Read Heartwood Online

Authors: Freya Robertson

Heartwood

 

HEARTWOOD

Freya Robertson

 

 

 

PART ONE

 

CHAPTER ONE

I

The belt hung from a hook in the doorway of a tent, weighed down by a bulging leather pouch. Gold coins shone at the top where the tie had loosened – an open invitation to the light-fingered.

The boy's gaze alighted on it like a bird. He paused amidst the busy traffic on the main road into Heartwood, stepping out of the way of the carts and huge battle steeds that threatened to trample him.

He glanced around to make sure no one was looking and sidled over. A blue Wulfengar banner flew from the top of the tent, and he pulled a face at it as he reached out to take the pouch.

A large, strong hand clamped on his shoulder, and he jumped in fright. The hand belonged to a sturdy Wulfengar lord, his bristling face dark as thunderclouds.

“Laxonian.” The Wulfian sneered, and he spat on the page's red tabard. “I might have guessed.”

He raised his right hand to strike the young lad. The page twisted, however, and wrenched himself away from the knight's grip. Like an arrow, he sped off into the crowd. For a moment, he thought the Wulfian would let him go, but then shouts and curses echoed behind him, and he realised the knight was hot on his trail.

He risked a glance over his shoulder, and fear slashed through him like a blade at the sight of the knight's bulky form barging through the crowds of people towards him. He picked up his pace, but without warning flew straight into a mail-clad knight, solid and firm as a stone wall.

“What's the hurry, lad?” The knight's words tailed off as the Wulfian appeared through the throng.

“He was going to steal my money pouch!” the Wulfian yelled, coming to a halt in front of them.

The page looked up at the knight he had barged into. The knight wore a red tabard over his mail which marked him as a Laxonian, as did his tall stature, his short beard and the light brown hair swept back from his open, honest face. The silver stag embroidered on the tabard marked him as Chonrad, Lord of Barle: a knight whose reputation for fairness and justice was renowned throughout the Seven Lands of Laxony.

“My Lord Bertwald, I think there has been some confusion.” Chonrad pushed the page behind him. “This is my lad – I sent him to retrieve a belt from my tent and he must have mistaken it for yours.”

Bertwald narrowed his eyes. “You are already wearing a belt.”

“Yes,” Chonrad said easily, “but the other one has my money pouch on it, and I wanted to purchase some armour from the blacksmith.”

“My tent flies a blue pennant,” Bertwald snapped. “Is your boy so stupid he cannot tell Laxonian from Wulfian?”

“He is somewhat simple.” Chonrad trod on the page's foot when he opened his mouth to protest. “Please forgive his foolishness. And let me fetch you an ale from the drinks tent to compensate for your inconvenience.”

Bertwald stepped closer to them. The page shrank away, shuddering at the sight of the knight's greasy beard flecked with food. “I have no intention of partaking of any beverage with a Laxonian.” Bertwald's voice was filled with menace. “Nor is this your lad. Do not think you can make a fool out of me, Barle.”

“I do not need to,” Chonrad said just as quietly. “You are managing well enough on your own.”

Bertwald bared his teeth, but glanced up as another knight appeared at Chonrad's shoulder. The page turned to see a towering hulk of a man that dwarfed even the tall Laxonian. By the way he moved in front of the knight, the page decided the man must be his bodyguard.

Bertwald gave a snort. “Peace between our two countries? It is a ridiculous notion. These talks will not last the day.”

With that, he turned and marched off back to his tent, knocking people askew as he barged through the crowd.

The page breathed a sigh of relief. Then his heart hammered as Chonrad turned to face him, hands on hips. “Were you trying to steal the money?” he asked in his deep, mellow voice.

“Yes, my lord.” The page gulped. Would the bodyguard beat him? He would barely be able to crawl to his bed if that were the case.

Chonrad nodded. “Well, at least your honesty does you credit. Whom do you serve?”

“L-Lord Amerle,” stuttered the page.

“Then you are very far from home.” Chonrad sighed. “I understand your motivation, but believe me – you do not want to start an incident with Wulfengar today, of all days.”

“No, my lord,” the page said.

“Go back to your master before he wonders where you are.”

“Yes, my lord.” The lad's heart lifted as he realised he was not to be beaten.

“And no more stealing.”

“Yes, my lord.” The page turned to run and then let out a yelp as the leather boot of the bodyguard met his soft behind. He did not stop, however, but slipped quickly into the crowd. He knew when he had been let off lightly.

As he ran, he touched the oak leaf pendant hanging around his neck and thanked the Arbor that Lord Barle had been there to save his life.

