Excerpt from Chapter One: Birds and Feathers
The gold pillars at the entrance to Darlington loomed high over the neighboring dwellings. Originally, they had been only half as tall and made of the same gray stone as the rest of the wall surrounding the city. But six years ago, about the same time he officially changed the name of the town, the duke commissioned a more resplendent portal.
Bridging the two pillars was a golden archway, engraved with scenes from the duke’s own adventures, depicting acts of such bravery and prowess as to make fathers of wussy sons weep. Standing on either side of the arch were twelve-foot ivory statues of the duke, paid for, no doubt, by the people’s protection tax. At that moment, some three hundred townsfolk were gathered near the golden arch. Toward the back of the crowd, Mason and Cowel feigned disinterest and picked at a bag of roasted pumpkin seeds they had agreed to split while waiting for the show.
“I wonder what kind of plume he has on today,” Cowel almost spat, a pumpkin seed slipping out of the corner of his lips before being sucked back in. It was his biggest gripe, one that Mason couldn’t go a day without hearing: that the only hero in the town—the only person actually in need of plumes for his helmets—had his plumes imported from a warehouse in Yorkville. Mason couldn’t blame Cowel for being bitter—he shared a similar complaint.
Cowel was in full rant by the time someone near the front of the crowd pointed to the top of a hill, to a man jauntily straddling his horse. It was the duke, all right. There was no mistaking the advertising. Even from this distance, Mason could see the emblems hanging from the duke’s saddle—Darlinger’s sponsors, the various town businesses that paid him an extra sum at the end of each month for sporting their names on his equipment.
Heroism, brought to you by the good folks at Caley’s Pub. The duke was about one minute’s hard gallop from the city gate, but as much as a thunderous charge might liven up the crowd, it would pale in comparison to the regality of plodding ponderously over the hill, the sun nearly finishing its spectrum behind him, his glorious suit of gold armor still polished and gleaming despite his having hunted goblins for nearly three days. Come to think of it, Mason had never seen the duke gallop anywhere. Near the front of the gate, a twelve-piece orchestra broke into a victory march. Dirk Darlinger waved to the crowd—a weighty gesture that looked as if he were giving the masses his blessing; his horse, rather repetitively named Steed, lumbered along. The crowd could see the collection of shields, helmets and swords in a bag heaped on poor Steed’s back. They were Darlinger’s trophies, proof of yet another successful adventure, of harrowing encounters with blood-lusting denizens of darkness.
Otherwise, there was no sign that the town’s greatest hero had even had to move a muscle. If anything, he looked more refreshed now than when he had left to hunt goblins three days ago. “Looks like a successful trip,” the man standing next to Cowel murmured.
The duke halted just in front of the city gates. A gentleman dressed in colorful servant’s robes made his way to the front of the crowd and produced a stack of placards that he held up for the duke to see. Darlinger squinted a bit, made a motion for the servant to come a little closer, a little more to the right, then turned to address the townsfolk who had come to welcome him home.
“Commoners of Darlington,” he began, constantly casting his eyes sideways for his next line, “and fine supporters of Verdal’s Tavern on the Hill, where every night is dames’ night.” “Way to slip that in there,” Mason whispered. Cowel nodded. They never went to the Tavern on the Hill—it was drastically overpriced—but being businessmen of sorts, they could appreciate the power of marketing. “You are safe once again,” the duke continued. “The imminent goblin threat has been squelched. Their supposed magiks of mass devastation have been rooted out and destroyed, and your hero has returned to you.” Nearly half the crowd, recognizing the space for it, clapped. Darlinger waited until the applause had petered out fully before continuing. “Though the goblins are many, they are nothing compared to the justice and valor contained in one man who rides forth with no thought other than the protection of his people.” More applause. Mason groaned. Cowel scratched an armpit and muttered something again about the man’s plume. “So tonight, please sleep soundly, knowing that your children are safe and my sword hovers over us all, waiting to faall . . .” There was a significant pause as the servant struggled to turn to the next sign. Darlinger smiled nervously. “To fall . . . to fall upon the . . . evil makers who would threaten the freedoms we hold so dear. Return home safely, annnnnd remember that tickets to hear the tale of my latest adventure will go on sale in the morning. Buy three, get the fourth one half price!” Then, with a flourish of Darlinger’s hand, the crowd parted and Steed sauntered through the throng, many of them reaching out just to touch the bootstrap of their hero as he rode toward his mansion. The members of the orchestra played another short victory march and then bantered back and forth about which tavern they were headed to. “His bards are going to be up all night throwing stuff together for that concert,” Mason said, scratching in the dirt with his toe. “It’s the same drivel every time. The names and numbers change, but I swear the lines all end the same.” “You’re not jealous, are you?” “Of Darlinger? Of course I am. Aren’t you?” “Absolutely not,” Cowel said pointedly.
