~ 1 ~

"We'll get there before nightfall."

"Yes, for sure."

He shoots me an offended glare over a shoulder but I pretend not to notice. Maybe he still believes it himself, just like he apparently believes the whole fantastic story we're chasing? Whatever; he's been telling me the same thing ever since this morning but so far I've seen nothing to convince me we'd get anywhere today.

I know I should be looking forward to the moment when I call his bluff, but right now the thought doesn't sound too tempting, because it might mean that we'll have no roof over our heads tonight.

Of course someone might now ask if it was really necessary to travel nearly four hundred miles just to prove him wrong; heaven knows I've asked it myself enough times. But there's no point in my turning back now. I've walked countless solitary miles in my life and will no doubt walk many more yet, and I cannot see why I should choose to do so now when I have an alternative.

No, I much prefer to sit on the broad back of a horse and let its sturdy legs do the walking. This is much nicer, even if the folded saddlecloth admittedly could do a better job of cushioning the seat underneath me. My backside is getting sore.

I just have to grin and bear it, though, for the man in whose belt I've hooked my fingers is not in the mood for breaks. I cannot really blame him even if he is a little cross with me at the moment. I've made no secret of my disbelief, and the closer we are to the moment of truth, the shorter his temper seems to get whenever I poke him about it. But really, he should've known better than –

Oh, you're asking who he is, this man I'm riding with? He's Rogher-Gamyon – Knight Rogher-Gamyon, he'd correct with emphasis, for he's very proud of that distinction, and not without reason. He's earned his title fair and square by fighting valorously in many battles, as any of his brothers-in-arms would readily testify. The numerous scars in his hide are evidence of that, and they also remind me of how and why I first met him. At the time I was staying in Castle Malderyl, and when the aftermath of the bloody skirmishes on the banks of Lake Galar threatened to overwhelm the resident surgeon, I offered my assistance in dealing with the wounded, and

And what about me? My apologies, I tend to ramble and get carried away! Zyan Melleth is the name, usually just Zyan for brevity. A minstrel by occupation, that's what I am, even if herbs and healing are what have mostly kept me in business recently – which, I hasten to stress, is not because my skills with the flutes and pipes were somehow inferior to any of my countrymen whom you might've met before. I pride myself for being able to play a fair duet with anyone, anytime, and I also consider my repertoire respectable by any standards. Ask me to sing a song to please a lady, to entertain a merry party for an evening, or to play a gruesome ballad of battle, death and glory, and you won't be disappointed!

No, somehow my road just keeps leading me into places and situations where my skills in healing are frequently in demand. Some people might even hint that I have an uncanny ability to keep the wrong company, but they are mistaken. I'm proud to say that Rogher, this worthy knight, calls me his friend, and that is something I value very highly. I've dealt with men like him enough to know that one might call them 'friend' as much as one likes, but it only means something when the word comes from their mouth. He's my friend, a strong, courageous man, skilled with horses and arms – not a bad companion on the road.

But, well, he's indeed cross with me at the moment. All of a sudden he ducks in the saddle without as much as a word in warning, and if I wasn't so accustomed to riding with him, a thick pine branch would surely slap me in the face. As things are, I mimic his movements without even thinking, and the branch merely brushes the back of my head and deposits a few pungently smelling needles inside my collar.

I grab him more tightly as the horse strains a little, climbs a few steps and – we're not on a footpath anymore? No, this is no trodden turf. Rough stone has been mixed with dirt in places, it makes a crunching sound under our steed's hooves, and I have to peer down to believe my eyes. A proper road?

"We'll be in the village in no time at all," my companion says, voice confident, "and from there it's not a long ride any more."

Aha, so we're still a little curt but already talking again? That's good, he's already been sulking far longer than he's usually capable of. I make a noncommittal noise, just enough to let him know I've heard him. Funny how the horse's pace quickens; maybe because it feels the harder surface under its feet, or maybe it's because Rogher isn't slouching in the saddle any more. I guess I have to start believing that we really are going to sleep in the company of people and not owls tonight?

He makes a satisfied grunt. "There it is."

