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A Thousand Roads

By John Robin All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Blurb

Azzadul, the god-king, the Lord of Light revered by many. When the darkness corrupted him, he became the Dark Lord, feared the world over. His magic, once a gateway to immortality for his people, delved instead into horrors as he sought ever deeper levels of mastery. Children were stolen from their beds, coveted for his blood-rites. When he vanished, it all ended, and the people of the world tried to forget, to move on… Jak Fuller has always wanted a home. An orphan born ten years after Azzadul’s disappearance, he has wandered far and wide, trying to forget the memory of a burning woman. When he comes to Fort Lasthall, on the outskirts of the Dark Lord’s former kingdom, he hopes to finally settle into a peaceful life. Instead, he finds himself unnaturally compelled by a dark, terrible voice, a voice that knows him, calls to him. A sense of destiny that fills him with fear. New powers are rising in the dark places of the world. A master of fire-rites called Talamus the Red, arch-foe of Azzadul, seeks to enslave the world with a magic he has been developing for the many centuries of his life. Ready at last, there is only one weakness in his plan, an obstacle he is determined to rem

Chapter 1

1

An End to Wandering

Jak stood on a dirt road with his barrow full of books—his only possessions—looking at Fort Lasthall for the first time.

For all his childhood, Jak had drifted from village to village. He’d slept beneath trees or in haylofts or sheltered ditches. He’d been a helper to a bootblack, a fetcher, and a costermonger, and all that before he was ten winters. There was no place he stayed he ever thought of as home. But often he heard about Fort Lasthall.

“The town of good fortune,” some called it.

“A remainder of the old world,” a kindly hag had told him once, “untouched by the god-king’s curse.”

“All roads lead there,” said many. “It’s the best place to live.”

Every time Jak heard about it, something stirred in his heart. It was like a whisper from deep within him. Fort Lasthall, it said. Go there. Go.

His childhood was coming to an end, and Jak was frustrated with having nowhere to stay for longer than a quartermoon. So he’d listened to the call. He’d traveled the smaller roadways and lanes, and all the while that stirring in his heart grew stronger. He journeyed even in the rain and went to bed wet, feeling for once that his path was leading him somewhere.

Finally, he was here. Yet now that he saw Fort Lasthall, he hesitated.

From a distance, the town was an indistinct jumble at the foot of the mountain called Tharrannor, a hidden world shimmering behind a veil of morning mist. Higher up, its outer wall curled north on the mountain’s slope into a forest thick with evergreen trees, so dark the green looked almost black. Higher still, a stone cliff marked with holes seemed a hundred watchful eyes…watching him.

Jak stopped. He couldn’t rid himself of the thought that something from within them was beckoning—was the very thing that had called him here. He told himself it was a ridiculous thought, forced himself to keep moving. It was still early in the day, and he needed as much time as possible to find work and, if he was fortunate, a roof over his head for the night.

He entered through one of the gateways in the thick outer wall. Studying the buildings around him, he took in the stillness of the morning. The birds wheeled in lazy circles above the rooftops. At the highest point of the Fort, an old castle with two towers rose up within an inner wall, joined by the wings of newer, abutting palaces. On the west, it was divided by a river. Jak tried not to let his eyes wander higher, but they did anyway. Dark caves, opening into the white-capped mountain peaks beyond…Jak thought of the legends and stories in his books.

For, beneath these mountains, it was said, there was magic.

Jak passed through the huts and thatch-roofed houses of the outer town, toward a second wall where many fine buildings of stone huddled close within. That was likely where the smiths and shopkeepers would live, the most likely place he might find some work as a helper or fetcher. That was the only reason, he told himself. Yet, as he moved—upward to the higher parts of the Fort, upward and closer to the mountain—there was energy in his limbs, an urge to burst into a run.

“Run, Jak! There’s no time.” An image flashed into his mind, a woman’s face, melting like wax, her expression calm. A scream that was not hers, loud and shrill, coming from somewhere far away. It was an old memory, one Jak tried to forget over the years.

He ignored it, just like he ignored the urge to run. That was stupid—with his barrow of books, wobbling as it caught in the deep grooves between the cobbles, he would have looked a fool. He turned his attention to the buildings and the second wall that loomed closer, trying to banish the memory. Yet it lingered, as it always did.

He passed through a gate capped with a hammer-shaped keystone. A wide lane wove between high buildings that crouched together like bunched cloth. Jak gawked at the stone buildings here in the second ring, some four stories high. The air smelled wholesome, clean and mixed with the scent of hops and fresh baking. Children ran in some of the side alleys, laughing, and there wasn’t a beggar in sight, nor anyone dangerous-looking like in most villages. Jak passed deeper into the Fort, sinking into a dreamy state as he followed the winding lane up and up.

