The thin cane slashed through the air. The fourteen-year-old youth winced but uttered no cry. Blood seeped from a split in the skin of his right palm. The tall, bony schoolmaster loomed over the black-haired boy. He was about to speak but saw the blood on the tip of his bamboo cane. Alterith Shaddler gazed at it with distaste, then laid the bamboo on the shoulder of the lad’s gray shirt. Drawing the cane back and forth, he cleaned it, leaving thin crimson streaks on the threadbare garment.
“There are those,” said Alterith Shaddler, his voice as cold as the air in the stone schoolroom, “who doubt the wisdom of trying to teach the rudiments of civilized behavior to highland brats. Since knowing you, boy, I am more inclined to count myself among their number.”
Alterith placed the cane upon the desktop, straightened his threadbare white horsehair wig, and clasped his hands behind his back. The youth remained where he was, his hands now at his sides. It was a shame that he had been forced to draw blood, but these clan youngsters were not like Varlish boys. They were savages who did not feel pain in the same way. Not once did any of them make a sound while being thrashed. Alterith was of the opinion that the ability to feel pain was linked to intelligence. “No sense, no feeling,” as his old tutor, Mr. Brandryth, was apt to say regarding clan folk.
The schoolmaster looked into the youth’s dark eyes. “You understand why I punished you?”
“No, I do not.”
Alterith’s hand lashed out, slapping the boy hard upon the cheek. The sound hung in the air. “You will call me‘sir’ when you respond to me. Do you understand that?”
“I do . . . sir,” answered the youth, his voice steady but his eyes blazing with anger.
Alterith was tempted to slap him again for the look alone—and would have if the distant ringing of the dusk bell had not sounded from the Saint Persis Albitane School. Alterith glanced to his right, gazing through the open window and across the old parade square to the main school build- ing. Already Varlish youngsters were emerging from the great doors, carrying their books. One of the masters came in sight, his midnight-blue academic cape shimmering in the afternoon sunshine. Alterith looked with longing at the old building. Within it were libraries filled with historical tomes, fine works of philosophy, and diaries of famous Varlish soldiers and statesmen. There were three halls and even a small theater set aside for great plays. The teacher sighed and returned his gaze to the cold stone walls of his own classroom. It was a former stable, the stalls having been ripped out and replaced with twenty ancient desks and chairs. Twenty chairs and fifty students, the unlucky ones sitting in ranks around the walls. There were no books there, the children using slate boards and chalk for their work. The walls were bare except for a single map of the Moidart’s domain and beside it the daily prayer for the Moidart’s continued health.
What a waste of my talents, he thought.
“We will recite the prayer,” he said, offering the customary short bow. The fifty pupils in the class rose and, as they had been taught, returned the bow. Then the chant began.
“May the Source bless the Moidart and keep him in good health. May his lands be fertile, his people fed, his honor magnified, his laws be known, his word be obeyed, for the good of the faithful.”
“Good day to you all,” said Alterith.
“Good day, sir,” they chanted.
Alterith looked down into the eyes of the black-haired youth. “Begone, Master Ring. And bring a better attitude with you tomorrow.”
The lad said nothing. He took one backward step, then spun on his heel and walked away.
One day, thought Alterith Shaddler, Kaelin Ring will hang. He has no respect for his betters.
The master sighed again, then moved swiftly across the room, lifting his greatcoat from its hook on the wall and swinging it across his thin shoulders. Despite the promise of spring, the highland air was still icy cold. Wrapping a long woolen scarf around his neck, Alterith left the old stable and walked across the parade ground into the school proper, striding down the now-silent corridor leading to the outer grounds. Several of the other teachers were sitting in the academic chamber as he passed. A fire was blazing in the hearth, and Alterith could smell the spices used in the mulled wine. It would have been pleasant to sit in one of those deep armchairs, his feet extended toward the fire. But then, unlike the members of staff at Persis Albitane, teaching was Alterith’s only source of income, and he could not afford the chamber membership fee. Pushing thoughts of mulled wine and warm fires from his mind, he strode out into the cold air. The sun was shining brightly in a clear, bright sky. Immediately his eyes began to water. Alterith squinted toward the road and the lake beyond.
He could see the pony and open carriage already making their way slowly along the water’s edge. Alterith’s heart sank at the prospect of the four-mile journey to the Moidart’s estate. He would be frozen and blue by the time they arrived, his teeth chattering, his mind unable to function properly. Alterith hoped the Moidart himself would not be present for his arrival. The last time they had met, Alterith, limbs trembling with the cold, had tried to bow only to see his horsehair wig slide off and land on the marbled floor at the Moidart’s feet. Alterith blushed at the memory.
The sound of the pony’s hooves could be heard now, and Alterith walked down to meet the carriage, anxious for the journey to begin as soon as possible. The driver nodded to him but said nothing. He was, as usual, wearing a thick overcoat and had a plaid blanket wrapped around his shoulders. Alterith climbed into the open-topped carriage and settled back, pushing his thin hands into the sleeves of his overcoat and trying not to think about the cold.
