Authors: J.D. Oswald
J D Oswald is the author of the epic fantasy series, The Ballad of Sir Benfro.
The Rose Cord
The Golden Cage
are available as Penguin paperbacks and ebooks.
He is also the author of the Detective Inspector McLean series, under the name James Oswald. James runs a 350-acre farm in north-east Fife.
The Ballad of Sir Benfro
The Rose Cord
The Golden Cage
The Inspector McLean Novels
The Book of Souls
The Hangman's Song
Dead Men's Bones
Prayer for the Dead
To mum. I wish you could be here to see how it all worked out.
Grendor's great-grandson King Ballah I, while still waging the war that would forge the land we know as Llanwennog, needed to identify his messengers and spies to those nobles he most trusted. To this end he had six rings made, each bearing his personal seal. Any noble, on being shown this seal, was to render up whatever aid the wearer of it required.
Such is the strength of the magic woven around these rings that all attempts to copy them have ended in failure. Nor will the seal reveal itself should the ring be worn by an enemy of the Llanwennog throne. It is said that the wearers can communicate with each other over vast distances and that the rings will summon them back to Tynhelyg should the king's life ever be in peril. Few have ever seen these rings, and many think them no more than myth, but to be charged with wearing one is the highest possible honour.
The Taming of the Northlands â A History of the Kings of Llanwennog
âFetch his lordship. He's coming round.'
Errol heard the words as if he were dreaming them. He wasn't sure where he was, but it was warm and comfortable. It smelled clean, the air fresh with a hint of dry grass.
He had been sleeping, he was sure, but he couldn't remember going to bed. Rolling on to his side, he opened his eyes and was nearly sick as waves of pain rushed over him. He had just enough time to register the vaguest image of a person standing over him, then everything dimmed again.
âBe careful. You've had a nasty blow to the head.' Strong arms cradled his shoulders, pulling him forward. Then something cool, more soothing than a mother's lullaby, pressed against the back of his skull.
âFetch those pillows over, Mentril. Let's make our guest comfortable.' Errol felt himself pulled upright, but he still didn't want to open his eyes. Finally he was let back down again, sinking into soft cushions. The coldness was pressed to his forehead now, a dampened cloth that felt wonderful. He tried to relax into it, letting the pain slip away as he settled. Only when he was sure it was safe did he try to look upon the scene.
His first thought was that his mother had found him. A pale woman stared down at him, her concerned face framed by straight dark hair flecked with lines of grey. But as he regained some degree of focus, he could see that it wasn't Hennas. This woman was far better dressed than he had ever seen his mother, with the exception perhaps of her wedding day. She wore a fine silk dress in rich brown colours with a white shawl hanging loosely around her shoulders. His mother had never possessed such finery.
Without moving his head it was hard to take in much more than that worried, smiling face, but Errol could see that he was in quite a large high-ceilinged room, lit by a pair of windows. Even moving his eyeballs made his head
swim, so he could take in no more than that. Perhaps he would be better speaking.
âWhere am I?' The words sounded wrong, faint and hoarse in his dry throat. The woman leaned closer to him, bringing a soft lavender smell with her.
âYou shouldn't try to speak. Rest. Conserve your energy. You've been badly injured.'
She was speaking Llanwennog, and as if that one realization was the keystone of a dam inside his head, Errol was flooded with memories. More than anything else, he feared for his life. He had spoken in Saesneg, the language of the Twin Kingdoms, his voice probably too quiet to be understood, but what if he had been muttering while unconscious?
âWhere am I?' he tried again, this time in the local tongue, forcing the words out louder even though it made his head ache.
âYou're safe. You're in Castle Gremmil, on the edge of the northlands. My husband found you dumped in woodland beside the Tynhelyg road. I guess you must have been attacked by bandits and left for dead.'
Errol tried to piece together his last memories, finding only snippets of images. He needed time to sort through it all, but he knew he was in a spot. It didn't seem like these people realized where he was from; if they had, he would most likely have been in a dungeon. He needed to come up with a good story, and fast.
âI don't remember much. I was heading for the capital. Came down from the mountains. I've urgent news for King Ballah. Stopped off at some village for food; I think the circus was there. But after that it all goes a bit blank.'
âAn emissary for the king, eh? Well, Poul said you were carrying the king's seal. Rest a while and I'm sure everything will come back to you. Do you remember your name?'
âMy name? Why, yes. Sorry. It's Errol. Errol Balch.'
âWell, Errol. It's nice to meet you. I'm Isobel, Lady Gremmil. And this, if I'm not mistaken, is my husband.'
Errol looked up at a noise from the far end of the room and immediately wished he hadn't. His brain felt like it was too big for his skull and was trying to fit in by squeezing out his eyeballs. Sparks flashed across his vision, and when they cleared it was to see a short broad man peering at him myopically.
âSo you're a Balch, are you? I thought you had the family look. Pleased to meet you. I'm Poul Gremmil.'
âIt was you who found me?' Errol took the man's proffered hand, squeezing it rather limply in his own.
âWell, it was one of my dogs, to be honest. Thought he'd flushed out some game, but when we went in after it, there you were, dragged under a bush with not a stitch on. Thought you were dead, but I guess you Balches are made of sterner stuff.'
Errol found that moving his arms eased the pain a little. He reached up to touch the back of his head, feeling a crusty mess of blood and hair.
âI'm very grateful to you, and your dog. But tell me, have I been unconscious long?'
âA day, maybe. Have you any idea who might have done this? Only it's a bad show, bandits attacking travellers on the king's road in my bailiwick.'
âI'm not sure, truly. I had to change some gold in Cerdys and I'm fairly sure I was followed from there. But there
were a few rough types in the circus. Did you see it when you found me?'
