The Fatal Verse of the Valley - Chapter One

Here is an exclusive opportunity to read the whole of the first chapter of The Fatal Verse of the Valley, Book One of The Red Book trilogy.  The full novel and its sequel The Scribe of Blood can be bought by clicking HERE or by going to the BUY page.  I hope you enjoy it.


Copyright 2011 by Ben Wright.
License Notes:
This extract is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.  A CIP catalogue for the book from which it is derived, The Fatal Verse of the Valley, is available from the British Library.
IBAN 978-0-900443-13-8  Published by Ben Wright


Chapter 1 - The Walking Chord Returns


‘I’m going to say a word,’ said Behvyn, once the late summer day had finally drawn to a close.  ‘You’re to proclaim it Creator or Destructor.’

‘Your word games are so tedious, brother,’ replied Behleth.  The oil lamp on its hook was swinging back and forth in winding circles, highlighting the satisfied grin on Behleth’s youthful face.  A light breeze messed his shorn, dark brown hair.  ‘Why do you feel the need to educate me?  What does a stithium worker need to know, apart from: hit it at the hot end and charge ten times more than for steel?  You know, I think you stacked those sheaves wrong.’ 

‘Rubbish.’  Behvyn’s startling blue-grey eyes flashed through his longer locks.  He surveyed his handiwork from a distance as he swept up the mess at his brother’s end of the barn.  ‘First word,’ he called.  ‘Death.’

Creator!’ replied Behleth smartly.  ‘Without death trees cannot grow; worms wither through idleness; vultures cannot feed.’

Destructor, you moron.’

‘If you say so.  But your stack is going to fall down,’ warned Behleth, approaching the doorway.  He wiped the sweat off his neck with a rag that smelled of leather polish.  He sniffed at it and threw it away in disgust.  It narrowly missed Behvyn.

‘Cut it out.  I’m nearly done cleaning up after you and then we’ll go.  I mean, we do want paying, don’t we?  ‘Life.’’


‘Oh, come on!’

Destructor!  Life is death; if one is alive then one must die.  Others must die to keep one in life.  Come now!  Enough philosophy for one day!  We’re late as it is.  I bet they’ve already started.’

Creator, imbecile!  They won’t have, and it’s not that late,’ responded Behvyn, wondering just what time it really was.  They had been busy that day in the fields and he’d lost track.  He had challenged Behleth to see who could reap, bundle, carry and then stack the most in the barn by nightfall.  His twin – the younger by minutes only - had won convincingly, his efforts climbing to the roof.  Behleth was a few inches shorter than Behvyn, who stood at well over six feet, but he was broader in the brow and in the shoulder.  His physique had called him to the attention of Natch Fallwater, the village blacksmith, who was known to be looking for a new stithium worker to allow him to pick up the trade of passing Royal Knights.  Such riders passed regularly through Muscle Oaks on their way to the North Wall, often with blades notched heavily from battle.  As stithium was the hardest metal that could be worked, it needed a strong man to wield the hammer and Fallwater had been earmarking the young farm hand for the job.

‘Morning, Master Hahn,’ he would say as Behleth passed on his way to the fields.  ‘Mind you keep your hands out of those threshers an’ make sure you drop by the ‘ouse every once in a while.’  This from a man who barely spoke.  Behleth would wave at the man with an assured charm, though this hid his own discomfort.  For all his overconfidence in public, he still looked to his brother for the lead.

‘Death isn’t evil,’ said Behleth.  ‘Why should it take all the credit and Life none for the ills of the world?’

Behvyn finished sweeping the floor.  He unfurled himself slowly to his full height.  He allowed himself finally to look with lidded eyes at what Behleth had warned him was a faltering tower of straw waiting to collapse.  He frowned.  ‘What are you up to?’  The stack shivered as though a strange heart beat within.  ‘Next word: Language.

‘Must be the wind.  You know how it gets from now on.  It’s all because of the Cloud Mount.  But here, you’re done.  Let’s go,’ Behleth continued.  ‘The Walking Chord is going to be here, at the Poacher’s, tonight!  I still can’t believe it.’

‘I know, you’ve said it a hundred times already today,’ complained Behvyn.  ‘Language?’



Behleth paused.  ‘Words are ideas.  You can give birth to an idea.’

‘What of hurtful words?’

‘Not all ideas are good.  But words can only be a force for creation.  Don’t our kings burn books and close the printers when they want to cover something up?  From stick and stone my bone may break but hurt from word I’ll never take, so the saying goes.  Come on!  I’m excited.  And starving!’