He came to a large square, crowded with merchant huts and peddler tables. In the middle, a statue of some Annon lord with a double-bladed battle axe cast a long shadow whose angle marked the time as two measures before noon. Beyond, where the lane continued, a building drew Jak’s eye.

The high innermost wall rose up behind it, crowned by the snowy white tips of the mountains; the building seemed to spill over from the grander palaces within the heart of the Fort. It was not elegant, but it was lofty: three stories spanned the length of several buildings, capped by a wide, sloped roof of varnished wood shingles in the Pikeland style.

Here, it seemed to tell him. That call, so strong now, froze him where he stood. The busy square and its late morning bustle receded and the building grew larger in Jak’s mind. Its many windows, small and Pikeland framed, and dark…they became eyes, just like those of the watchful cliff.

“Run, Jak!” the voice of memory urged.

The dreamy state was gone now. Jak was aware now of how naked he felt. He smelled not just baking and hops, but body musk, the brine of salt fish, the subtle stink of midden. The humdrum of trade here carried on in its clatters and drone of low conversation, but the eyes of many traders were on him now. They seemed all lords in their cloaks lined with ermine or fox fur, their jackets of satin or leather, some even trimmed with velvet. Their hollow stares could have been words: A foolish boy with a barrow full of books, who is this strange thing among us?

But the building loomed up above them all, still beckoning him. Jak pushed his barrow forward, ignoring the stares, ignoring his fears. He hadn’t come this far to let imagination get the better of him.

A fenced yard led to the far side of the building where a single story of plainer wood abutted it. The stable, most likely. This would be a good place for Jak to start. With the sheer size of the building, this had to be the home of someone wealthy. And where there was someone wealthy, there was always something to do in the stables.

Jak stopped before a varnished wood door. He knocked twice and got no answer. He contemplated knocking again, but across the lane, two men were watching him. Jak didn’t want to stand out as a troublesome beggar and attract the local patrol. He looked at the door again, before turning back to his barrow.

The door creaked open partway. A fat, sandy-haired boy who looked about Jak’s age peered out. “Round to the left. The door’s open.”

Jak did as instructed, finding a large stable door that swung open with a slight creak. He wheeled his barrow in on the hard-packed dirt floor, and was met at once by the soft wicker of horses, the tap of hoofs, and the scent of manure. On the left and right, the stall doors were painted green and slatted, their marching line broken only once by an alcove full of buckets and sacks.

There was no sign of the boy who had opened the other door. Jak wheeled along slowly, taking in the high-beamed ceiling and its row of burning lanterns, the loftiness of just the stable itself. It alone could have been a palace for horses.

At the far end, a wiry Pikelander with salt-and-pepper hair and a bushy mustache was descending a short flight of stairs. He wore a green button-up and tan trousers, and bent his impressive height to clear the ceiling as Jak stopped before him.

He took in Jak, then the books stacked in the barrow. “You seem lost, boy.”

“I’d like to find some work,” Jak said. The man lifted an eyebrow and Jak became self-conscious. “I can do anything you need, and I learn quickly.”

“How many winters do you have? Thirteen? Fourteen?”

“Twelve,” Jak said.

The Pikelander fixed Jak with an unreadable expression.

“I’m almost grown up,” Jak added. “Please, give me a chance. I won’t let you down.”

Many breathspans passed before finally the Pikelander’s expression evolved into a look of deep concentration, as though the man were working out every detail about Jak.

“I’m Barrik,” he said at last. He nodded toward the stables. “The Prince of Axes arrived with his escort a candle inch before you, and now I’ve got a hundred steeds under my care. That’s a lot of horse shit, and plenty of work to get you started.”

Barrik directed him to the alcove with the buckets, pointed out a chute to the waste pit at its far end, then left Jak to his work.

Jak began right away. There were dozens of stalls, so he fetched two buckets and a spade and started at the end near the stable door. In each stall he found dividers and two, sometimes three horses. Most were riverbred—bay or dun or buckskin. Many were the rarer black-red Mountain chestnuts prized by travelers.

For a mansion so large, Jak was surprised how quiet it was here. Sometimes he heard a door slam, a metallic clatter, or muffled voices, but mostly Jak heard snorts and nickers from the horses, and the occasional soft clop of hoof on ground. Jak could have been alone here in this palace of horses—a world unto itself—and that made him even more grateful. Perhaps Barrik would let him sleep in an empty stall, and he could hide away, work and go on living without worrying again, without having to find a new place to live. Perhaps Fort Lasthall was the home he’d hoped it would be.

Jak lost count of how many trips he’d made by the time he reached the other end of the stalls on the left. He was just beginning on the other side wide when Barrik appeared.

“Dinner time. You must be hungry,” Barrik said.

Jak looked to the stalls. “I haven’t finished yet. I’m sorry I’m taking so long.”

“Nonsense. You haven’t stopped working for six measures of the day. Joe and Buck could learn a thing from you. All of them, for that matter.”

