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CROWNS OF SILVER & ASH

CHAPTER I

Bildgermuck Ethalbard, once of Westbury Marsh, knew much of the cruelty of Men. It had put the bend in his back and the scowl upon his toothy snout, and specked his mangy skin with nervous boils and rashes. Wilting whiskers, sagging ears—his list of ails was long. But what he thought was worst of all were the black stains in the fur around his eyes where his tears had come far too often.

 

And yet, though such scorn had done much to make him look more the lowly, loathsome dhogler Men believed him to be, Bildgermuck was ever mindful not to let it change his gentle heart. Born the runt of his houndish brood, from his very first days his life had not been easy. He was shorter and frailer than most of his kind. What was instinct to others was an effort to him. But in his struggles he found patience and perseverance and a firmness of purpose hard as a heater shield.

 

Bildgermuck’s favorite place in all the Seven Cities was the Two Trees Tavern. It was there every night he sat the shortest stool near the cask. Between sips of his warm ale he would belch, snort and pick at the thick tufts of waxy hair in his ears, caring little for manners or the modesty of his company. After a long day’s labor in the privy pits, there was no better place to unwind.

 

However, on what was the eighth day before the coming of the sixtieth Kings’ Year, Bildgermuck knew there would be trouble. A traveler from beyond the Three Bends warmed the seat beside him. It took only a single swig of the house’s stout to loosen the traveler’s lips.

 

‘I walk this world and my eyes see all the same,’ the traveler said, staring down at the dark, frothy drink in his cup. ‘Fields withered to waste. Cottage towns boarded and abandoned, home now only to the rats and ravens.’

 

The traveler looked around at the others who filled the hall. Every face was eerily alike—sallow and gaunt with sunken black eyes like obsidian set in skull. The only sound was the gentle hum of the music from the minstrel band.

 

‘I see a once great city weak with fear,’ he went on. There came an odd quiver of pleasure in his voice. ‘A beautiful silver coop gorged to twice its fill. I see chickens waiting for the farmer’s axe.’

 

Bildgermuck straightened up on his stool and took another long drink, readying himself for more to come.

 

‘But even in these times of trouble there’s one thing I’d think a Man could count amongst the simplest of life’s privileges,’ said the traveler. ‘That’s to enjoy a drink away from the likes of you, dhogler. Was there no carcass in the alley to feed on?’

 

The barkeep Fargus Bumpole, a rather round Man with the bulbous red nose of one who sneaks a few more drinks from the keg than he should, grew uneasy. Such barbs of course were the stuff of drinking halls, but the traveler’s words seemed more than sodden twit. His voice cracked with enmity, the edge of every word sharpened over his whetstone tongue.

 

‘Finish up and be on your way, friend,’ said Fargus in the deepest growl he could muster.

 

‘I paid my last pence for this here drink,’ the traveler replied, swirling what was left of his ale around in his cup. ‘And I’ll take my time to pleasure in it—even if next to the stink of his flea-bit hide.’

 

Bildgermuck cocked his head to look the traveler over. He saw a haggard fellow with tired eyes. His rags were soiled and spotted with holes. When he drank from his oaken cup it was in small sips and Bildgermuck reckoned indeed it likely was the last he could afford. So though the traveler’s words were tarred with hate, the old dhogler eased a bit. In these dark days, he thought, everyone deserved a mite of compassion, even those who did not offer the same.

 

‘Yes, it’s true I was once a dhogler of unpleasant repute, dining on the bones of fawns and fairies,’ grumbled Bildgermuck, picking at his yellowed teeth with the long, sharp nail of his finger. ‘But, friend, my ways have changed. I now prefer a stiff mug from the tap and a hearty slab of gravied beef—well done, if you please!’ Bildgermuck finished what was left of his ale and slammed his empty pint to the countertop. ‘I work now for my wage,’ he said, ‘and with coin in my pockets I’m sure to fill my belly at day’s end, even if just with a drink or two.’

 

Bildgermuck slid his cup to Fargus for another fill. Like those of most others at the Two Trees his was a tankard forged in silver, masterfully etched with intricate flourish. A vine of ivy curled around the handle. Budding irises hung in a ring around the rim. But then this was the Silver City, a place where even the most trivial adornments were carefully crafted in bright sterling. It was custom for those who came to Denholm to spend their first day’s pay on some silver thing in tribute to the Crown. For those of the alehouse, it oft was a drinking cup that coaxed the coins from their purses.

