Now that the rain had ceased a red squirrel emerged from its shelter and leapt between the high leafless boughs of an ancient oak tree, searching for food. The squirrel landed on a thin and decayed branch causing it to break where it was rotten near the trunk, but the creature was too agile to be in danger of falling, it had already jumped to safety and was clinging to the gnarled bark of the wide tree.
The dislodged branch fell to earth with a thud, loud enough to wake the figure huddled on the forest floor. It was a young man who was accustomed to waking in comfort a couple of hours after the sun had warmed the day, not out of doors after a night of rain, yet this was the circumstance in which Howak found himself for the third consecutive morning. He opened his eyes and gazed at the woodland scene around him. Although the rain had passed the world was still wet. Heavy branches dripped their gathered rain water with irregularity, ferns held tiny drops between their fronds and the morning webs of woodland spiders were like delicate jewellery of water threaded with silk. A grey sky and heavy atmosphere offered grim prospects for the day that stretched ahead. The weather’s low mood seemed to be in sympathy with Howak’s personal depression, and feelings of loss and despair brought on an involuntary surge of tears. In an effort to suppress these emotions Howak concentrated on his immediate predicament. Despite being damp and uncomfortable he was reluctant to move away from the shallow hollow in the ground where he had lain all night for he would have to suffer the squelch of soaked boots and the chill of waterlogged clothing. But he had to move and march on, further away from his southern homeland which was no longer a safe place for him. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply to compose himself then resolved to move. In one swift action he was on his feet.
At a little under six feet Howak was considered tall amongst his people. He had an evenly proportioned build although he was beginning to look thin and drawn after his few days of foraging in the woodland. Eyes of pale blue flecked with grey looked out from a face of a light complexion where darkening stubble enhanced his vagabond appearance. Running his hand through his hair, its natural fair colour darkened by the soaking, he flicked away the water thus collected and was conscious that his usual neatly trimmed appearance was beginning to grow ragged. Picking up his quarterstaff, his only possession, Howak drew another deep breath then strode on in a general northerly direction.
A rumbling in his stomach reminded Howak he must eat soon, after three days of meagre fare he needed hot food, though this idea seemed almost a fantasy. He also needed to get dry and acquire new clothes, but hospitality would be difficult to come by as the folk of the region he was passing through were suspicious and afraid of unkempt travellers. More importantly he needed to avoid recognition. Most travellers would call at one of the hostels which were to be found at convenient intervals on the main routes throughout the south of the country, but for Howak, as a fugitive, these normally assured if not homely shelters were a potential trap, the hunter’s lair, and were to be avoided. Howak was nineteen years old, alone and friendless in a land where he was being tracked like an outlaw.
Teynland had been unstable throughout much of its history. It was a country made up of several provinces, each ruled by its own castle, most of which were vying through warfare for superiority. Thirlanden had risen as the most powerful castle and its lord headed an alliance, albeit an uneasy one, of the lords in the south of Teynland. Thirlanden Castle had been built atop a vast granite crag that dominated the wide river valley in which it stood. It was overlooked from a distance and on all sides by mountains with peaks ranging between three and four thousand feet, where copper was mined and whose foothills were the only location in Teynland where tin had been discovered. The combination of these metals produced bronze which gave Thirlanden the advantage of a technology superior to that of Teynland's other castles, which in turn led to a more prosperous society, allowing the Lord of Thirlanden to be dominant among the lords of Teynland. As well as being fortunate in its metal deposits, Thirlanden Valley’s geology also gave it the advantage of being the most agriculturally productive region of Teynland and many of the surrounding towns were dependent on the castle for trade and ultimately their survival. Merchants in Thirlanden were rich and the lord who levied taxes from the merchants, and could thus pay the highest wages to soldiers, wielded great power.
In contrast to their southern peers the lords of Teynland’s northern castles ruled over smaller domains and were less rich in resources. They were powerful within their limitations and could survive independently from the south, but only as a basic subsistence. So long as the southern lords offered a variety of goods and a lifestyle of comparative richness and sophistication, the northern lords sought to trade with them or gain favour and power. This situation had prevailed for many generations and was so in Howak’s early life.