Jak followed Barrik up the stairs. They led to the servant quarters. Instead of servants though, Jak saw other boys his age or a few winters older busy in a large kitchen behind a half-door. His stomach rumbled at the smells of cooked meat and baking. It was the first time he’d thought about food since eating the last of his jerky at sunrise.

They passed down a long hall paneled with dark wood and came to a large room. Inside, about thirty or so boys gathered around a long, varnished dining table. They were all dressed in plain gray or brown clothing not so different from Jak’s weather-worn garments.

The boy who had invited him in from the side door was among them. Many others were about his age, some younger by a winter or two, many older. Two who looked the oldest, about nineteen or twenty winters, sat at the far end next to an empty high chair. Jak took a seat in a chair at the opposite end and Barrik left briefly while other boys Jak recognized from the kitchen came in with trays of food.

The whole while, Jak could not stop staring at the grand interior. There were glass chandeliers that one of the boys was lighting from a two-sided ladder. The ceiling beams were of rough wood in Pikeland fashion. Over the mantle of a black-stone hearth, a sheathed falchion hung between iron brackets. Its pommel was made of a dark stone that the candle light seemed to shy away from.

Jak was quiet while the boys carried on in conversation with one another. His eyes kept coming back to the falchion hanging over the mantle, the way it had a strange solidness to it, the way the pommel drank the light. A strange sword in a strange house led by a mysterious man, the first place Jak tried, and here he was eating dinner like a child in a noble house… Jak had entered a story from one of his books.

When all the food was set out, Barrik rejoined them, taking a seat in the high chair next to the oldest boys. Everyone stopped talking. He drew out the silence only a breathspan before nodding, then dinner commenced.

It was a simple meal, but there was a lot of it: roasted beef flank, potato mashed with charred garlic, and turnips cooked in butter, and it came with a sauce one of the boys called “northern gravy”. Jak smothered his plate with it and relished the succulent flavors. This was the best meal he had ever eaten, and he didn’t want the experience to end. But soon his hunger took over and Jak helped himself to more. He ate and ate until he was past full, and still the trenchers on the table were mounded with meat and potato and turnip.

Afterward, Barrik reclined in his chair and the other boys stayed quiet. Jak siphoned trails of leftover gravy onto his fork, filling the silence with the sound of wood scraping against earthenware. He was distinctly aware of how quiet the room had become, and how everyone’s eyes were now on him.

“You never mentioned your name,” Barrik said.

Jak stopped his scraping and set his fork down. He looked only at Barrik. “Jak.”

“Jak? That all? A boy with nothing but a barrow full of books—you don’t strike me as one who would belong to a house. What about those who gave birth to you? Did they have a field name? Trade name?”

“I don’t have any parents,” Jak said, regretting his words. “I mean, I’ve been wandering as long as I can remember. I don’t remember having parents. Must have left me long ago.”

Jak’s cheeks flushed. Uneasiness spread within as he felt all the eyes on him, boys who, like the traders in the square, were trying to figure out what kind of strange thing was before them.

“I don’t mind sleeping in the stables,” Jak went on, staring down at his plate now. “Food is enough pay, for whatever work you might need. And that reminds me—I’m only half done.”

Jak almost pushed his chair back to leave, but before he did he looked up and found Barrik studying him with the same strange expression from earlier.

“Tim,” he said.

“Sir?” This came from a thin boy with dark hair and rosy cheeks, about Jak’s age.

“Prepare one of the guest rooms, the best one. You can stay, Jak, as long as there’s work for you. Room and a meal, and freedom to come and go in the house. Like I said, you might teach Joe and Buck a thing or two about hard work.” He nodded to the two oldest boys on either side of him, and they both shot Jak what seemed a not-so-friendly glance.

“I promise I’ll work hard,” Jak said, trying not to let the relief show too much in his voice. “Thank you.”

The boys picked up conversation again, most rising from the table to clear plates away. Barrik still reclined in his chair, fixing Jak with hard eyes. Jak wasted no time, cleaning his hands and face in a washing bowl then returning to his work.

Even after the final bucket of shit, Jak kept working. He strained the drinking troughs, and swept straw from the main path. He worked right up until bright-cheeked Tim appeared and told him his room was ready.

Jak wheeled his barrow of books away behind the buckets, then followed Tim through more of the vast interior of the mansion. They came to a three-story open hall with balconies on the upper levels and crossing sets of stairs. Tim led him up to the third level, and into a small room with a bed, hearth and chair.

Jak stared in wonder at it, but that quickly turned to suspicion. He had been fortunate to find work, to now have a roof over his head, but this all seemed too fanciful. Maybe this was a trap, and he should have listened to his hesitation, back when he first saw the caves of the mountain, felt them calling to him…

Tim chuckled, patting Jak on the shoulder. “That look—I know what you’re thinking. He’s not a Blackfriar.”

“What?”