 

But as Bildgermuck had noticed, the traveler drank from a cup of wood, its hollow clop on the bartop so different than the clank of silver. It was a sure sign the traveler had a mind to stay only long enough to disturb the precarious peace that had settled over the city.

 

‘Gravied beef,’ said the traveler through his teeth, ‘a memory gone.’ He moved to his feet and raised his mug in a drunken show. ‘“By order of His Lord-Judges, may the Crown’s Writ hereby decree to each member of every household only this per seven days: one half loaf of bread, one potato of moderate size, two eggs, and as much barley as each can hold in hand.”’

 

The room swelled with an uneasy rumble. Those at the Two Trees had come to forget their worries, not have them merrily announced like the Keeper’s cask special. Though here in the inn the stout was still thick, away from this hall life was not so easy. Famine pocked the city. Many made their supper of only bean bread and spiced water. Others ate what vermin they could ferret from the rubbish heaps that were as common now on the city streets as poulters and fishmongers once had been. But each night, if only for a few moments before the long walk home, their woes were numbed beneath the spell of the mead. To break its charm was unforgiveable.

 

‘Bring me the pincers from the hearth, Keeper, I’ll gladly take the words from his mouth for good!’ shouted a Man in the corner, his broad shoulders hunched over the table where he sat. Near the fire, a sellsword clad in rusty plate fingered the hilt of his shortblade.

 

‘“For dhoglers it is half of each amount,”’ the traveler declared louder, uncaring of the growing discontent around him. ‘A half more than it should be by my account!’

 

Fargus had heard enough. The end of the bludgeon he kept tucked beneath the counter poked him in the belly, begging to be rapped against the thick of the traveler’s skull. Yet the barkeep preferred a softer touch.

 

‘So long as the royal ale-stores are tapped and flowing,’ he announced, hoping a bit of jest would lighten the foul mood, ‘the King can keep his bloomin’ eggs!’

 

Finally there again was a show of spirit. Nearly everyone worked up a laugh and tapped their mugs to the bar top in delight. At Fargus’s wink the bards began a triumphal ballad of old, a song well-known to those who called the Seven Cities home. All that knew the lyric joined the band in singing and the hall was filled with a boisterous, if unpracticed, chorus.

 

Come hear the tale of Seven Stars,
And those their gifts did rend,
And he whose hand did smite the land,
Of all who’d cheer its end!
For demons come on horn’ed beasts,
Wrought ruin where they went,
All clad in black, to spoil and sack,
And leave us to lament!
But Hildebrand, brave Kingsman,
Who’d seen his brothers felled,
Set out to leave on New Year’s Eve,
To find the weapons spelled!

 

Blade of fire, crown of light,
Helm of heroes, ring of might,
Shield of princes, mitts of skill,
Hauberk hexed by witch’s will,
From nigh and far, the Seven Stars,
Redeemers of the Light!

 

And Hildebrand did find them all,
Then rode back home in haste,
Ten thousand dead, all bathed in red,
His fabled blade would taste!
While armored in the Seven Stars,
No foe could hand him harm,
With sword ablaze, and nary graze,
Nor mark on sheen of arms!
The Wielder, so they named him,
Drove down the hateful horde,
And ever on the threat was gone,
As peace then was restored!

 

Blade of fire, crown of light,
Helm of heroes, ring of might,
Shield of princes, mitts of skill,
Hauberk hexed by witch’s will,
From nigh and far, the Seven Stars,
Redeemers of the Light!        

 

Nothing sparked the spirit like a good song—especially one in which the Seven Crowns prevailed—and at ballad’s end the room entire roared. As the bards played on, even the illest tempered among them danced now arm in arm. Others appeared from the vestibule with crowd-harps and catgut lyres to join in harmony. Bildgermuck himself gave in to a grin that made his whiskers curl.

 

‘Keeper, another!’ the traveler huffed, drinking the last of his ale. The song seemed only to worsen his resentment. He had not sung along nor even tapped his foot to the tune. He had but sat on his stool, still as stone, while the others swung their cups in the air around him.

 

He turned stiffly to Bildgermuck. ‘You may have them fooled, but you and I know you’d eat their sleeping babes if you got the craving, hey, barker?’