 

II

Chonrad, Lord of Barle and second-in-command to the High Lord of Laxony, smiled wryly as the page skittered off into the crowd. He exchanged a glance with his bodyguard, Fulco, who rolled his eyes and shook his head. Little did the boy know how close he had come to causing the downfall of the Congressus, Chonrad thought as they made their way towards the gatehouse. Bertwald was looking for any excuse to end the peace talks and would have seized the transgression of a Laxonian page with both gleeful hands. The meeting, he thought with a sigh, was doomed to failure. But that did not mean he should not try as hard as he could to get it to work.

He looked up as the Porta loomed over him. The huge gatehouse at the easternmost end of the Heartwood complex towered over the rest of the buildings like an eagle hovering over its prey. For a moment, it blocked out the rising sun, and his mood darkened in keeping as he walked through the gateway into the place that had haunted his dreams for the last thirty-five years.

The solemn Custos – one of the many Custodes guards keeping a careful watch at the bottom of the Porta – saw the golden sash he wore over his armour, which marked him as one of the Congressus dignitaries, and then noticed the silver stag on his tabard. “The Dux would like to see you, Lord Barle,” she said. “She is upstairs, on the roof.”

Chonrad nodded and, together with Fulco, climbed up the stone stairs that curled inside the left tower, emerging into the open air at the top. There were several people up there, mainly Custodes keeping watch across Heartwood, ready to raise the alarm at the sight of any problems, but it was the knight waiting on the far side of the roof who caught his attention.

He had met Procella once before, when she visited his home town of Vichton on the coast, and he recognised her immediately. Tall and straight-backed with elaborately braided brown hair, she held herself like the stern leader she was, although the smile she gave him was warm.

He walked across to join her. “Dux.” He gave her the standard soldier's salute of an arm across his chest, hand clenched over his heart.

“Lord Barle.” She returned the salute and then clasped his hand in a firm handshake.

He leaned on the parapet, and she followed his gaze across the vast expanse of the Heartwood estate. He had forgotten how large Heartwood was, having not been there since childhood, and he had thought to find the place smaller than he remembered, as often happens when you revisit somewhere from your youth. But he had been wrong. As he stood there watching the sun's early rays flood the place with light, its very size took his breath away.

The Heartwood Castellum, a huge, stone-built fortified temple, glowed like a jewel amongst the scatter of buildings in the surrounding Baillium. It was an unusual, evocative building: its small, high windows sparkling and twinkling in the sunlight, its domed roof rising above the walls like the sun above the horizon. It was beautiful and strange, and even after all these years it made him mad.

The knight next to him raised an eyebrow. “You look angry,” she observed.

“I am.”

“Why?”

He glanced across at her. She had declined to wear a ceremonial gown as was usual on the day of the Veriditas religious ceremony and had instead donned a full coat of mail that reached almost to her knees over a thick leather tunic, the hood of mail folded under her braided hair. Her longsword hung in the scabbard on her hips, and she'd tucked her thick breeches into heavy leather boots. Her garb echoed his deep-rooted unease that these peace talks were not going to remain peaceful for long.

“Well?” she prompted.

He glanced over at Fulco, who stood to one side looking politely the other way across the Heartwood estate. Chonrad sighed and glanced back at the bustling Baillium, watching the people ebb and flow across the grounds like waves brushing at a shoreline. No one alive knew what had happened, not even Fulco. Was now really the time to open up the part of him he had kept hidden like a sore since the age of seven?

Procella's eyes were gentle, however, and understanding shone in their depths. And Fulco, he thought wryly, would not be able to tell anyone what he heard; he was mute and communicated with Chonrad via hand signals.

“My parents put me forward for the Allectus,” he said eventually. “And Heartwood rejected me.”

It was not an easy admission to make. His parents had held high hopes that he would be chosen for the prestigious role of one of Heartwood's Militis knights, and it had been easy for them to convince the seven year-old Chonrad that he would definitely be chosen at the Allectus – the annual selection ceremony. He left Vichton boasting to his friends that he would not return, and it had been a humbling experience for him to have to ride back into town and admit he hadn't been good enough for the holy order.

Everyone else eventually forgot what had happened, but the knowledge that he did not have the indefinable quality needed to become a member of the Exercitus army had stayed with him through his growing years. In fact, he thought, it had probably prompted him to work harder at his soldiering, to prove to himself that he was good enough to have joined them.

“I see.” A small smile touched Procella's lips. “It is our loss.”

Chonrad shrugged, but her admission pleased him. “Maybe; maybe not.” He exchanged a glance with Fulco. At first, the bodyguard made no sign he had heard Chonrad's story, but Chonrad caught the little flick of his fingers.
Fools
, Fulco signed. Clearly, he was not impressed with their rejection of his overlord.

Chonrad turned back to Procella. “Who knows whether the life of the Militis would be suitable for me?”

Now it was Procella's turn to shrug. “It is not so different, I think, from the time you spent in the borderlands.”

He thought about it. “Perhaps my life has been similar to yours as Dux. I would think, though, that for the Militis who serve in the Castellum, life is very different.”

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