“The Blackfriars—you really have crawled out from under a sea rock, haven’t you?”

Jak shook his head, feeling indignant. “I know who the Blackfriars are. But I’m twelve winters, almost thirteen. I’m too old to be of use for the Blackfriars, and even if I wasn’t, Fort Lasthall was never touched by the god-king’s curse. That’s not what I was thinking—” Jak took a deep breath. “This is all too good for me. I’m not convinced this is all real yet. That’s all.”

Tim smiled and patted Jak on the shoulder again. “You’re not alone in that. Barrik has helped many of us. Me, I was a bastard kicked out of my father’s estate. Some lord over in a west mountain town, I don’t even know the name. Barrik found me and took me in when he was traveling through the hamlet I’d settled in. He does that for us all, puts us to work, keeps this house going. Of all the places you could have come, you picked the right one.”

Jak narrowed his eyes. “Who is Barrik? He cares for horses for one of Annon’s Princes. I expected lords and ladies and servants. But all I see is a mansion full of boys. I’m grateful, only…” Jak hesitated. He didn’t dare tell Tim what he had felt when he first saw Tharrannor, or the mansion, or the falchion on the wall.

Tim leaned in close and whispered. “All we know is he’s the one who looks after all the horses for Lord Demorrin or any noble guests coming through. He keeps this place, kind of like a steward.”

“A steward? A steward for what?”

Tim shrugged. “You should get some rest. And you’d best know: don’t ask questions about Barrik. That’s the unspoken rule here.” He turned to leave, but stopped in the doorway. “My room’s three doors down, if you need anything.”

When he was gone, Jak closed the door, then took his coat off and sat on the bed. It was an actual mattress, the blanket a heavy brown roughspun, and it was only when Jak sank down further into it that he realized how tired he was. And he wasn’t tired only from the long day of work or the journey here. He was tired from his whole life, from wandering, wandering, endless uncertainty.

But Jak fought the wave of sleep that came over him. This was not just the first night he’d slept on an actual mattress, it was also the first night he’d lay down without his books stacked next to him. He couldn’t go to sleep until he’d done that, it was his rule. Soon. Just a few breaths, just a few more…

Jak woke up to the smell of strong coffee and the sight of Barrik at the door peering down at him in his strange way. Dawn’s amber glow painted the room’s lone window.

Jak sat up in alarm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

Barrik held up his hand. “No need. It’s only first sun. I’ve got more work, if you want it.”

“Yes.” Jak stood and fetched his jacket.

“I’m glad you’re eager, but one thing. Today, when dinner comes, you’re done. A man shouldn’t work too much. Turns the soul to wood.”

That day, and the days that followed, Barrik set him in charge of the stables. Jak got his work done quickly though, so Barrik found more for him to do. Sometimes he sent Jak on errands to nearby shops, and sometimes he even came up with tasks that didn’t seem necessary, like polishing his boots.

Every day when he was finished, Jak dined at the long table with the other boys, Barrik at the head in his high-backed chair. He got mostly silent looks from them, and sometimes glares, especially from the older boys. He soon put names to many of them. Sam, who did the cooking, and Gassy Tom, his helper. Yeller with his face full of angry pimples. Ned and Hal, who were eldest next to Joe and Buck. Gerry Slick, who always said crude things when Barrik was not around, and rat-faced Willy, who followed him like a shadow.

Jak moved his books to the guest room, piling them up next to the headboard, and every evening after dinner he retreated to them. He never visited Tim, but Tim stopped by Jak’s room nonetheless, usually at the last measure of the sun. He was always alone, but on Jak’s sixth day at Barrik’s house, he was accompanied by the fat boy who had answered the door the day Jak arrived.

“Everyone calls him Little Pig, but he prefers Pig for short,” Tim explained.

The boy was very fat. He had two chins, and with his small Winelander nose, Jak understood the moniker. “Finally, we have a third member,” Pig said.

Tim waved his hand dismissively. “Not that there was ever two of us. But I’m sure you see his point—no one is friendly here.”

“I’ve noticed,” Jak said. He was sitting on his bed, The Atlas of the Heartland Realms open at his side.

“Barrik has spared many,” Tim went on, “but it’s few who are actually grateful. Maybe we will all become friends.”

“Maybe,” Jak said.

Tim spoke more. In fact, he seemed to speak for both himself and for Pig, because the boy just stood and occasionally smiled at Jak. Jak’s mind was on the book he was waiting to read, and he was glad when they left him to it.

More days passed, then it seemed whole quartermoons went by. Jak counted twenty days, then one whole moonspan. Summer waned into Early Fall, then Late Fall came with cold that warned of a fierce winter. And still Jak had work. Soon he knew the names of every boy in Barrik’s household, as well as he knew the routes for his errands. He even had nicknames for some of the horses that belonged to Barrik, like Charley Longtrotter, the brown-spotted rouncey, who was Jak’s favorite.