 

And that was that. No sooner had the last word passed the traveler’s lips than did Bildgermuck spring from his seat to grab tight hold of his neck. He had called Bildgermuck a barker, the worst of names. It was a cruel word steeped in the hatred of a thousand years, first uttered by those who had settled the Marsh and given each beast a name to cast them down and remind them it was Men who rightly ruled. It was true one could not deny the dhoglers’ houndish features, but to call them barkers—to imply they were no better than mongrel pups—was an insult unmatched by any. It was also, as the traveler learned, a blunder often wrought with peril.

 

They crashed to the floor as the quarrel quickened. The traveler kicked and scrapped, prying at Bildgermuck’s fingers. The crowd cheered, their thirst turned to the easy comfort found in violence. Most of them cared little themselves for dhoglers, but they cared less for strangers who could not keep closed their mouths.

 

Bildgermuck poked his whiskered snout down into the traveler’s face. ‘Why take such joy in our gloom?’ He did not expect an answer. His hands so tightly wrung the traveler’s throat there could be none. ‘We welcomed you,’ he went on, ‘and you spit in our faces.’

 

The traveler fought for a breath. The dhoglers lips curled open to bare a jagged row of yellowed teeth.

 

‘And as for what you call me, next time use my rightful name, Bildgermuck Ethalbard of Denholm the Silver City.’

 

The traveler’s eyes grew wide with surprise.

 

‘No, not barker,’ Bildgermuck said, ‘but Ethalbard, after the Captain of the Northern Armies. I hold the Seven high in my heart.’ Bildgermuck leaned in closer. His wet nose pressed against the traveler’s cheek. ‘My true name would make your ears bleed.’

 

The traveler believed it. Just the dhogler’s breath was enough to singe the hair in his ears.

 

‘All right, all right!’ said Fargus the Barkeep, wrenching Bildgermuck from atop the traveler. ‘It’s enough, I suppose, though I’d gladly give a pretty pence for more!’

 

He pulled Bildgermuck to his feet and helped to straighten his tattered doublet.

 

‘To attack a Man as he drinks his ale!’ puled the traveler, rubbing at the red wales left around his skinny neck. ‘Coward!’

 

Fargus grabbed the traveler by the collar.

 

‘And you’re a fool to cross a dhogler,’ Fargus said back. ‘But you’ve learned as much, I guess. And now that you’re a bit wiser, it’s time you’re on your way.’

 

‘I’m glad to go, Keeper—your ale’s not fit for swill,’ the traveler said and turned for the door. Stumbling out he mumbled more beneath his breath until his wooden cup came through the air and curtly knocked him atop his head.

 

‘Your drink’s on the Inn!’ shouted Fargus after him. He rubbed his fat stomach, thinking of all the terrible things he could have done to him. ‘He’s lucky I’m just done with a draught . . .’

 

‘What about the dhogler?’ asked a faceless voice slurred by the stout.

 

Raise your fist, you’ll not be missed, eh, Fargus?’ said another from the dark.

 

They were right. Since the first ale was poured at the Two Trees near a century before, to brawl was to be banished from the barrel for the night. Though he had his good reasons, Bildgermuck must make his just amends.

 

‘Apologies, Mister Ethalbard,’ Fargus moaned, righting Bildgermuck’s seat.

 

‘Aye, but rules are rules,’ said the dhogler. ‘May I finish my ale ‘fore I go?’

 

Fargus nodded and smiled, happy to oblige one of his most loyal customers. ‘Your stool will be here come the morrow, as always,’ he said

 

Bildgermuck tipped his mug and slurped down the rest. He drank so fast a bit spilled on the bar top.

 

‘If that’s swill, it’s still the best in the Seven,’ he said, saluting Fargus with his cup high in the air. Fargus grinned graciously, then soaked up Bildgermuck’s drippings with his rag to wring out into the next Man’s cup. In those days, nothing went to waste.

 

It was but a brisk stroll from the Two Trees to the room where Bildgermuck kept a cot. He made the trip nearly every night and knew the way so well that he had often thought of trying it with his eyes closed, though he never actually did. It was a walk he always enjoyed, especially when the stars shone as bright above him as they did that night. At the end lied his pillow and mattress and a good night’s rest, three of his favorite things.