“You lie.” “Honestly, what does he have that I don’t have?” Cowel began counting on his fingers. “Wealth, fame, a castle, his own horse—who needs it?” Mason nodded, not sure whether his friend was serious. Cowel had lived life with so little for so long, it was possible he really felt all of it was unnecessary. Or maybe that’s just what he told himself. Cowel might have been right about the castle, the wealth, the fawning throngs—maybe they were more trouble than they were worth. But Darlinger did have something that Mason Quayle desperately wanted, something his father had had and he hadn’t yet inherited. He was noticed. More than anything, Mason was afraid that he would vanish one day, just up and leave without a word, and his name would never be spoken. It was a heavy thought for a fifteen-year-old to have, he knew, but then, Dirk Darlinger was only in his twenties. Mason watched as Darlinger rode off and disappeared, whispers of his name following him, and something inside of Mason grew brittle enough to finally break.
“Are you all right?” Cowel elbowed him in the side. “Come on, let’s go to Flax’s.” He started off in the opposite direction and had to holler back to the still-frozen Mason, staring off into Darlinger’s sunset.
Flax Romano never wanted much out of life, which was helpful considering how little he’d gotten so far. Childless and wifeless, though the latter was not for lack of trying, he had known only a brief and sparkling success. At the age of twenty-seven, he opened his own tavern only a block away from Hero’s Alley and featured the “Hack and Slash Special”: Come in and show Flax your most recent wound—still bleeding, preferably—and your first tankard was on the house. This didn’t last long, as people began stabbing themselves just to get a free beer, but it established Flax as a friend to adventurers—not the pompous, Dirk Darlinger types but the hard-working grunts who came home stinking of putrid bogs, missing fingers and toes, and wearing faces scorched or covered in witch’s boils. That was twenty-five years ago, when the town was teeming and Flax’s coin purse refused to jingle because it was so full. The rarest treasure for an adventurer in the Hero’s District was actually finding a table at Flax’s. The tavern had been the favorite of Mason’s father and still was the favorite of Cowel’s uncle. Though Mason had never once seen his father walk into the tavern—he would have been put to bed long before his father went out—it was unusual to see Cowel’s uncle walk out of it. So when they entered that evening, the first thing Cowel did was go over to his uncle sitting at the far end of the bar. “I’ll catch up to you in a minute.” “Okay.” Mason liked Perlin Salendor well enough, at least when he had the chance to talk to him, but those occasions were few. Most of the time, Cowel kept his conversations with his uncle private.
“Everything all right?” Mason asked as Cowel shuffled back to the table, his face shriveled like dried fruit.
“Same as always. Don’t suppose you want to order anything?” “I spent my last bit of change on those seeds,” Mason said, then stared at a knot in the table while Cowel talked at him, chattering on about what it must be like to hunt goblins, how you couldn’t really get a good pair of pantaloons anymore, and how he thought Flax used to put bowls of walnuts on the tables. “The whole damn town is falling apart.” The door to Flax’s started to swing freely as more people trickled in. It happened on nights when Darlinger returned from an adventure. The townsfolk, remembering how life used to be, would head toward this side of town, itching for a story. Mason watched all of their mouths moving, saying nothing, and tried to rub away the lurch in his stomach. Like a drain in the middle of a sloped room, all conversations gravitated toward Darlinger and how magnificent he was. Mason could feel his spirits sink even further as he heard the word “savior” repeated over and over. And it came to him again, that itch beneath the skin, the one he had no idea how to scratch. The more he heard the name Dirk Darlinger, the more he felt as if nothing he would do with his life would be worth anything. He hadn’t accomplished one thing he was proud of.
To hear his mother tell it, his father was supposedly hunting werewolves by the age of fourteen. Here Mason was, older than that already and barely able to feed himself. He pictured a piece of rotting parchment, a title scrawled across the top in faded gold letters: “The Tale of Mason Quayle.” Written beneath it was only one word. Um.
That’s it, Mason thought. If someone were to write a song about his life, that’s what it would say. Um, like the pause as you try to think of something nice to say to an ugly woman who asked you about her hair. He wanted to do something. But in this town, there apparently was nothing to do except sit in a tavern and talk about Dirk Darlinger. He grew antsy and started to rub his feet together, a nervous habit.
Mason had done nothing but keep his head afloat, but his legs were getting tired from working so hard to go nowhere. He was still young, he told himself. There was still plenty of time, provided he could figure out where he was going.
He needed a way into that world, the world of adventure and acknowledgment.
