The home of the Lords of Greyfall was perched on the very edge of the vertiginous cliff, but not out of fear; there never had been and still wasn’t a man alive who would dream of attacking them, whether in or out of their fastness. The castle – at this time fourteen hundreds of years old – was not only well-nigh impregnable, but was an eyrie from which all the surrounding country was under the Lord’s eye, and, at his command, his troops would swoop down like hungry vultures on passing merchants or unknown travellers, to seize from them the tolls he demanded for the privilege of passing through his Domains.
The present Lord was old Wintren Greyfall. At the age of twenty-four, only three years after inheriting the High Hills Domain from his father, Shadowren; and when the new Ruling King of the Twelve Domains was also young and apparently lacking confidence; he had led his forces into the neighbouring Forest Domain, and after the mysterious death of Lord Fernren Greenbough, annexed his land, and ignoring every convention, taken Darina, his beautiful and grieving widow, for his wife. . . .
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Thirty years later on a moonlit night young Tam slipped up onto the battlemented curtain wall and settled into his favourite corner, from which he could gaze out over the countryside below. Born in a dark and unregarded corner of one of the outhouses which huddled beneath the bailey wall, he had never yet set foot outside the castle. As long as he was a baby his mother had carried him to the kitchens and the scullery where, alongside other drudges, she struggled day after day to satisfy the relentless demands of the cooks to keep the fires burning, the refuse cleared away, and the dishes and pans cleaned. When Tam began to crawl she tethered him to a table leg, and at about three, when he was considered old enough to be useful, he had become a fetcher and carrier for all those who laboured unceasingly in the hot, dark caverns of the kitchens.
When Lord Greyfall wasn’t in residence, he’d had occasional moments when he could run around in the small space between the armourer’s and the wheelwright’s workshops; but he was six years old before he ventured up the steps to the curtain wall and peeping over the battlements, discovered there was a world beyond its huge, grey stones. From then on the corner between the towers was invariably the place he made for in his rare and precious moments of freedom. Whenever he remembered that first revelation his face would light up with pleasure, and no matter how dreadful his circumstances, a smile of delight would shine out on whoever was nearby.
Despite being very small and thin for his age, and dressed in ragged, unwashed, hand-me-downs, he had something about him which the rough men-at-arms found appealing. Perhaps it was his large dark eyes, looking out in lively curiosity from beneath the tangled brown curls which fell over his forehead. Perhaps it was that he never made a nuisance of himself as the other boys did, pestering them for favours, or trying to play silly tricks on them. He would appear like some dark, silent ghost, tuck himself into his corner, and watch the world below as if it were a magic theatre show.
Passing him on their endless circuits of the walls they grinned at him, ruffled his hair, or explained something at which he was pointing in silent delight or puzzlement. They didn’t expect him to speak – no one ever did – not even his poor, tired out mother, and he seemed content to communicate with his expressive face and eyes. On occasion he’d been heard to chuckle, or even to laugh out loud at something ridiculous which he’d observed below him in the bailey or on the road at the foot of the cliff, but no one had ever heard him talk.
Although many people had heard Tam laugh, not even his mother had ever heard him cry. When he was a baby, tears had sometimes slid down his face, but no sound had accompanied them. Now, at the end of a long hard day, when he lay alone on his pallet after his mother had fallen into the sleep of the exhausted, he might cry from sheer weariness, or the pain of the cuts and bruises gained from the second-assistant cook, a big, frustrated bully of a man; but still he wept in silence.
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Tam had never woken in the depths of the night before, he was always too tired; but on this one night he inexplicably found himself wide awake at two in the morning. Perhaps the beam of moonlight which had found its way through the gap in the meagre thatch had woken him, though it had never done so before; but whatever the cause, he was suddenly filled with an overwhelming desire to look at the world by the light of the moon.
. . . . . .If anyone had been there to see his face they would have been moved to tears by the wonder and delight writ large upon it. His heart pounding with excitement he’d mounted the steps and pulled himself up into his accustomed place. The whole world was so transformed by the light of the full moon hanging, huge and glorious right above him he could hardly decide where to look first. . . . . . .Eventually he turned his attention to the sky above. The moon was so bright it eclipsed the nearer stars, but there were wonders enough on its surface to occupy his curiosity.
It was while he was attempting to make sense of the shapes he saw there that he was startled by the sight of something moving between him and the moon. After a moment of astonishment he realised that although it was flying it had no wings, it seemed to float through the night sky with no discernable effort. He waited until finally he could make it out; it was a man and he was approaching the castle.
Tam made himself as small and inconspicuous as he could, for something told him it might be dangerous to be seen by this stranger. Still, his curiosity was stronger than his fear, and it never occurred to him to try to slip away. He wanted to know what was going to happen.
As the man drew nearer Tam heard quiet footfalls approaching from the keep. Not the marching tread of the guard, someone else was coming from the Great Hall. He strode past Tam’s corner and turned to look outwards.
‘You’re late, Kern!’
Though he had never come face to face with its owner, Tam knew that voice. Lord Wintren Greyfall himself was on his castle walls to meet the flying one as he sank gracefully down to stand not two paces away.
‘Forgive me, my lord, the clouds were slow to clear, and it’s too risky to attempt a long flight under a clouded moon.’ He raised his hands, lifted a collar of silver feathers from around his neck and carefully tucked it into a pouch which hung at his belt. Then he suddenly cocked his head as if listening, before spinning round and pulling Tam out of his corner to drop him onto the stones at his feet.
‘It seems we have a spy, my lord.’
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ to be continued