 

He tied his cup to a loop in his belt and stepped down into the street to begin his journey home. And what did he find at his feet but an alley cat prowling the shadows for supper. It was thin with hunger, its bones showing through its skin as it slinked closer. Bildgermuck reached down to stroke its back, but it drew away and hissed.

 

‘Not you, too?’ Bildgermuck said. From the shaft of his boot he took a festering bit of pickled pork—quite a delicacy in dhogler circles—and tore off a scrap as a friendly offering. The cat gave a sniff, then pawed it from his hand before happily taking her tongue to it.

 

‘Enjoy, my dear, and remember—not all us dhoglers are as terrible as we look,’ he said and went then on his way. It was not long before the patter of paws followed on the cobblestones behind him. He was happy to hear it. In years past he would have welcomed the solitude of the late night stroll, for it was a rare thing to find. The thoroughfares had bustled with business both fair and foul. Every street corner was stage to a bard and his company. The windows were bright with candlelight and loud with rollicking choirs of parley and song. But, alas, that was in better days.

 

‘Much has changed, kitten,’ he said just loud enough for his new companion to hear. ‘I do so miss the way it was.’

 

He walked past the boarded front of a draper’s shop. Through the cracks in the window he could see a full room of commonfolk, bedded down for the night like rats in a tangled nest. It was the same throughout the city—good folks come from the farthest reaches of Andulen, packed into any place they could find to bed. The streets were abound with wayfarers curled up in heaps against the buildings to keep warm. When morning came some begged for food if they could find the will to do it. But like most in the Silver City they were tired and hungry and weak, and with no work they rarely had reason to rouse from their pallets.

 

‘I long for those slow, hot days in the King’s crops, picking the weevils from the barley. Work to be proud of.’

 

The sign for the Hammer and Hen, an inn of much less favorable reputation than the Two Trees, appeared as Bildgermuck came around the corner. The hinges creaked above him as the breeze blew the inn’s signboard back and forth, beckoning him to come inside. But Bildgermuck, like most dhoglers, was ever loyal. He had promised long ago never to stray from Fargus Bumpole’s barrel.

 

On a small tract of land that ran beside the Hammer and Hen there sat a once modest croft of parsnips, potatoes and cabbage plants, long picked bare of its yield. Bildgermuck inspected what was left of the garden. He pressed his fingers into the dry dirt and took up a crumbling clump of soil.

 

‘Oh, how I miss the brown earth beneath my fingernails,’ he remembered. ‘But citywalls afford little room for the harrow and plow.’

 

Bildgermuck scratched at a tuff of tousled hair on his arm. ‘And, lo, here we are now, you and me, kitty, and ten thousand of our closest friends, scrapping for any ort we can put our tongues to. We stay we starve, but leave and, well, you’ll see no pity from the Sons.’

 

The last word was like a sour candy in his mouth, drawing his face into a pinched scowl. ‘No pity from them,’ he corrected in a whisper. ‘Do you even listen, friend?’

 

There was a long moment of silence, then the gentle mew of his companion. Bildgermuck smiled as the cat came to him. It purred and pushed kindly against his leg.

 

‘Good, good,’ he said, stroking its arching back. ‘Now you see why I’m glad to have you along. Rarely do I find such an easy ear.’

 

The dhogler heard then a sound sadly uncommon in these joyless times. From somewhere close came the faint ring of music, and not the kind played in taverns by half-drunken bards for a cup or two from the cask.

 

‘Do you hear it?’ said Bildgermuck. He held his breath and leaned into the sound with his hand to his twitching ear. It was more than just a simple song. It was a melody played by masters, each note a diamond, a fortune in every refrain.

 

‘Those are no learner’s chords,’ he said, following the music into the dark, narrow lane. His feet felt woefully slow beneath him as he went. He took a turn then turned again until he came to a commons shared by a circle of decrepit boarding houses. It was there he found the music’s fount, a tight gathering of performers, young and old, Men, Women and Eirkfolk. Many of them had settled back in old dinner chairs dragged out into the road, their instruments propped on their laps. Others hovered around them playing, while more yet joined in from the windows and balconies above. Together they conversed with their harps, lutes and viols, getting to know each other better than even the most eloquent of spoken words would allow.