I'm surprised at how big the village looks, with stone houses both larger and more numerous than I would've guessed. On the other hand, we've journeyed a long way since the previous village, and have seen an increasing number of clearings and fields around. The people tending those must live somewhere.

The road ahead is lined with low walls of stone, and a few men are inspecting a stretch of it just outside the village. When they spot us, they straighten their backs and stare, curious. Rogher raises a gloved hand in greeting and one of the men takes a few steps towards us.

"Why, if it isn't Knight Rogher himself!" he calls. "Well met, knight! Grown tired of faraway wars, eh?"

"I reckoned my own Lord might again have some use for me," Rogher replies as he halts his horse and leans his elbows on the pommel of the saddle.

Or, well, that's how I understand it. Over the years my ear has adjusted to the many different ways that these tall dark people speak their language, but on this last leg of the journey the south-western dialect has become thicker than anything I've ever encountered. Interestingly, so has Rogher's accent, and as he responds to the older man's greeting, he slips into such a slur that I'm struggling to comprehend.

His tone of voice is far too conversational to my liking, and I try to keep my sigh inaudible. The moment when I finally get off this horse and can look forward to an imminent meal and a night in a real bed is slipping still a little further away.

They exchange news and gossip, and I listen with just enough attention so that I know to smile and nod when the word 'minstrel' comes up. A few moments later there's another word that makes me perk up: 'castle'. What are they talking about?

"Indeed, it is just about ready," the farmer says proudly. "Of course there's still things to do, but a fine sight it is already!"

"We got this better road, too," adds another one of the men. "All those stone transports from the quarries, they were too heavy for the old road."

A castle. They're talking about a castle, apparently in all seriousness. I can forgive the farmer for his slip, it's unlikely that he's ever strayed too many miles from his home, let alone far enough to see what a real castle is like. Rogher should know better, though, and yet...

He's told me that there's a castle around here, and I've flatly told him that it's impossible. There are no proper castles, not this far south. Castles are a Revnashi thing, we're not in Revnash, the nearest real castle is over three hundred miles away, end of discussion. Yes, I agree, it's just about the stupidest reason imaginable to travel hundreds of miles, but here we are. Nor was it really the only or even the most important reason, but still

My thoughts are interrupted when Rogher sits up again and the horse, feeling the reins tighten, sidesteps a little.

"Well, we'll be off now so we get there before dark. Say my greetings to your families!"

With that we trot through the village and out again, over a small river and across some garden plots, then once more into a forest. The terrain gets rougher, the road keeps climbing slowly but steadily, and I cling to Rogher's back. Could it be that even his horse knows we're close to our destination? It pulls on its reins and snorts, gait is brisk. As if it knew the way, or else it's just reacting to the way he sits in the saddle.

The road slopes and now we're going downhill again. The forest sighs around us, it's getting less dense and I catch glimpses of blue sky ahead. Could we be reaching Noragayll at last – the Black Valley itself? Does the name come from the tall dark trees of the forest, or from the dark stone of the mountains, or

I must be seeing things, though, or else that damn Rogher has been pulling wool over my eyes all this while and somehow fooled me into thinking we're headed south when in fact our direction has been something else entirely.

Or else that damn Rogher hasn't been lying after all, because that thing there is a castle.

Not a big one, but that's beside the point. It's a castle, there's no other word for it. Made of the same black stone as the houses of the village, it has one tall tower and two smaller ones, and a high solid wall surrounding something that looks like the keep.

The road winds its way towards it, vanishing here and there from sight and eventually leading to that massive gate. It will take us around the center of the valley where some houses huddle between fields and a glittering lake. It will take us to the mirage that proudly stands at the foot of the slopes, its banner flying in the wind that blows over the sharp ridge of mountains.

I'm gaping, and it takes a good while before I realize that Rogher has halted his horse and is gaping as well. In awe? I nudge him and he twists around enough to give me a questioning glance.

"It's a castle," I state.

Let no one claim that I wouldn't know when to admit defeat.

"Yes," Rogher says, delighted and surprised. "By gods, they've really got it ready!"