Howak’s father, Henarg, had been the Lord of Thirlanden, a popular lord due to his having worked to stem the corruption which had been rife among the merchants and soldiery under his predecessor’s reign. Henarg measured his success by the improvements he brought to his people's lives rather than by how his personal wealth could increase at their expense. For the few years of Henarg’s reign the people of Thirlanden enjoyed a freedom and prosperity which had been unknown even to their grand-sires. But in the volatile Teynland, despite his benevolence, such a man as Henarg could have enemies, the suppressed soldiers and curtailed merchants held a quiet seething resentment for their lord. Such contained vehemence cannot be held in check for long and, after a seemingly brief time on the throne, both Henarg and Howak’s mother Mawraig became targets for assassins.
Lofrud and Wrelf, two of Thirlanden’s leading merchants, had chosen their time carefully, the eve of Thirlanfest, when the castle celebrated both Teynland's greatest folk hero, Thirlan, and the turning of winter into the approaching spring. They waited until well after midnight when most people would be asleep from the consequences of the night’s celebrations, whether exhaustion, drunkenness or a combination of the two. With the castle unusually free of Henarg’s own guards, the two men had stolen unopposed along the inner corridors of Thirlanden and made their way to Henarg’s rooms in the silence of the night which had little moonlight.
Within the sleeping chamber they paused as their eyes grew accustomed to the almost complete darkness of the room, the soft sound of the sleepers’ breathing was clearly audible, a gentle sound amplified against the background of silence. After a few moments two shapes under the blankets became discernible in the darkness. Wrelf wavered but Lofrud had no hesitation, though only moved slowly towards the bed. He looked up at the dark figure of Wrelf who, feeling Lofrud’s angry glare through the gloom, took up his place across the bed from his accomplice. They held their swords vertically over the sleepers, the points a mere inch above their chests.
“Now,” hissed Lofrud and together the assassins thrust downward, their bronze blades penetrating deep into their victims' hearts.
Howak had stumbled into his room some time before midnight wondering how, when drunk to excess, beer could deprive a man of balance and clear speech yet his sense of direction for home was, if anything, sharpened. He collapsed onto his bed fully clothed, not even bothering to remove his cloak or boots, and sank swiftly into sleep.
A noise awoke him with a start.
Was it a scream?
He sat up quickly, cursing as his head swam, and for a moment wondered if the sound had been within his dreams. Yet it had sounded unnervingly real. After fumbling for and lighting a candle he went to investigate. Shadows leapt around him, fleeing the candle’s flame, their movement exaggerated by his staggering as Howak’s instincts led him to his parents' rooms. On reaching the sleeping chamber he pushed aside the heavy tapestry curtain from the doorway and held up his candle in order to see. The sight he beheld sobered him immediately.
Sometimes in experience a whole scene is absorbed in a single second, each detail clearly recalled long afterwards as if the passage of time had been suspended to allow for careful observation, so profound is the effect of what is seen. Such a moment now held Howak as the candle cast its revealing yellow glow into the room. He would always recall how his eyes seemed to have been led from the startled jump of the two figures standing over the bed, to the glint of bronze picked out by the flame, downwards to the blood dripping from their swords and finally to the vacant, deeper than sleep stares of his murdered parents. Howak was momentarily paralysed with the chilling horror of the scene. He could not comprehend that the inert bodies on the bed were those which had given him life, protection and joy for all his few years. The very foundations of his life had been ripped away and he felt himself to be reeling physically.
Raising his eyes from the bed Howak saw clearly the startled guilty faces of the killers, and they saw his. Wrelf rushed towards Howak who cursed for being unarmed, he threw his candle at Wrelf then turned and ran. Lofrud swiftly took advantage of Wrelf’s undefended back and thrust his sword, killing his fellow conspirator.
With tear blurred vision Howak continued to run. Again instinct drove him on through the dark, stone-flagged corridors of Thirlanden Castle into areas illuminated by torches set in wall sconces. Blinded by a rising panic, Howak did not see the man ahead of him until he tripped over him and crashed to the floor. Thinking himself caught by another assassin he almost cried out then recognised Hathrod, one of his father’s guards. Frustratingly for Howak Hathrod was slumped against the wall in a drunken stupor and could not be roused. Howak was further frustrated to see the guard had no weapons except for a quarterstaff, which he took.
Now that he had stopped running Howak began to feel nauseous, both from the horror he had witnessed and from the excess of alcohol surging through his body. He was about to give in to this feeling when he heard running footsteps. Looking up he saw Lofrud in silhouette against the torch flames, Howak froze at the sight of the menacing figure which had suddenly appeared, imposing itself in the shifting light and shadow.