Barrik’s house began to feel like a home, even though Jak reminded himself it was just steady work and a good arrangement. By the time Young Winter approached, it felt so familiar that Jak’s years of wandering began to fade.

The snows of Jak’s thirteenth winter came and on Winter Day he celebrated the end of his childhood. Agatha, the local baker, gave him a tray of her best sweet buns when he was returning from his last errand. He shared them in his small room that evening with Tim and Pig.

“Seven more years left for you,” Pig said around a mouthful of his second sweet bun.

Jak finished his first one. “What do you mean?”

Tim was sitting next to him on the bed. “Didn’t you know? He sends us on when we get to twenty winters.”

“I think you’ve talked about everything but that particular detail,” Jak said.

“Well, maybe I have, but now do you understand why he wanted you to tap some sense into Joe and Buck? They’re both getting their twentieth now and he’s sending them on soon as First Spring comes.”

Jak felt a momentary twist inside, but he reprimanded himself for it. He grabbed another sweet bun and took a small bite, savoring the taste of honey and cinnamon and baked oat-butter. What did I expect? Seven years in a wealthy man’s house is plenty. More than I could ever ask for.

“Why does he send them away?” Jak asked.

Pig was busy licking his fingers clean, so Tim answered. “We all need to be strong. He prepares us for the world, gives us a safe home. But he doesn’t keep us for too long, because he’s interested in those just leaving their childhood. He’s making sure we shape up into proper men before it’s our time to make our own paths.”

Jak nodded, pushing away disappointment. “It seems I was right after all not to believe in any of this.”

“Now now!” Tim scooted closer and put his arm around Jak’s shoulder and squeezed in a half-hug.

“What does Barrik want with us anyway?” Jak went on. “He takes us in, tries to make us better. Wouldn’t he want to keep some of us, some who make him proud? Something for us to aspire to? I certainly would be happy if I could stay here, keep doing what I do.”

“That you would,” Tim said, letting Jak go. He gestured to the pile of books. “Though surely you’re going to get bored of those. How many times have you read them?”

“Not enough,” Jak said. “You can enjoy a book many times, see new things in the same story. I could spend all my life reading these. And still I’d see new things.”

“There’s a Library, you know,” Pig added. “Near the brewer houses.”

Jak shook his head. “I don’t need any more books.”

“Suit yourself.” Tim grabbed two sweet buns, offering one to Jak.

“You can have the rest,” Jak said.

After they left, Jak lay in his bed reading The Adventures of Jundi, but his mind was not on the illustrated maps and tales about the far off parts of the world. He flipped the pages and all he could think about was this large house and the secretive man who ran it, where he now knew he was a stranger with limited time.

Young Winter passed into Old, then soon the snows were gone. By First Spring, Joe and Buck left just as Tim had said they would. Their rooms stayed empty, until Barrik told Jak he could have Joe’s room, shortly after Flower Day in Second Spring.

“But shouldn’t Ned or Hal move in?” Jak asked him. “They’re the eldest now.”

Barrik shook his head. “There’s one thing that beats rank by age.” He was quiet, for too long. He was studying Jak; for the briefest of moments, his eyes flickered to the side—toward Jak’s pile of books. “I make the rules here. Anyone gives you a hard time, you tell me.”

Jak still didn’t understand, but he did as he was told. And he was more than aware of the glowers he got as he hauled his books in a crate down the hall.

The room was twice the size of his old room, and the bed was wide enough for three of him, the hearth made of a pale Northshore marble. He even had his own dripbasin for washing himself in the morning, and a small closet, inside which was a seat with a circular hole.

It was next to Tim’s room. The following morning, the boy rapped on the door, then let himself in. “How does it feel to have the best room in the house? This is the only one with a soiling closet. Lucky you, not having to go to the cellar pit like the rest of us. You know what they say: the difference between a peasant and a king comes down to who cleans up his shit.”

“I’m no king,” Jak said, though he did take in the circular hole with renewed appreciation. In the southern nations, where they had cities, it was said that every room had a soiling closet. “They must all hate me now. Every time someone gets latrine pit duty, they’re going to plot my demise.”

Tim giggled, his cheeks flashing bright red. “They might insist you share, and if they do, collect a fee, say a gold penny?”

Jak shook his head. “I’m sure Barrik would find out.”

“Well I’d pay you, maybe when I get my fourteenth winter and Barrik starts giving allowance.”

“You can use it for free,” Jak said. “Just don’t shit on the seat.”

As Low Summer passed into High, the new luxury made Jak’s days seem more surreal. Buck’s room stayed empty, but Barrik’s house and Jak’s days of work always felt full and busy and he continued on. He got to know Fort Lasthall well from his usual errands around Stonecourt, the middle ring the town where Barrik lived. He dropped off shoes to Emelda the cobbler every second moonquarter and fetched them three days later. He helped Ned the farrier when it came time for reshodding, or Bert the miller, who paid Jak a copper shilling to give his slab-sided sorrel a comb. He came often to Fern the whitesmith’s small shop at the end of Lanemaker Way, where often Barrik had Jak fetch new cups or pans or pails.

