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One: The Years 589-590 afe

One: The Years 583-590 afe

He Is Entered in the Lists of the World

While hooded executioners lifted and set the ornately carven stake, a child wept at their feet. When they brought the woman, her eyes red from crying and her hair disheveled, he tried to run to her. Gently, an executioner scooped him up and set him in the arms of a surprised old peasant. While the hooded men piled faggots around her calves, the woman stared at child and man, seeing nothing else, her expression pleading. A priest gave her the sacraments because she had committed no sin in the eyes of his religion. Before withdrawing to his station of ceremony, he shook brightly dyed, belled horsehair flails over her tousled head, showering her with the pain-killing pollen of the dreaming lotus. He began singing a prayer for her soul. The master executioner signaled an apprentice. The youth brought a brand. The master touched it to the faggots. The woman stared at her feet as if without comprehending what was happening. And the child kept crying.

The farmer, with a peasant’s rough kindness, carried the boy away, comforting him, taking him where he wouldn’t hear. Soon he stopped moaning and seemed to have resigned himself to this cruel whim of Fate. The old man dropped him to the cobbled street, but didn’t release his hand. He had known his own sorrows, and knew loss must be soothed lest it become festering hatred. This child would someday be a man.

Man and boy pushed through crowds of revelers— Execution Day was always a holiday in Ilkazar—the youngster skipping to keep pace with the farmer’s long strides. He rubbed tears away with the back of a grimy hand. Leaving the Palace district, they entered slums, followed noisome alleys running beneath jungles of laundry, to the square called Farmer’s Market. The old man led the boy to a stall where an elderly woman squatted behind melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, and braids of hanging maize.

“So,” she said, voice rattling. “What’s this you’ve found, Royal?”

“Ah, Mama, a sad one,” he replied. “See the tearstreaks? Come, come, find a sweet.” Lifting the boy before him, he entered the stall.

The woman rifled a small package and found a piece of sugar candy. “Here, little man. For you. Sit down, Royal. It’s too hot to tramp around town.” Over the boy’s shoulder she asked a question with a lifted eyebrow.

“A hot day, yes,” said Royal. “The King’s men were witch-burning again. She was young. A black-hood had me take her child away.”

From the shade beside the old woman the boy watched with big, sad eyes. His left fist mashed the rock candy against his lips. His right rubbed the few tears still escaping his eyes. But he was silent now, watching like a small idol.

“I was thinking we might foster him.” Royal spoke softly, uncertainly. The suggestion closely skirted a matter painful for both of them.

“It’s a grave responsibility, Royal.”

“Yes, Mama. But we have none of our own. And, if we passed on, he’d have the farm to keep him.” He didn’t say, but she understood, that he preferred passing his property to anyone but the King, who would inherit if there were no heirs.

“Will you take in all the orphans you find?”

“No. But this one is a charge Death put on us. Can we ignore Her? Moreover, haven’t we hoped through our springs and summers, into our autumns, hopelessly, when the tree couldn’t bear? Should I slave on the land, and you here selling its produce, merely to bury silver beneath the woodshed floor? Or to buy a peasant’s grave?”

“All right. But you’re too kind for your own good. For example, your marrying me, knowing me barren.”

“I haven’t regretted it.”

“Then it’s settled by me.”

The child took it all in in silence. When the old woman finished, he took his hand from his eyes and set it on hers in her lap.

Royal’s farmhouse, on the bank of the Aeos two leagues above Ilkazar, blossomed. Where once it had been dusty within and weathered, tumble-down without, it began to sparkle. The couple took coin from hidden places and bought paint, nails, and cloth for curtains. A month after the child’s arrival, the house seemed newly built. Once-crusty pots and pans glistened over the hearth. Accumulated dirt got swept away and the hardwood floor reappeared. New thatch begoldened the roof. A small room to the rear of the house became a fairy realm, with a small bed, handmade cabinet, and a single child-sized chair.

The change was marked enough to be noticed. The King’s bailiffs came, reassessed the taxes. Royal and the old woman scarcely noticed.

But, though they gave him all love and kindness, the child never uttered a “thank you.” He was polite enough, never a bother, and loving in a doleful way, but he never spoke—though sometimes, late at night, Royal heard him crying in his room. They grew accustomed to his silence, and, in time, stopped trying to get him to talk. Perhaps, they reasoned, he had never obtained the faculty. Such afflictions weren’t uncommon in a city as harsh as Ilkazar.

In winter, with snows on the ground, the family remained indoors. Royal taught the boy rustic skills: whittling, the husking and shelling of maize, how bacon is cured and hung, the use of hammer and saw. And chess, at which he soon excelled. Royal often marveled at his brightness, forgetting that children are no more retarded than their elders, just more innocent of knowledge.

Winter passed. The child grew in stature and knowledge, but never spoke. They named him Varth, “the Silent One” in their language. Spring came and Royal began working the fields. Varth went with him, walking behind the plow, breaking clods with his bare feet. Soon shoots sprouted. Varth helped with the weeding, planted stakes for the tomatoes, and threw stones at birds threatening the melons. The old woman thought he would make a fine farmer some day. He seemed to have a love for tending life.