Lofrud peered along the corridor but could not see Howak crouched behind the sleeping drunk. Howak began to take deep breaths as words of his father’s tuition came to the forefront of his thoughts and he suppressed his panic and calmed his confusion with controlled breathing. Now staring steadily at his enemy he quickly assessed the situation and decided that, armed with only the quarterstaff, his chances against the sword arm of Lofrud were slim. He also reckoned the middle-aged legs of Lofrud would not catch up with his youth so he leapt up and sprang away from his hiding place, again running, searching for help. Lofrud lumbered after the shape which had detached itself from the shadows, but Howak was too swift to be caught.
Howak was sweating heavily and fearing for his life as he ran, wondering where Wrelf might be and if the assassins would have other men close at hand. He had been running aimlessly, expecting to be confronted and overpowered at any moment, but as the sound of chasing footsteps receded Howak halted to think. He leant heavily on the quarterstaff, drawing breath through his dried throat. After barely a few moments he heard footsteps again.
Was it Lofrud or Wrelf?
How many might be hunting him?
He felt threatened, surrounded by enemies in his own home. Fear and panic were welling up again. Suddenly he made the bitter decision to escape from the castle altogether.
The precipitous Thirlanden Crag was scarred with narrow clefts, a few of which led down to the valley floor. Howak found one he knew well from childhood adventures and slid away from the castle. It was a painful and perilous descent in the deep blackness of the night, his footing gave way to loose rocks several times, but with no greater injury than bruised arms and grazed shins he reached the foot of the crag. Having evaded capture he was well away from the castle before sunrise.
Before leaving the valley Howak had looked back on Thirlanden Crag. The sun was newly risen and cast long shadows towards him from the east, even they seemed to be reaching out to grab him. The crag itself was black, its western face still holding a vestige of night as all around it was colouring into daylight. Howak considered whether to return and face Lofrud and Wrelf, of whose death he was ignorant, with the charge of murder. Many would have believed him but there may have been other assassins lurking and he may not have made it back to the castle. Thirlanden was too dangerous a place for him on that morning. At least he was alive and free to hide, he could go back to face his enemies on another day.
Howak felt a rising constriction in his throat as he looked across the slowly lightening landscape from which he was fleeing. He gazed longingly and sadly at the scattered villages and great expanses of tilled land with the wide river snaking lazily away to the east fed by its dozens of tributaries flowing from the mountains on either flank. He had not realised until that moment how dear the valley was to him and how deeply he would miss it. To think it would fall into the grip of Lofrud and Wrelf and their ilk revolted and angered him and honed his determination to return and take it back. Looking again at Thirlanden Crag he pictured the faces of his parents and a jumble of memories came to him, of strength and tenderness, of guidance and care, and of the warmth of their smiles for him and each other. The enormity of his loss hit him and its reality was frightening, he began to shake with fear. Alone in Thirlanden Valley he wept.
As the sun rose higher Howak dried his eyes then stared for a few moments without thinking. A sudden chilling feeling overcame him as he wondered what would become of his parents' bodies. Would they be laid to rest respectfully, or be disposed of in some base manner? The possibility of the latter intensified his disgust and hatred for his enemies but also made him afraid to linger near Thirlanden and urged him to get away.
“Well,” he said softly to himself, “there’s nothing to be gained by standing and staring.” With that he turned to find his route over and beyond the western mountains.
Thirlanden had woken with a collective hangover to learn the news of the murder of its lord and lady, it was a bewildered and mournful castle on that day. Lofrud produced the body of Wrelf as the sole assassin whom, Lofrud claimed, he had disturbed whilst on a late visit, fought with and killed, but too late. Being mindful to conceal any evidence quickly, he arranged an early burial for Henarg and Mawraig, with appropriate ceremony lest he draw any suspicion on himself with a less seemly interment. Lofrud then put himself in the role of Thirlanden's guardian and in the following days established a tight control over the castle.
Search parties were sent out for Howak, as Lofrud declared the young heir should be returned to his protection. Those searching were Lofrud’s own loyal men who would have no qualms in dispatching of Howak in the same manner as their master had dealt with his parents. As the only witness to Lofrud’s act of murder and as rightful heir to the lordship Howak would be hunted to his death, or until the overthrow of Lofrud.