‘Did you say it was the wind?’ replied Behvyn, still watching the heaving bales.  Suspicious, he rounded the door.

‘Ai!  A sudden gust!’ cried Behleth, slipping away just in time.

Behvyn only had long enough to realise his folly.  A pitchfork clanged to the ground; a moment later he was engulfed in a wave of bundles of corn.  They toppled onto him until he was lost in a cloud of dust, husks, grass and dirt.

Behleth convulsed with primal laughter.  He was barely able to stand in his pristine half of the barn.  ‘Actually, some of that language was hurtful,’ he said through pained gasps.

‘You’re clearing this up in the morning,’ said Behvyn, as straight laced as he could manage from within the morass.

‘Fine,’ replied Behleth heartily, wiping the tears from his eyes.  ‘Pleased to.  Now: can we go?  Two beautiful girls?  One beautiful night?’

‘Yes,’ answered Behvyn finally.  After clambering free and ushering his brother outside, he closed the doors of the barn.  Together, they set off on the downhill trek towards the winking gold lights that shone from the centre of the village, unaware of the silent malice hidden deep within the eves of the northern woods that watched their progress and with every footstep plotted their utter destruction.


Although Muscle Oaks nestled comfortably within the North Vale of the Shale Valley, the westernmost and richest of the Known Lands, its proximity to the ever-veiled white shoulders of Cloud Mountain, or the ‘Cloud Mount’ as it was referred to by the local inhabitants, caused a chill wind to run the length of the village all year round.

For that very reason, far-sighted village elders in days gone past had seen to it to grow two great circles of oak trees around the edge of the village and, in addition, had them line the straight edges of the central square.  Huge and gnarled they had grown and close knit.  So much did they define the place that the original name of the village had been lost in time to be replaced by ‘Muscle Oaks’, a name travellers had given to it that the locals, or ‘Oaksters’ as they became known, finally accepted for their own.  The mighty trees did much to keep the chill wind from the village, but outside on the hills there was no such shelter.  The twins walked quickly, noticing as they went how there were fewer lights than usual visible about the main square but a great concentration of them beaming out from a single building.

‘Everyone’s in there,’ said Behvyn, doing his best not to spill the oil from the lamp as he broke into a jog.

‘Thanks to you, we’ve got no chance of getting a seat,’ replied Behleth sourly, matching his brother stride for stride.


The Poacher’s Pocket dominated the eastern side of the main square.  Its size was a legacy from days under previous kings when travel had been common within the Shale Valley and the war with Mertos had yet to begin.  Muscle Oaks sat on either side of the Great Shale Road, which was more commonly referred to as the Kingsway, and had as a result been constantly busy with trade wagons, travellers, visitors from nearby villages, and guardsmen.  The travellers were not attracted by anything above Muscle Oaks; only King’s Guards of the North Wall passed through.  But tourists would arrive up from the South Vale, and even on some rare occasions from as far afield as Khubron, to visit the tranquil beauty of Tieco Lake.  As there was nothing else in Tieco, those unused to sleeping in anything other than a bed with soft sheets and a warm blanket would find their way to nearby Muscle Oaks looking for a room for the night, and the Poacher’s warm glow would win their trade.

The regulars in the Poacher’s spoke only cautiously to these intrepid travellers.  It was a saying in the North Vale that if you kept your nose out of everyone else’s business, you got to keep hold of it.  One of the curious things about the Khubroni was that few had kept theirs, presenting an alarming visage to the local children, many of whom burst into tears on sight thinking them monsters.  The more cunning parents developed stories of how these deformities had been caused in order to keep their offspring’s behaviour in check.  ‘You just remember Khubby!’ had become a favourite admonishment among many an Oakster matriarch drawn to the end of her tether.

The travellers from near and far, however, had dried up many years ago with the onset of war and now it was rare indeed to have a new face - with or without a nose - within the regular crowd of the vast Assembly Room at the Poacher’s Pocket.  Not that they would be easy to spot; the atmosphere, as it was again this night, was traditionally thick with steam, smoke, heat and impassioned discussion.

As is always the case with communities on the edge of things, the Oaksters had a strong sense of their own identity that they used as the basis for their own perceived uniqueness.  This they contrasted with everyone else, and most especially with those hailing from the nearby area, who would without exception be found wanting in that particular blend of qualities that they themselves possessed and held in highest regard.  Within the scope of a cloud of pipe smoke, the faults of their neighbours would be subject to criticism and pity in equal measure.  Those who were less enamoured with such self-serving reasoning were a thorn in the side of those who sought to set in stone a definition of what an ‘Oakster’ was.  As this was never to be achieved, it was the perfect source of conversation after a few heaving tankards of Old Scrappy, the potent North Vale brew, and readily joined in by the same familiar faces night after night.