"It looks very impressive." That's the honest truth, too. "Umm, Rogher? How about going there? I wouldn't mind getting off this horse at some point."

"What, are you complaining? Since when are you so whiny?"

I can hear his grin, and then I have to grab his belt really tight because he kicks his horse first into a trot and then, mercifully, canter. Mercifully, because I swear that the goddamn beast has the bounciest trot I've ever had the misfortune to experience. It never seems to bother Rogher in the least, but then, he's sitting in the saddle and I'm not.

"I'm not whiny," I protest when I've caught my breath again. "Don't try to tell me you don't want to have a bath and something to eat!"

"Sure I do," he shouts back over the thumping of hooves. "Do you now admit that I was telling the truth?"

"Yes!" I hang on to him and let my body follow the steady roll of the horse's movements. "You were right, I was wrong!"

"For once!" Rogher lets out a triumphant hoot, spurring the horse on, and we both laugh aloud.

After a while he slows down, into that terrible trot. It won't do to barge to a castle in full gallop, it would be all too easy to mistake us for messengers bringing news of some terrible calamity and we don't want to alarm anybody. The horse is snorting and stepping high, and by now I'm willing to believe that it knows there's grooming and stable and food awaiting and it can hardly wait to get there.

We're getting close enough to see better, and I marvel at the place. The people of these lands sure know how to use this stone that's so liberally available in the mountains and hills around them. The walls are smooth and solid, the seams between stones tiny and tight, and looking up I can see the arrow slits high above, like holes punched with a huge sharp knife through the top of the wall. The color makes the castle look rather grimmer and more menacing than its size would suggest, and I fight back a shudder when its shadow falls upon us.

One half of the solid wood gate is open and an armed soldier is standing guard in the middle of it. He's looking curiously at us, and when we get closer his jaw drops. Rogher is quicker, though.

"Let us pass, Beress, for I am one of Lord Jhorell's men!"

"Knight Rogher?" The soldier, a mere youngster really, looks delighted. "You've come back!"

"Indeed I have, and I come bearing a minstrel." Rogher points a thumb at me over his shoulder and I nod to the guard. "What a surprise, though, to see that the castle is already complete!"

"Hasn't been for long," the soldier assures us. "It's not many weeks since the last workmen returned to their villages."

"Well, I'm sure I'll be hearing about that all yet. Step aside now, lad!"

Iron clatters on stone as we ride into the paved courtyard. The sound alerts a tall, scrawny stablehand who peers out of a doorway and then hurries towards us, brushing dry hay from his clothes. Our mount nuzzles him greedily as he grabs the reins.

"Here, Zyan."

Rogher kicks off one stirrup and lowers me to the ground first. I'm grateful for his steady grip that keeps me upright while I negotiate with my legs; they're not quite sure at first whether or not they'll carry my weight after all this riding.

"You're all right?" He swings a leg over the horse's back and jumps down beside me.

"Yes, yes, just a little stiff." Rogher, you're forgiven everything, for I see a glint of concern in those hazel-brown eyes.

He turns to detach the saddlebags from their straps and I look around. By now I guess it must be something I do even in my sleep: whenever arriving in a new place, get your bearings right as soon as possible.

The place is compact, the courtyard small. The smaller towers flank the entrance, there's no gatehouse where an attacking enemy could be trapped, but I can see the lower part of a sturdy portcullis right inside the wooden gate. On our left, against the wall, is another stone building that joins at one end with the keep. On our right there are the stables, made of stone as well, and something that nearly makes me forget everything else. There's a smaller building that sports a tall chimney. The place of bliss: the bathhouse.

"Come on," Rogher says, unceremoniously pushing some of the baggage into my arms. "Let's find lodgings in the Soldiers' House."

"You mean I'll come there with you?" I hurry after him as he heads towards the longer, two-storied building. "Shall I sleep there as well?"

"Of course," he grunts. "Or isn't it good enough for you?"

I'd like to groan. Still sulking, are we? "That's not what I meant, and you know it! I was just thinking that maybe I should go and ask if there'd be a place for me in the servants' side."