There was a calm to every day, the sunrise cloudless and the heat offset by a steady gust from the northern passes. There was a uniformity to it that felt unnatural, as though he were living the same day over and over again. As though it wouldn’t all be over in less than seven years.

The heat waned and the cool breezes of Early Fall came. Jak now found himself taking to his room after dinner most nights, tired. He’d throw the double windows open so the breeze could bewitch him with its cool caresses, and read from one of his books in a nearby chair. He escaped to tales of the far world.

Mostly, though, he escaped the other boys. Except for Pig and Tim, they were all crude. In the evening they played games involving their swollen members, behind doors they sometimes left partly ajar. They told coarse jokes and mocked each other. They passed gas or belched at will. They cursed with northern dialect, laughing at their clever constructions. During the daytime, whenever Jak passed by, they fell silent and gave him unwelcoming stares, or they whispered under their breath. Because of this Jak knew his nicknames: Shitty Jak. Jak Me Off. Little Jak Cocklick. Jak Fucker.

As Early Fall set in, Barrik was absent sometimes for more than just an afternoon. Sometimes he would even be gone for several days. When he returned it was usually late at night and he seemed distraught, so Jak made a point of not disturbing him.

It was Late Fall and the first snowfall had come early when Barrik returned from his longest absence yet—eight days. He was accompanied by a man who wore a rough woolen cloak dyed night black. He had angular features and a bony Pikelander nose, and his beard was long yet patchy, as black as his clothing.

Word spread through the house of newcomer’s arrival. It wasn’t until dinner time, when he sat opposite Jak in Buck’s old chair, that Barrik introduced him as John. “He’s a good friend,” Barrik said, “someone who’ll stay from time to time while he conducts his business south of the mountains.”

“I’ve heard you’re all good lads,” John said, looked around the table, then settled his gaze on Jak. He grunted then turned to Barrik. “They weren’t exaggerating when they said you had enough young men to people a small hamlet. Good work, saddle-cousin. I think you’ve outdone even my count of bastards.”

“Is it true that you once had sixty-one here?” asked Gaven, a pug-faced boy who helped in the kitchen. “Bags told me that when I was out at the greengrocer. You must have had to double up some of the rooms.”

Barrik waved him off. “Bags and her knitting-talk. Can’t say I’ve ever kept track, but I’ve plenty of room here. And even so, I’ll never turn down a boy in need, not with the world the way it is.”

The men went on to talk about other things, events in the Pikelands and memories from their youth. The boys broke into their usual rowdy conversation. Jak was quiet as usual, but he watched the two men, mostly Barrik. Soon he didn’t hear them at all, only his thoughts.

A boy in need. Just one of many. No different than all the ones before. Seven years, just seven years, then I’m on my way. No longer an inconvenience.

Barrik and John disappeared after dinner. Jak went up to his room. The sun was long down and he was studying the colored maps in his Atlas of the Heartland Realms. He was reading about Aven’s Swath and the war fought there more than three hundred years ago. The battle had turned the field into a sea of corpses; corpses which later had returned to life at the command of the mysterious Blood Queen. Jak had read the annotation many times. He’d studied the map, and dreamed, back when he was a wandering boy, what it might be like to come to Aven’s Swath someday. That was before the call of Fort Lasthall, before he’d gotten it in his mind that he belonged somewhere.

Jak’s vision blurred and he stared now at a mingling haze of colors. Barrik’s words echoed in his mind, still haunting him. Just a boy in need. That’s all I am. Someone who doesn’t belong anywhere else. Someone he pities.

For the first time since coming to Barrik’s house, Jak contemplated leaving. Not right away, and not with any definitive measure—it was a mere what if. But Jak fed it, like billows to coal. What if he left? It would all be over soon anyway. What reason did he have to stay here, where he was nothing more than a case for Barrik’s charity?

There was a knock at his door: two stern taps, then the latch clicked. Barrik.

The door opened. The man was alone, silhouetted by the light of a solitary candle burning in a wall mount. He stood solemnly, drawing out a long silence that made Jak uncomfortable.

Jak closed his book. “I’m sorry, I know I should be asleep already,” he said, “just a bit of reading. It helps me get tired.”

“Pack up all your books,” Barrik said. “Meet me in the dining hall. Bring them, every one of them.”

Jak found a crate and started to stack all his books in there, his heart trotting against his ribs like an antsy horse. Had he done something wrong? Whatever could Barrik want with his books, and so late at night?