Kaelin Ring had no coat. He had lent it to his sick friend, Banny, though at this moment he was regretting the kindness. Banny had not come to school that day, which meant the coat was hanging on a hook in his hut and not keeping the wind’s icy fingers from tugging at Kaelin’s thin shirt.
Kaelin ran from the school yard out onto the cattle trail leading up into the hills. At least the cold made the pain in his hands less worrisome, he thought. Anger touched him then, warming him as he ran. He pictured old White Wig, tall and skinny, his thin lips constantly twisted in a contemptuous smirk, his pale eyes seeping tears whenever sunlight shone upon them. His clothes smelled of mothballs. That bony Varlish bastard will pay for every stroke he has ever laid upon me, Kaelin decided as he ran. He tried to think of punishments befitting such an ogre.
When I am a man next year, I’ll nail him by his hands to the schoolhouse gates, then I’ll take a whip to his hide. Five strokes for every one he’s laid upon me.
Suddenly Kaelin’s good humor came flooding back. He would need to be a great deal better at his arithmetic to tally such a sum. Perhaps he should ask old White Wig for extra lessons. The thought was so ridiculous that Kaelin slowed to a stop and burst out laughing. How would the conversation go? “I’m planning my vengeance on you. So would you kindly explain the multiplication so that I may lash your back to the exact number required?”
His laughter pealed out once more, then faded as he heard hoofbeats. Moving to the side of the trail, he waited. Five riders emerged from the trees. All of them were soldiers of the Moidart, or Beetlebacks, as the highlanders called them, referring to the black breastplates of baked leather they wore. The lead rider was a portly officer named Galliott. He was known widely as Galliott the Borderer, since his main role was to track and capture criminals and outlaws before they could cross the borders and leave the Moidart’s jurisdiction. Just behind him was the thin, sallow-faced Sergeant Bindoe and three other soldiers Kaelin did not know.
Galliott drew rein and smiled at Kaelin: “Cold to be going without a coat, Master Ring.” His voice, as ever, was friendly and warm, and Kaelin found it difficult to hold a dislike for the man. But it was not impossible if he worked at it.
“Aye, it is, sir.”
“Perhaps your uncle Jaim will buy you one.”
“I’ll ask him next time he visits, sir.”
“You’ve not seen him, then?”
“Has he broken the law, Mr. Galliott?”
The officer chuckled. “Always, boy. He was born to break the law. Two nights ago he was in a fight at Cock Crow tavern. Broke a man’s arm and stabbed another in the face. Man was lucky not to lose an eye. If you see your uncle, tell him the owner of the tavern applied to the magistrate for damages to three tables, several chairs, and a window frame. Damages have been set at one chailling and nine daens, plus a two-chailling and six-daen fine. If it is paid by the end of the month, there will be no charges against Jaim. If not I am to arrest him and take him to the assizes for judgment by the Moidart.”
“If I see him, I’ll tell him, Mr. Galliott.” Kaelin shivered.
“And get yourself a coat,” said the officer. Heeling his mount, he rode away.
Kaelin watched as the riders cantered toward the town. Sergeant Bindoe glanced back, and Kaelin could feel the malice in the man. Beetlebacks were hated and feared in the highlands. Most—though not all—were Varlish and over the years had been responsible for many outrages. Only a month previously a woman living in an isolated cabin had walked into town and reported to the magistrate that she had been raped by three Beetlebacks. One of them had been Bindoe. Her story had not been believed, and she had been birched and jailed for two weeks for fabrication while under oath. After all, it was said, what self-respecting Varlish soldier would touch a lice-infested highland slut?
Kaelin waited until the Beetlebacks were out of sight and then ran on. The wind was less fierce within the woods, and he was soon sweating as he ran. The trail wound up, ever higher. He stopped at a break in the trees and gazed down over the hills below. Hundreds of small dwellings dotted the countryside, and many more, he knew, were hidden from his gaze, their sod roofs blending them into the land. Cattle and sheep and goats were grazing on the new spring grass, and some way to the west Kaelin saw more Beetlebacks riding along the Eldacre Road where it met the shores of the lake.
Cutting away from the main trail, he darted up a side slope, hurdling a fallen tree and sprinting along the final stretch to the crack in the cliff face. It had rained in the night, and glancing down, Kaelin saw that he was leaving footprints in the earth. He continued to run along the line of the cliffs until he reached higher ground, then climbed to the rock face. The face was sheer for some fifty feet, but Jaim Grymauch had taught him to overcome his fear of heights and glory in the joy of the climb. Wedge holds, hand hams, pressure holds—all were second nature to Kaelin Ring now, and he smoothly climbed the wall of rock, traversing back until he was once more alongside the crack in the face. Swinging himself inside, he edged along the narrow gap and then climbed again, emerging into a deep cave. A fire was burning in a roughly made hearth, and a man was sitting beside it, gently burnishing the blade of an enormous broadsword. Kaelin leapt to the floor of the cave and ran to the fire. The man glanced up. He had but one eye, the other covered by a strip of black cloth wound around his bald head, and his face was scarred and pitted. There was a large purple bruise on his cheek, and a cut on his lip was almost healed. Splashes of dried blood had stained the black cloak and kilt he wore.
Copyright 2002 by David Gemmell