 

And for the Eirkfolk, who were ever voiceless without the tongues for speech, it was not just any song they shared. It was ceolwin, their language. Though they talked at times through pantomime, they preferred to speak through their ceolweta, their twelve-stringed fiddles tuned to suit the ears of their masters. No two were of the same timbre, but distinct like the voices of Men. Melody and measure were the Eirkfolk’s words and diction, and to hear ceolwin in converse was to hear a divine duet. The more who spoke the more pleasing it was, like a full symphony in concert. Some spoke high, others low, some in meter, others not, but when heard together each was twined like golden thread to weave a most perfect whole.

 

Bildgermuck crept closer, careful not to disturb them. He saw amidst the gathering a young girl wrapped in a fox fur shawl. She skipped to the playful rhythms, spinning and jumping and waving her arms in the air. What she did not know was the song she danced to was more than just a jig or reel. It was an Eirkwife telling a friend of the blissful beauty in her daughter’s laugh. Unwitting of the ceolwin tongue, the child began to put her own words to the ceolweta’s music. Her voice was sweet as a morning wren’s.

 

Her smile shone bright as Summer Stars,
As ageless as the sky,
Her eyes as blue as Winter’s frost,
What secrets they did hide,
Her hair as gold as Autumn leaves,
Nowhere a finer hue,
Her heart as pure as Spring’s first breath,
To me she gave it true. 

My sweetest girl, Mathilde fair,
The Flower of the East.

 

Bildgermuck closed his eyes and perked his ears to listen. In all his days he had seldom heard a sound so pleasing. Dhoglers ordinarily cared little for music, but Bildgermuck had grown to adore it in his years in Denholm. He had even tried to learn the ceolweta once, but his long, slender fingers, gifts when picking and prodding in the wilds, were a hindrance in more artful endeavors.

 

My love runs deep as ocean floors,
Where mermaids make their place,
My love runs long as river beds,
That part the lands with grace,
My loves as humble as the lakes,
With secrets bold and deep,

My love’s as raging as the seas,
I gave her it to keep.

My sweetest girl, Mathilde fair,
The Flower of the East.

 

 For a moment, the beauty of the song made Bildgermuck forget all the ills of the world. There was no hungry ache in his belly. No worry for the wickedness that waited beyond the curtain wall. There was only this secret place in a city dressed in shining silver. Music, mirth and fellowship like that which once had made Denholm the most splendid jewel of all the Seven. And it was then as he looked up to the harvest moon, that orange circle in the sky so high above the rooftops, that he remembered.

 

‘Ah, kitten,’ he whispered with a wisp of despair, ‘think of the thousands not so lucky as these. How must they have fallen—their golden harps and silver flutes broke beneath the hooves of war steeds.’

 

He reached down again to pat the kitten’s head. ‘Every bard we lose is history lost.’

 

Bildgermuck’s grim thoughts were eased only a little as the Eirkfolk players turned from ceolwin to a joyful mariner’s reel from across the Somerset Sea. The Men and Women accompanied them in perfect harmony.

 

‘But as long as even one note is played,’ Bildgermuck said, ‘there will always be some good in the world.’

 

His mouth opened wide in a deep yawn that showed every tooth inside—and by nature it made the kitten’s hair stand up on end.

 

‘I’ve an early morning ahead,’ he said, rubbing his eyes, ‘and I’ll need every bit of rest I can raise. The privies won’t be cleaning themselves, you know.’

 

It was a foul job but one for which his dhogler nose was well suited. He knew no stench that could turn his belly.

 

‘Hope we’ll meet again,’ he said, running his fingers down the ridge of the kitten’s spine. ‘And if you’ve any luck, next time I’ll have another bit for you to eat on.’

 

The kitten mewed a farewell and bounded off into the shadows. Bildgermuck began on his way too, sad to hear the thrum of music grow softer behind him. He thought tomorrow he would come earlier to find a place nearby where he could settle in and listen without the rush to leave.

 

‘Until then,’ he said, saluting the bards goodbye, then turned his legs to the journey home, the songs still swirling in his head. But it was not long before he was overcome by a feeling altogether odd. His feet were unsure beneath him, bewildered by the path they traveled. The streets and sights that surrounded him were new to his more than able eyes. The smells that blew by on the breeze were peculiar.

 

‘Mud and mire!’ he cursed, and it was then he knew. Bildgermuck Ethalbard, once called the most cunning tracker in Westbury Marsh, was, for lack of a better word, lost.

Want more? Crowns of Silver & Ash: Book I  is now available on Kindle and in paperback!

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