âThe circus? No. They'd shipped out south before I came through. Seemed in a bit of a hurry to get to the King's Festival, by all accounts. But Cerdys? What in Gwlad were you doing up there?'
âCame down from the mountains; I was up there on a mission for the king. It's all very secret, really. I need to get back on the road as soon as possible so I can deliver my report in person.'
âWell, of course. But I doubt you'd stay on a horse more than five minutes with your head the way it is right now. You must stop with us at least another day or two. Give your brain time to recover.'
âYou're right, of course. Thank you, my lord.'
âNone of this “my lord” nonsense. We don't stand on ceremony out here in the wilderness, and any man bearing the king's seal will find aid here. It's Poul, please.'
âThe king's seal?' Errol was puzzled. Now that he thought about it, Lady Gremmil had mentioned something about that too, and they were being far more hospitable than he might have expected, even if his face did make them think he was of royal birth.
âYour ring. I guess whoever attacked you must have missed it. You were clutching it so tight in your fist.'
Errol looked over at Lady Gremmil, who had reached for something lying on a small table beside the bed. She handed him a plain ring, and as he saw it, he remembered picking it up from the floor of the cave. He twisted it around in his hand, feeling an unnatural warmth in the metal, and as he did so an inscription began to form,
writing itself in soft gold letters. Old-fashioned Llanwennog, arcane and hard to focus on even had he not been recovering from a nasty blow to the head.
The Hand of the King shall be treated as if he be the King.
âIt's a long time since I've seen one of those. King Ballah doesn't grant that kind of boon to just anyone.' Lord Gremmil paused a moment as if trying to find a way to phrase the question Errol knew he wanted to ask. âI don't suppose you can tell me anything about this mission, can you?'
Errol didn't answer straight away. Partly because he needed time to pull together the strands of the lie that had sprung so easily to his lips, and partly because he didn't want to seem too eager to give up state secrets. He rolled the ring around his palm for a moment, then slid it on to the little finger of his left hand. It was a bit too big, but it stayed in place.
âI can't be specific, you understand. It concerns the war with the Twin Kingdoms. We had intelligence of a possible route through the northern Rim mountains. King Ballah asked me to investigate, but quietly so as not to spark any panic. I've been riding the old trapping routes all spring and summer.'
From the look on Lord Gremmil's face, Errol knew he had the man convinced already. Lady Gremmil reinforced the lie by shuddering visibly, holding her hand over her face.
âAnd did you find â¦?'
âLet me just say that it would be unwise to send all your able-bodied men to the southern passes. I think only a madman would lead an army through the great forest of
the Ffrydd and over a poorly mapped high mountain pass, but we all know that Inquisitor Melyn is insane. Queen Beulah even more so.'
âI hear what you're saying, Errol. And you're right. This is the most important information. Rest now. I'll have a servant bring food. Then we'll see about getting you some clothes and a horse. This is grave news indeed. You must get it to the king with all haste.'
Melyn settled down by his fire, calmed his breathing and prepared to enter the trance state that would let him travel through the aethereal. They had reached the northlands of Llanwennog, and his scouts had reported back with the locations of the nearest settlements. Now it was time to contact Beulah and let her know how their plan was progressing.
It was not a task he was looking forward to. Back in the comfort and security of Emmass Fawr, or even the Neuadd, he wouldn't have thought twice about it. He'd even slipped away from his body while riding his horse along the Calling Road before, borrowing some of its energy to boost his own. But here he was in enemy lands, and the distance to Castell Glas, where the queen should now be, was far greater than anything he had travelled before. Neither could he contact her directly; he had to rely upon Clun. The boy had a natural talent for the aethereal, it was true, but nothing compared to the ease with which Melyn could communicate with Beulah. She was so close to him; he had trained her, moulded her for so long, he knew he could always find her. Clun was a new entity for him; it would be far harder to track him down.
And then there was the forest. He would have to traverse it, find his way through all that magical turmoil without losing sight of his own true body. All along the way he had been marking points that he could use to navigate. He should be able to retrace the path they had taken since parting with the royal procession, but he was not convinced that anything in the forest stayed the same for very long, especially when viewed in the aethereal.
Still, it had to be done. Without communication between his small army and the larger forces massing on the border, the whole invasion plan would grind to a halt. And so he relaxed, focusing his eyes on the flickering flames to help steady his mind.
The hubbub of the camp drifted away, not fading to total silence but sounding as if it were a good distance off. Melyn stayed in his body for a while, memorizing how he felt, setting it in his mind until he was confident he could return. Then, with a last look around the camp, he rose out of himself and into the air.
âYour Grace, I hope I'm not intruding.'
Melyn turned his aethereal body and looked down to see Frecknock a few paces away from his unmoving physical self.
âWhat do you want?'
âTo help, if I may. Am I right in thinking you are about to contact His Grace the Duke of Abervenn?'
Melyn felt a tinge of his old anger rising; this creature had grown increasingly familiar and impertinent over the weeks and months of their journey together. She should be put in her place, should really be executed, as the queen had ordered. But she had also been of great help, and he
found himself far more tolerant of her than he would ever have thought possible.
âWhat if I am?' he asked.
âWell, sir. I could watch over your mortal body while you are gone from it and do everything in my power to protect you from harm, but if you would permit me to accompany you on your journey instead, I could show you a much quicker way to reach Master Clun.'
âVery well, show me.' Melyn was surprised at how readily he accepted the offer of help, though any companionship on his difficult journey would have been welcome. Frecknock too was obviously taken aback by his consent, as she took a moment to compose herself before spreading her aethereal wings and leaping into the air. They were too small to support her bulk, Melyn noted, at least in the slow almost lazy way she used them. But there was an elegance about her aethereal flight that contrasted sharply with her waddling walk.