwood.” Renau ran his hand along the riser, and the gold grains embedded into the wood swirled beneath his touch. “As you can see, it’s still very much alive.”
Ronan touched his index finger to the bow near its top notch. Shimmering gold grains converged on his fingertip. “How is a bow made from heartwood different from a bow made of say… oak?”
“You might ask how a champion war horse is superior to an old nag.” Renau laughed. “The heartwood bow is more accurate and has greater range than a normal bow. But, its advantages go far deeper. Over time, living heartwood bonds with its owner, and the bow’s other properties begin to emerge. Your sister would know more. Her warden’s staff works the same way.”
“I’d love to hear more about the bow’s other properties?” From the corner of his eye, Ronan caught a flash of silver through Theon Renau’s display window.
Outside Renau's shop, Manfred, thrust his finger toward the shop and barked at a shield knight trying to move past him. Knight Jeremy Brooks sidestepped trying to move past the stubborn footman, but Manfred cut him off.
“Master Renau, would you excuse me for a moment?” Ronan said, nodding toward the heated standoff. “I should clear this up.”
Renau bowed. “I understand Your Majesty.”
“Master Renau, what method did you use to sculpt the bow?” Rika said.
As he strode past her, Ronan gave Rika a wink before passing beneath Renau’s doorway.
“I’ve urgent news for the king. I wouldn’t bother him unless it demanded his immediate attention.” As Jeremy finished the words, his gaze locked on Ronan coming out of Renau’s shop. “Your Majesty, I need to speak with you right now.”
“I tried to stop him Your Majesty, but he’s a persistent one,” Manfred said his cheeks flushed beet red.
Ronan placed his hand on Manfred’s shoulder. “Thank you Manfred, but I should speak with Knight Jeremy.”
Manfred stepped aside. “Of course Your Majesty.”
“Your Majesty, you’re needed at the palace right away.” Even through the chilly winter day, beads of sweat streaked Jeremy’s brow.
Ronan’s stomach churned as he braced for bad news. He’d never known Jeremy to overreact, and his agitated state raised an alarm in Ronan’s mind. “What’s wrong Jeremy?”
“We’ve received a visitor at the palace. A young soldier named Davin Keel arrived from the village of Porthleven less than an hour ago.”
Ronan rolled the name around in his head. It sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it. “What does he want? What’s so urgent?”
Jeremy’s face flushed. “To be blunt, I’m not sure I believe it myself, but I know the man who sent him, and I’d trust him with my life.”
“Who sent him?”
“Sergeant Reed,” Jeremy said. “Sergeant Harrison Reed.”
Ronan’s stomach sank. “He served in Redkeep didn’t he?”
Jeremy nodded. “He led our forces in the Lost Valley last summer. They kept Merric Pride’s troops running all over northern Meranthia.”
Ronan placed the man’s face in his mind. He’d seen Reed speak with Devery on several occasions last summer. He led Devery’s ragtag militia with competence rarely seen in a man so young. “Did Reed send a message?”
Jeremy held Ronan’s gaze for a long moment before responding. “Reed told him to run and to not stop until he found you.”
“Why?” Ronan said.
“Davin served under Sergeant Reed in the Lost Valley Militia,” Jeremy said.
The elusive memory snapped into place, and Ronan placed his face. “Private Keel….” Ronan rubbed his chin and gazed skyward. “He’s a red haired boy? Freckle faced. What is he? Sixteen seasons?”
Jeremy nodded. “That’s him.”
“I know him. He’s a solid boy, but Devery’s men are all solid.”
“Davin saw Sergeant Reed murdered on Porthleven’s dock.”
Ronan’s legs turned rubbery. “What? Did he say who killed him?”
Jeremy shook his head. “He said whatever killed Sergeant Reed wasn’t human.”
Ronan swallowed hard waiting for Jeremy to crack a smile or let him in on the punch line. Instead, the shield knight’s expression remained sober and stone-faced. Ronan swore the temperature had dropped twenty degrees. He whirled and faced his footman. “Manfred!”
The footman snapped to attention and gave a short salute. “Yes Your Majesty.”
“Give my apologies to Master Renau, and gather Lady Finn,” Ronan said. “We’re returning to the palace immediately.”
From the palace’s central kitchen, the aroma of roast pork mingled with the sweet scent of hot baked cinnamon apples. A trio of great stone hearths lined the kitchen’s rear wall. Kitchen staff rolled dough atop wide flour-stained stone counters. Dinner remained hours away, but the royal kitchen never stopped.
Ronan stepped into the kitchen flanked by Devery Tyrell, Sir Alcott, Knight Jeremy, and Rika. He paused and scanned the kitchen.
Piled-high bags of flour, wooden barrels, and cabinets lined with glass jars filled every nook and cranny. “You’re sure he’s in here?”
“Sergeant Gibbons escorted the boy here not less than ten minutes ago,” Sir Alcott said. “According to him, Mistress Pell insisted the boy eat a hot meal before he dropped.”
Ronan smiled. Mistress Pell had served two kings, a queen, and now Ronan. She’d changed Ronan’s soiled diapers when he’d arrived in Meranthia almost twenty years ago. Besides the royal family, her word carried absolute authority among the palace staff.
Rika tugged on Ronan’s sleeve and pointed past a stack of empty iron soup cauldrons and a small mountain of wrapped ham and bacon. “Ronan, look over there.”
A shock of bright red hair and a single mud-caked leather boot appeared from the edge of a long wooden table set in the kitchen’s stone wall.
Ronan strode through the kitchen ducking beneath long strands of dried garlic cloves.
Mistress Pell, a plump well-dressed middle-aged woman sat at the worn but intimate kitchen table. Across from her, a freckle-faced lad scooped the last bites of seasoned pork and baked cinnamon apples from his plate. Dark rings lined his puffy eyes marking a stark contrast to his pale baby face and tousled red hair.
The boy, Davin Keel, still wore his militia leathers, common among Devery Tyrell’s men. Dried mud caked his clothing, leaving only his face and hands clean, no doubt courtesy of Mistress Pell’s guiding hand.
Ronan paused at the table’s head and smiled. “Private Keel?”
Davin’s eyes widened, and his steel fork clattered against his dull pewter plate. “Your Majesty!” He sprang from the kitchen table yanking the soaked, muddy cap from his head. He knelt before Ronan lowering his gaze before freezing in a near prostrate pose.
Ronan shot Rika a pleading glance.
Rika glared in return, a subtle reminder of their earlier conversation.
Mistress Pell slid from the seat and curtsied before Ronan her cheeks flushed red. “Your Majesty. I wasn’t expecting you in the kitchen. I’d planned to clean up the boy before presenting him to you. Had I known, I —”
Ronan waved her off. “It’s me who owes you the apology for barging in unannounced. The nature of Private Keel’s message is rather urgent, so I took it on myself to dispense with formality.”
Mistress Pell nodded, seeming content with the explanation. “I understand Your Majesty. Will you need anything further before I take my leave?”
“No. Thank you for feeding Private Keel,” Ronan said. “I’m sure the meal will help speed his recovery.”