Chapter One

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"I don't like this," said Hawth, marching into the centre of the empty hall. "Where are all the guards? Shouldn't there be guards?"

The cavernous room was silent except for the crackle of the dying fire. With what looked like the remains of half an oak tree smouldering away, the fireplace still managed to scatter the Great Hall with dancing light.

Larst tightened his grip on his dagger as he scanned the dark corners of the hall. "Let's just hope it stays that way."

Tapestries covered the stone walls, displaying some of the more gruesome passages from Serrador's history. Soldiers and horses fought for space, and the dominant colour was blood red.

"You think they deserted?"

"I doubt it," Larst said, not taking his eyes off the tapestry in front of him. It showed a footsoldier wearing the King's emblem, his legs torn off at the knee, skewering a mounted knight with a monstrous pike. The soldier's face was contorted into an expression of grim rapture. He knew what he was fighting for. The honour of the King and the protection of Serrador, in that order. Larst didn't know what famous battle it was depicting, but he bet the only honour that lowly soldier ever received was having his memory woven into a fifteen foot drapery. These people weren't the type to run scared ahead of four traitors from the North.

"Should we turn back?"

"You scared, little one?" Straw slapped a brotherly hand down on Hawth's shoulder. Hawth almost buckled under the weight.

"Course not."

"You should be," said Larst. "I know I am."

There were still scraps from the evening meal decorating the table. Crumbs of pale bread and slops of grease missed by some lazy scullion's rag. The air stank of wine and feasting. It was enough to make their bellies growl painfully.

Turnip ran his fingers over the surface and sniffed them. "Venison," he whispered, the word slurred with longing. "What I wouldn't do for a taste of it right now." Not caring what the others might think of him, he licked his fingers.

Straw curled his lip in disgust. "Will you never stop thinking of your stomach."

Turnip went back for more. "As if you wouldn't sell your own mother for a side of meat."

"My mother's long dead."

"Sold her to the butcher's, he did," said Hawth, wriggling free from Straw's grasp as his hand tightened uncomfortably.

Freed, Straw's hand tightened further, into a fist. "Shut it."

"You started it," said Turnip, making a show of shrugging. He turned his face away so that the older man couldn't see his expression. "And you can't talk. Only the gods know where you manage to find enough food to keep that stomach of yours."

Straw grabbed the front of Turnip's tunic and pulled him close. "You say that again."

"You heard me, fat man," said Turnip.

After a month on the road with the pair of them, Larst had gotten his fill of their spats. "Enough. All of you," he ordered. "Just because we can't see anyone, doesn't mean they're not around. Let's keep it down."

Straw sniffed and let go of Turnip, so that the young lad staggered back and had to clutch onto the table to regain his balance. He pulled the front of his tunic back down from around his ears and sent a sulky glare in Straw's direction.

Hawth chose that moment to let out a small shriek.

All thoughts of Turnip and his irksome need to be noticed driven from Straw's head, he pushed Hawth towards the lad and grabbed Larst's arm. "Ambush?" he whispered.

Larst turned the dagger over in his hand. "Perhaps," he said, trying to listen for sounds of approaching footsteps over the hammering of his own heart. "This isn't what I expected," he said, when no rushing guards revealed themselves.

Straw nodded. It wasn't what any of them had thought of when the plan was laid out to them. For one, they were all still alive.

"It was just the fire," said Hawth, embarrassed. "It spit." The others visibly relaxed, their shoulders sinking back down to their normal arrangements. "What now then?"

"We go on," said Larst. Straw raised a sceptical eyebrow. "What choice do we have? Turn back?"

Dear gods, he would have loved to turn back, to drop his dagger and forget all talk of revolution. He'd go back to the village. Settle down. Perhaps even get married. They could have survived another Winter, if the harvest was good that year. It certainly couldn't have been any worse than the previous one.

"We could leave," said Straw. He sounded like he wanted to be convinced.

Larst paused, waiting to see if there was any further talk of desertion. Hawth and Turnip shared a glance.

"You want to go?" said Larst, prompting the lad to say something.

Turnip shook his head, and after a moment, Hawth followed suit.

That was settled then. Larst nodded. "Let's go then. This way," he said. "And no talking."

He drew back the tapestry that hung behind the high table, depicting a particularly patriotic scene of the women of some defeated nation lining up to pay homage to their new Serradorian masters. Behind was a small door, low enough that Larst had to duck in order to get through.

Hawth hung back, letting the others file past and paused to touch the delicate image carved into the thick wood. A dragon rearing over the body of a dead lion, the emblem of the King. A cool breeze met them on the other side. On that side of the door, there were no tapestries to warm the stone walls and only the dim light of a forgotten candle, flickering in an alcove fought the gloom.

After looking around doubtfully, Hawth sped to the front. "Are you sure this is the right way?" Larst didn't reply. "It doesn't look right."

The King's private walkways should be covered in paintings and silk, Hawth was sure of that. With golden candlesticks, and perfume colouring the air. This was just like a rather dank corridor. The rushes on the floor felt new enough. They crunched underfoot, unlike those in the great hall which squelched like hay from the stables, but that was the only visible concession to extravagance.

Hawth leant down and picked up one of the crushed flowers and gave it a quick sniff. It was Pennyroyal. How appropriate, even if it was a herb used to ward off the ever encroaching army of bloodsucking pests.

Hawth smiled. So even Kings got fleas. What a thought.

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