When Jak entered the dining hall he found John and Barrik there, standing in front of the mantle. The falchion lay on the dining table in front of Barrik. Then he noticed a dull gray pommel and sheath at John’s side…

Jak’s heartbeat sped up to a gallop. The crate in his arms felt suddenly so heavy he let it go. His books tumbled across the floor, some spilling open and bending pages. He felt a momentary urge to drop to the floor to pick them up, but his eyes were on Barrik, then John with his gray sword. Behind them, the hearth burned high with flames.

“Run, Jak!” In his mind, the woman’s face melted. Red, unnatural fire flashed. Fear rushed through him, but his anger at the sight of the disordered pile of books was stronger.

“Why am I here?” he demanded, with confidence surprised him.

Barrik gave Jak the same searching stare he gave him often when their eyes met, and John was examining him in much the same way.

“The world isn’t kind to dreamers,” Barrik said, his eyes never leaving Jak. “It’s a fierce battlefield, a bitch with a thousand teeth.”

Jak frowned. “I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong. I’m sorry, whatever it is—”

“You’ve done nothing wrong.” Barrik’s tone softened, but his eyes were just as hard, boring into Jak like augers. “But you’re too soft. Books are for fools. It’s the world before you that matters, boy, not the world you fancy.”

Jak broke Barrik’s arresting gaze, taking in his books, the way they seemed to have collapsed like corpses dumped from a wagon. “I keep them to remind me of Old Bert, the first man who took me in,” Jak said, meeting Barrik’s eyes again with defiance. “I was only six winters. He used to tell me stories…”

An unpleasant sting twisted in his chest, the words dying in his mouth. Old Bert, who taught him to read, who taught him about the world and its rich history, its myths and tales of legend. Old Bert, who Jak followed from inn to inn until one morning he found him in a bed full of blood, with a dagger in his back.

“I’m sure this Old Bert was a good man,” Barrik said. “But you don’t follow him now. You’re here, in my house, and my ways are different.”

Jak flashed a glare at Barrik. “Why do you care anyway? I’m only here until I’m twenty winters, then you’ll send me off like everyone else. I’m just another unfortunate boy grateful for what I have, and I’m biding my time. What do you care about my life, about me?” The corners of Jak’s eyes watered. He rubbed them furiously with his shirtsleeves.

“You’re right, saddle-cousin, there’s something different about this one,” John said.

Jak turned his glare to the other man. “What do you mean different? I work hard all day—like anyone who knows what’s good for them. Even though I read my stories at night, I’m not soft.” His angry words set free, Jak took in John’s black cloak and sword anew, his Pikeland demeanor. “Why are you here?” He turned suspicious eyes to Barrik. “What’s this all about?”

Barrik strode to the table and seized the falchion by the haft, pulling it free from its scabbard with a raspy zzzzhhhh. The blade was dark as the pommel, a void opening in the air before the curling flames in the hearth. All dark, but for five shapes engraved there, where the light caught and shone dully, a blend of yellow and green that hung within like wisps of fog.

Barrik extended his arm, looking down its length. “Akkarra, given to me by my father, and his father before him. Seven generations, passed down, and I am the last. This blade is my legacy, and yet when I die, it dies with me.”

He lowered the falchion—Akkarra—setting it down on the table next to the scabbard, and Jak’s eyes stayed on the five solid shapes engraved on it, the slight greenish glow there. A shiver ran through him, curling inward on his heart like a fist of ice, and the name whispered in his mind, cold as the sensation sweeping through him... Akkarra. Akkarra. Akkarra. Akkkarrrraaa….

“I’ve seen some two hundred boys now grow up and go out into the world.” Barrik’s words, solid in a world of fog. “Some are okay, but most of them are wretched. They’ll go on to be whoremongers or drunkards, impoverished in some forgotten hut or running around with some band of mercenaries until beheaded. I try not to get too attached, it’s not my place. I’m only making sure they have what they need, so they have a chance. But you’re different. Quite different.”

In a blur the blade moved and Barrik sheathed it, shattering the strange spell it had on Jak. Jak took a breath, blinking in the solid world again and the two men whose gazes were both on him like vultures on carrion.

“Lord Ham Demorrin granted me a place among the Fort’s nobility a moonspan ago,” Barrik continued, his face solemn. “House Fuller: two gold horses on a field of black. Maybe it’s some kind of joke, making a noble house for one man who won’t pass it on. Or maybe he thinks I’ll finally give this all up and marry. But in the Pikelands, a man need only name his sons, be they of his loins or of his heart.”

As Barrik spoke, Jak was trying hard to fit together everything he said. He took in the pile of books, then the sheathed sword, then Black John, standing statue-still, and the fire…

And another piece fell in place too, something from The Heartland Chronicles. A small story about the Pikeland naming ceremonies, when a man chooses his son before fire and his closest kin of the saddle…

It all came together at once. “You want me to be your heir?” Jak could hardly believe it when he spoke it, even though it all made sense. Moving him into the best room in the house. The many long, appraising looks Barrik had given him. “You mean you’re not going to send me away?” I might actually belong…

Barrik inclined his head the slightest degree. “John is witness, and in the rite of succession, you must burn something from your old life, a token of passage into the new.” He inclined his head deeper this time, toward the pile of books.