When summer came and the melons fattened, the tomatoes reddened, and the squash grew into green clubs, Varth helped with the harvesting, packing, and the loading of Royal’s wagon. The old woman opposed his return to Ilkazar, but Royal thought he had forgotten. So he went with them to market, and a good day they had there. Their crop was one of the earliest in, their produce was exceptional, and Ilkazar was out in force, seeking fresh vegetables. Later, when tomatoes and squash were common, they would be spurned in favor of meat.

The old woman, from her usual place in the shade, said, “If for nothing but luck, the adoption was wise. Look! When they can’t get melons they take tomatoes or squash.”

“It’s early in the season. When the stalls are full and there’s produce left for the hogs, things won’t look so bright. Do you think we could get a tutor for Varth?”

“A tutor? Royal! We’re peasants.”

“Castes are castes, but there’re ways to get around that. Silver is the best. And we’ve got some we’ll never use otherwise. I just thought he might want to learn his letters. Seems a pity to waste a mind like his on farming. But I wouldn’t get involved with anyone important. The village priest, maybe. He might take the job for fresh vegetables and a little money to tide his wine-cellar between collections.”

“I see you’ve already decided, so what can I say? Let’s tell him, then. Where’s he off to now?”

“Across the square watching the boys play handball. I’ll fetch him.”

“No, no, let me. I’m getting stiff. Mind you watch the tomatoes. Some of these young things are dazzlers. They’ll steal you blind while you’re trying to get a peek down an open blouse. Those painted nipples…”

“Mama, Mama, I’m too old for that.”

“Never too old to look.” She stepped between empty tomato crates, past the remainder of the squash, started across the square.

Soon she returned, disturbed. “He wasn’t there, Royal. The boys say he left an hour ago. And the donkey’s gone.”

Royal looked to the corrals. “Yes. Well, I’ve got a notion where he’s gone then. You mind the sly young ’prentices from the wizards’ kitchen.”

She chuckled softly, then grew grave. “You think he went back where…”

“Uhm. I’d hoped he wouldn’t remember, being so young. But the King’s lessons aren’t easily forgotten. A death at the stake is a haunt fit for a lifetime of nightmares. Have some candy ready when we get back.”

Royal found Varth about where he expected, astride the donkey, before the King’s gate. The plaza was less grim than usual, although, apparently, the boy hadn’t come to see the leavings of executions. Looking small and fragile, he studied the Palace’s fortifications. As Royal entered the square, Varth started for a postern gate. The sentry there was a gruff-looking, middle-aged veteran who stopped him and asked his business. He was still trying to coax Varth into answering when Royal arrived.

“Pardon, Sergeant. I was minding my stall too close. He wandered away.”

“Oh, no trouble, no trouble. They’ll do that. Got a flock of my own. What’s in down to market? Woman was talking about going.”

“She’d better hurry. The melons are gone already. The tomatoes and squash will be soon.”

“Look for me this evening, then. Save a squash and a few tomatoes. I’ve a craving for goulash. And mind where that donkey wanders. He has a likely lad aboard.” He offered Varth a warm parting smile, sincere in its concern.

Varth betrayed no emotion as Royal led the donkey away. But later, as they pushed through the twisty alleys and the old peasant asked, “Varth, would you like to learn the cleric arts?” he grew ecstatic. Royal was surprised by his intensity. For a moment, indeed, it seemed the boy might speak. But then he settled into his usual stolidity, revealing only a fraction of his inner joy.

So, after the last squash were sold and the three returned to the farm, Royal went to visit the parish priest.

Time passed and the boy grew until, at an age of about ten, he was as tall as Royal and nearly as strong. The old couple were pleased. They cared for him like a precious jewel, giving the best of everything. In a land where disease, hunger, and malnutrition were constant companions of the poor, he had the gift of an excellent diet. He grew tall in a land where tall men were rare.

His learning, under the tutelage of the priest, went well. He learned to write quickly, often used notes where another would have spoken. The priest was impressed with his ability. He refused all payment except the occasional gift of produce. He insisted that the teaching of an eager student was ample reward. He soon took Varth to the limits of his own knowledge.

As it must, sorrow one day entered the house by the river above Ilkazar. In the fall, after a last load had been sold at market, the old woman suffered a seizure. She cried out and went into a coma, never to waken. Royal grieved, as a husband of long-standing will, but accepted the loss in his stoic way. She had had a long, full life, except for her barrenness, and in the end had even had the pleasure of rearing a son. Moreover, Royal was pleased to see Varth equally stricken by her passing. While he had seldom been demonstratively affectionate, neither had he been disobedient or disrespectful. His mind simply dwelt away, as if in a shadow world where life couldn’t reach him.

As farmers have always done, and will always do, Varth and Royal buried their dead, then returned to working their fields. But the peasant was old, and his desire to live had failed with the death of his wife. Early in the spring, with the first crops planting, he joined her quietly in the night. Varth thought him sleeping till he shook him.

Varth wept again, for he had loved Royal as a son should love a father. He went to the village, found the priest, brought him to say the burial service. He worked the farm to the best of his ability and finished the season. At market he often sold cheaply because he refused to haggle. Then, having worked the summer in memory of his foster parents, he had the priest sell the farm and began a life of his own.

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