"It's not as if we'd be at war here, anyway," Rogher says as he pushes the door open. Its heavy, ornate hinges let out a muted squeak. "You can share a bed with me."

I've nothing against that – if I had, I wouldn't be here. No, nothing against sleeping next to a big, warm, muscular body, especially as Rogher is a peaceful sleeper and also in the habit of washing himself whenever he has the chance. Of course it'll also mean sharing the room with several others who might be a lot more raucous and less clean than my immediate bedfellow, but that's nothing new either. I've survived it before.

A bulky man emerges from somewhere, and through the half-open door behind him I glimpse a large room with a fireplace and long tables. So the Soldiers' House of this brand new castle even has its own dining hall? That's an astonishing sight, a real novelty, and it shows that the Lord of this place wants to follow the very latest fashion.

"Knight Rogher!" the big man exclaims, broad face cracking into a huge smile. "Welcome home!"

Judging by the back-clapping that follows, these two know each other. I hang on to my load of the baggage and try to ignore my aching arms while Rogher is talking to the man whom he doesn't bother introducing to me. I hope he won't forget that he, too, is tired and dusty and sweaty and in need of hot water.

He doesn't forget, not for too long anyway. "Well, there's time to talk yet. This is Zyan, by the way, we've been traveling together a lot. I'm sure nobody minds if he sleeps here, too."

"No, no, by all means!" The man waves a meaty hand in dismissal. "See that third door to your right? There are several free beds, just take your pick. And the bathhouse has just been heated."

I follow Rogher to the third sleeping hall on the right and am surprised by its airiness. There are six broad beds, two of which look pristine enough, and he tosses his armful on the one closest to the door. I follow suit, grateful to be rid of my load as well.

Rogher walks around, surveying the room. There are no lit candles or torches, but a slice of sunlight from the window high up on one wall cuts across the room to give some light. The beds look broad enough; my guess is that three men could sleep in each if necessary, but now they're probably just for one or two each, depending how strong troops the castle houses. There's no one inside save for us.

I look hopefully at Rogher who turns around and tilts his head.

"Bathhouse?" I suggest.

"Yes," he agrees.

The clothes stuffed into the saddlebag feel a little damp for being there for days, but we manage to find relatively clean breeches and shirts, then push our baggage into a corner and head out, towards the bathhouse.

The place is packed, literally. When we strip off our clothes and open the door to the washroom, the first thing we see is the broad, naked back of a man who has a long scar across one shoulder blade and towers easily half a head over Rogher. My friend is not intimidated, though, just gives the man's buttocks a hard slap with a palm.

"Make way, Gerrit old bastard, so that others get in as well!"

There's a roar of recognition, and I can't help cringing as the wet melee swallows us both. It sounds like they all know each other, and inside the small, hot room the noise of them all talking at the same time must be heard to be believed. I won't even try to count how many of us there are, my attention isn't on them. This is very close to my definition of heaven: a place with plenty of water, both hot and cold, where I can scrub myself properly clean again.

Eventually they decide that they've splashed enough water around, and the whole bunch files out of the washroom and into the dressing chamber. I linger behind for a few moments to let my ears stop ringing before following them and trying to locate my own clothes. Not that it would be too difficult, seeing as none of them would fit in mine anyway.

Rogher is in his element among all these old friends and comrades, and amid much talking and laughing we all return to the Soldiers' House, already tasting the dinner and ale on our tongues. I'm just as ravenous as they are, but just as we're about to grab our tankards, there's someone at the door.

"Knight Rogher?"

A young servant boy whose attire says he must be from the castle itself. He clears his throat under the questioning stares of all these big brawny men.

"Yes?" Rogher frowns, annoyed.

"My Lord Jhorell wants to see you."

Rogher pulls himself up, and I'd dearly like to know what that expression is, the one that flits over his face as he turns and nods.

"Coming," he says, then glances ruefully at his friends. "Mustn't keep the Lord waiting. Come, Zyan."

The others groan in disappointment, but they can't be even half as disappointed as I am. I had no time to even sip the ale that glimmers in huge jugs on the table, and my tongue is about to glue itself to my teeth.