Jak felt that hand again on his chest. It was hard, a tight grip he’d felt before at night on his travels when he was alone and thought of Old Bert. All Jak’s wandering life was there in that pile, spilled out on the floor for all to see. And in there with them, all his wounds and disappointments.

That tight grip grew tighter, made Jak’s eyes well with unwelcome tears. He wrinkled his face to banish them, pushed the feeling away. “I don’t know why you think I deserve this,” he said. “I just work as I’m told to, and…” He took in the violet cover of The Adventures of Jundi, thought of his resolve to leave. “I don’t really belong here.”

“You’ve got it backwards,” Barrik said. “It’s those other boys who don’t know what they’ve got. Ingrates, taking what they take and giving no extra. You’re good, inside and out, and that’s why you’re here now. The world’s been cruel to you, but that’s how it is: you put a dirty hand and a clean hand together, both come out dirty. You deserve better than dirt. Much better. It’s time for you to rise out of it.”

Jak locked his eyes on his familiar titles, thinking of his nights spent with each one, the familiar pages. The thought of all of them, gone. “I don’t want to burn my books. I’m not burning my books.”

“If you’re going to be my son, you need to burn them. You’ll see it’s for your own good. Burn your books, put an end to that woolgathering you do when you hide away in your room. You’ll come out Jak Fuller, my heir, and in place of those books I’ll teach you all I know, the things that matter.”

Jak Fuller. His heir. The call of the dream stilled, a cold sort of death that settled in Jak like frost stilling the autumn soil. But he also heard echoes of mockery. Jak Fucker. Jak Me Off. Little Jak Cocklick…

He lifted his gaze to Barrik, silent John beyond, the fire still roaring high. “Do I have to call you father? I’m sure everyone here will hate me even more if I do.” But Jak found it uncomfortable thinking of Barrik as his father. Even though he had been here for more than a year now, he still barely knew him.

“Let’s keep it secret,” Barrik said. “John will tell no one. Only Ham Demorrin, for the sake of succession.”

“Our secret,” Jak said, enjoying the sense of safety that word gave him. I’ll go on working here, knowing when those boys mock me that I’m really Jak Fuller. I’m actually someone. But it also unsettled him, the way it required him to trust Barrik, to trust that someone actually could be trusted.

He took in his pile of books, the room, Akkarra resting still on the table. Jak thought of his first day in this room, of his first day coming to the Fort, seeing it from the far horizon, the feeling that it had called him here. The way the falchion had now whispered to him, as though by some magic.

Jak nodded, faced the two men before him. “I’ll do it,” he said, fighting the fear that this was a mistake. Like the cry his books seemed to make to him—one final death knell, one final plea—that fear was all in his mind.

He burned them, one by one. Each made the flames rise higher, flaring bright orange and deep red, great columns rising into the flue. Last of all he burned The Adventures of Jundi. As the fire curled over the violet cover, making it peel and bubble, Jak saw in his mind the woman’s face melting. “Run, Jak!” The squeal of air expanded as the heat burrowed into the thick spine, but it became instead a loud, drawn out scream.

He stood there, simply watching, as he’d done in that memory. He didn’t know who she was, nor when it had happened, only that for all his life, the memory came to him often. His oldest memory, the only one he wished he could forget, even more than the memory of finding Old Bert dead.

But the fire turned his books to char and the memory faded. Relief settled within him. The books were gone. His life of wandering was gone. Finally he had a home.

When the time came for John to name Jak Barrik’s heir, he drew Akkarra, touching the tip to Jak’s chest, then Barrik’s, naming him Jak of House Fuller. But all the while Jak’s eyes were on the inscription, and the whisper that hung in the air while the blade was free.

Then it was done, and Barrik sent Jak back to his room, as though nothing had happened. Jak lay in his bed, unable to sleep. Jak stared at the ceiling, painted with pale moonlight and bent squares of shadow. The wind rose in wailing blasts. When it fell there was a soft hiss, and in it Jak could still hear the whisper from the falchion…

Dawn came, and he was still awake, but Jak rose anyway, ready to work. He was tired, but a sense of solidity settled in his limbs and drove him forward as he passed the familiar buildings of the shopkeepers and smiths, knowing he was Jak Fuller.

The sun shone despite the cold. The mountain rose up high. The wind flapped the white-and-gold banners of the Demorrins on the castle’s turrets.

Fort Lasthall, his home. Not just for seven years. For all his life.

The past was dead. And the mountain loomed high, always watchful, always reminding him of magic and stories, the things that once he had believed in, but now had put away for good.

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