And with his father gone, his mother lost in some past life, and all the heroes of Highsmith vanished, there was only one person who could give Mason what he wanted. “I’ve been thinking,” Mason began hesitantly, interrupting Cowel in the middle of a commentary on the difference between soup and stew. Mason knew that what he was about to say wouldn’t go over well. The subject had been brought up before but always as a joke. But Mason was tired of telling jokes to feel better about himself.
“Should I applaud or just hold my breath expectantly?” “I’m not sure I can continue to live, doing what I’m doing.” “Tell me about it.” “I mean, I think it’s time I tried something else.” That got Cowel’s attention—Cowel, who tried to sell feathers to people who had no caps to stick them in. “Something besides barding, you mean?” “Not exactly.” “What, then?” “I was thinking,” Mason said, then stopped himself, summoned a breath, and continued, “that I would go work for the duke.” “What?” Cowel’s face turned red, just as Mason anticipated. “You pulling my strings?” “I’m not.” “Work for that pompous peacock? Doing what? Darning his socks?” “An apprentice, a scribe . . . something.” “You are kidding.” “I’m serious.” He was. He thought he was.
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this. You know what that guy is. What he represents. At best, you’ll end up peeling his grapes while he talks about himself. It would be worse than being friends with me.” Cowel said this in all earnestness.
“It’s better than what I’m doing now. I can’t keep turning accidents into acts of bravery.” “But him? Have you forgotten how much we don’t like that guy? The taxes? The arrogance? The fact that he kicked all the other heroes out of town? All of them?” Cowel didn’t need to emphasize the “all.” Mason understood perfectly.
“I know. But what do you expect me to do?” Mason raised his voice, an open invitation for Cowel to do the same. “I don’t know—leave. Go somewhere else.
I’ll go with you.” “And leave my mother behind like he did?” Cowel’s face flushed. “Well, no. Of course not. I didn’t mean that. But there’s got to be something else.” “Look around you. You’ve lived in this town most of your life. There’s no chance of me writing anything decent unless I can write about him. He’s all we’ve got.” “Your mother would kill you,” Cowel said. “That’s what you said just last year. You said, ‘I could never go work for Darlinger because my mother would impale me with one of her sewing needles.’” “Well, a lot has changed in a year,” Mason snapped.
“What? What has changed? I’m still poor. You’re still poor.” “Exactly. Nothing’s changed, and I’m starting to feel differently about it.” “So you’ve changed, that’s all.” “You don’t get it, do you?” Mason said, leaning over the table. “I don’t want to be forgettable. That might be fine for you, but some of us need more out of life than going door to door peddling feathers for pennies.” And with that, for the first time that evening, he managed to shut Cowel up.
The plume salesman turned sideways. He looked as if he had been scalded with boiling water.
“Cowel.” Mason angled for eye contact, regretting he had said anything.
“Listen. I’m sorry. I just need the money.” “So go, then. Toddle off to his majesty’s royal chambers and throw yourself at his feet. Maybe he needs to hire someone to clip his toenails. Maybe you can help give him his bath.” Mason gave up. “Fine.” “Fine.” “Fine. I’ll go.” “Fine. Who’s stopping you?” “Fine.” “Fine.” “I’m going.” “Good.” “Fine.” “Go.” “I am.” “Good.” “Good.” Mason nearly pushed his chair over getting out of it, and stormed through the tavern’s door, leaving Cowel scowling and gritting his teeth. Cowel struggled for something crippling to say at Mason’s back, but the best he could come up with was “traitor.” He just hoped it was enough.
Walking in the night, the wind pricking him beneath his shirt, Mason couldn’t keep his head from spinning. Fathers, uncles, mothers, heroes, friends—for some reason, they all felt like enemies.
He passed by the shortcut through Hero’s Alley but didn’t bother to take it. What the hell is wrong with all these people, he wondered. Don’t they see what’s going on? He wasn’t going to end up like Cowel’s uncle, sitting at the edge of the bar. He wasn’t going to end up like his mother, waiting by the window, or like Cowel, pretending there wasn’t anything better out there. For three years, Mason had sat in that shack pretending, and the thought of it sickened his stomach. If the duke wouldn’t have him, there really was nothing left for Mason to do but take off—to find his future elsewhere. He would do the very thing he promised never to do. Follow in his father’s steps. Mason wondered how his father must have felt that day, the day the duke signed the contract with the town’s council, promising to protect the townsfolk, making the other heroes obsolete.
Whether his father kissed his mother on the cheek or the lips before he left.
Whether he kissed Mason at all. Whether he even said goodbye. He wondered why his father had never come back. If there was something about the leaving that made returning impossible. Wondered if he knew he wasn’t coming back when he walked out the door. It must have taken extraordinary courage to leave like that. To set off into the unknown and leave so much behind. A hero’s courage.