Kern and Tam were a good distance away when, through the still night, Kern heard the shouts summoning Greyfall’s chosen guards – known by everyone as his ‘Hounds’ – and knew they would soon be hurrying up the stairs to his room. ‘Only just in time, Tam,’ he murmured, ‘but it’ll take them quite a while to get the door open.’
An hour later they settled on another balcony near the top of a doorless tower at the head of a long, narrow, hanging valley.
Once they were safely inside Kern said, ‘You may be dumb, lad, or you may not. But whatever else you are, I don’t think you’re stupid. So listen carefully, for your life and my work depend on it.
‘Unlike the blue-eyed folk of the High Hills, you have the dark hair and the darker eyes of Lord Greyfall’s dead heir, Felling, and now he’s seen you you’re in grave danger as long as he’s alive. What’s more, since I have you, I pose an even greater danger to him, and he may threaten my life in order to get at you.
‘So. . .tonight a new life begins for both of us. And your new life will begin with a new name – the name you should have had; it’s Ashren, and I’ll give it to you now,’ and he laid his hands on his head and spoke some words in a strange tongue.
Tam, now Ashren, looked up at him with his bright, dark eyes and laughed aloud, an unexpected, clear, silvery sound which startled Kern. For a moment he stared at him in wonder, as questions filled his mind; but pulling himself together, he said, ‘I’ll teach you as much as you can learn, and if I can help you to speak then all knowledge will be open to you because the keys to most of that knowledge lie in this tower. So we must guard it. We must guard it first and last, Ashren. We must guard it even if our lives are in danger, for your future and the fate of the Twelve Domains are held in this tower.
‘Now,’ he said, leading the way through a door to his bedroom, ‘it’s time for you to go back to bed. Let’s see, yes, here are a couple of furs and a pillow. Put them on the truckle bed in the corner and you can sleep there.’
Ashren obeyed, and after helping to pull off Kern’s soft boots and laying his robe and tunic across the garment chest he removed his own newly aquired shoes, lay down, pulled the furs over himself, and in innocent trust fell asleep.
Kern stood for some moments looking down at him, and wondered what effect his unexpected appearance might have on the Twelve Domains. ‘You’ve complicated my life, Ashren, just when I needed to be most careful,’ he murmured. But then he smiled, smoothed the hair off the boy’s face, tucked the furs more closely around him, and went to his own bed, where he lay awake for the rest of the night, pondering his choices.
The next day Kern started to shape Ashren’s new life. First he took him on a tour of the tower and explained the uses of each room:
The ground floor consisted of a huge windowless store room filled with tools of all kinds and a rough carpenter’s bench; the first floor was divided into three more store rooms, also windowless, containing food and household supplies, and above it was the kitchen; on the next floor, the third, was his workroom with an accompanying store full of locked cupboards, the workroom being the first to have large windows to let in light and air; the library and study took up the fourth floor; and his bedroom and the solar, with its full length windows and balcony, were at the top of the tower – if you didn’t count the tiny watchroom in the domed roof, which was only accessible by a ladder fastened to the bedroom wall.
Once the tour was done Kern gave Ashren a thorough examination. He’d have been considered small if he had in fact been eight, and Kern told him again, ‘You’re ten years old, Ashren, and painfully undernourished, so my first priority must be to feed you up. I guess from your bones that with good food you might grow to a respectable height.’ Ashren looked at him in surprise, he obviously wanted to tell him something, but with no means of communication he eventually shrugged, nodded, rubbed his stomach and chuckled.
Kern reflected that at Greyfall he’d probably learned how to survive from moment to moment, but now he’d need a different kind of strength, one that could be sustained, one fuelled as much by understanding as by muscle. That kind of strength took time to build up, and while he was teaching him the ordinary, basic tasks he’d be required to do around the tower he’d be careful not to press him too hard.
Ashren on his part was eager to learn, and flourished under Kern’s generous patience. Even when they found themselves mired in mistakes and misunderstandings he never became downhearted or lost his lively curiosity, and his wide smile continued to defuse all sorts of tensions. His delighted silvery laugh when problems were overcome, or a new skill achieved, made all Kern’s hard work with him worthwhile. The sound of the boy’s laughter went to the heart of him as nothing else had ever done, and he very soon ceased to think of him as a tool with which he could foil Lord Greyfall’s plans, and found himself loving the boy for his own sake.
At the same time it was vital that he learn about his family and the complicated and dangerous situation he was now in, so every day when all their other work was done they sat in the study, where they could have a log fire to warm them, and Kern told him stories about the Kingdom of the Twelve Domains, their Lords and the Ruling King.
. . . . . . . . . to be continued