This night was to be slightly different, however.  As the twins tumbled in through the door from the hallway – to excited gasps that turned into low moans of disappointment – and pushed their way in past the immovable objects positioned at the bar and waded through a carpet of skinny dogs with long ears that slept incautiously under tables, the nature of the conversation inside the Poacher’s that picked up again was about one thing only: the visit of the Walking Chord.

‘What will they sound like?’  ‘Will they play that one, you know, oh, now, how does it go?’  ‘When I heard they played at the Royal Court and Prince Idren himself compared their sound to the fairest memory he held dear…’ and so on.  As the chatter grew, so the steam and the smoke filled the brothers’ nostrils with the combining scents of cooked meats, rolled leaf tobacco, log fires and frothing beer.  Their appetites made a sudden and demanding appearance.

‘I have to sit down and eat!’ complained Behleth.  ‘Where are the others?  I can’t see them.’

Behvyn, keen eyed, searched the gloomy room.  He saw many faces he recognised but had never before seen either in or about the environs of the Poacher’s at this time of day.  Everyone in the village seemed to have turned up and as a reward they had been crammed in almost on top of each other.  Then he spotted their friends, waving madly over at them from some small distance away, and pointed them out to Behleth.

As he did so, a voice boomed out across the room: ‘Get off the stage, boys!  Unless you want to sing us all a song?’  A silence fell, followed by a great laugh which emanated from somewhere within the huge barman’s ferocious black beard.

‘Very funny, Uncle Grodel,’ replied Behvyn as the hubbub built once more, and continued to plough his way through the mass of bodies towards their friends.  Both he and Behleth had been scared almost out of their wits.  Grodel gave them a good-humoured and very knowing wink and urged them to ‘find a place quick sharp!’


Uncle Grodel was not only Behvyn and Behleth’s adopted father but also the most influential man in Muscle Oaks, partly on account of being the largest of its inhabitants but also on being the craftiest.  It seemed that, judging by the sigh that otherwise now went around the place, Grodel had won again in guessing the number of logs the main fire would have combusted its way through once the brothers had decided to call it a day in the fields.  Money exchanged hands in their tottering wake and not a few resentful glances were cast in their direction.

‘Mandle, they’re ‘ere!  Come on, lads.  Dinner’s comin’.  Scoff it down fast!’ bellowed Grodel as they finally reached their table.  Sitting there, with a mixture of embarrassment, impatience and relief on their faces, were the twins’ two best friends, Kjerros and Feran.

‘Mandle!’ cried Grodel again in a blood-chilling roar, as Behvyn and Behleth took the weight off their feet and leaned back in the deep benches that had been saved for them.  A fearful clatter sounded from inside the kitchens.

‘You decided to come along after all, then?’ teased Kjerros, fully aware of Behvyn’s habit of leaving everything to the last minute.

‘You wouldn’t believe how hard it’s been to hold these seats for you two,’ complained Feran.  ‘I had to turn away the entire Springthorn family, even Jaleffa, who is much better looking and – urgh! – smelling than you two.  They’ve all had to go and sit hard against the fire over there instead.  The number of hateful looks I’ve had off her.’

‘What would Tangle say if she heard you?’ replied Behvyn, more in tease than disapproval. 

Feran got the message and stopped grumbling, resembling in that moment a dog threatened with a smack on the nose.  ‘You have straw in your hair, you know?’

Then, in dashed Mandle, the scowling slip of a girl Grodel employed as kitchen hand, through the two-way door that was set off to the right of the long, high bar.  She brought the twins’ meals down heavily in front of them with a haughty: ‘About time!’ and span away in one move.  She dashed to collect tankards, plates, bowls and not a few knocks and bruises from chair legs and doors in her flurry, all the while moving through the bodies that clotted the room as though she was wading knee-high through a bog.

‘What’s up with her?’ asked Behleth, sucking the spilt stew out from his cuff.

‘Grodel’d given her the rest of the night off from the kitchen, seeing as it’s such a special night, but only once she’d served everyone,’ sniggered Kjerros.  ‘You brothers have got to stop working so late.  You never leave time to enjoy the end of the day!’

Behvyn said something unintelligible, his mouth full.

‘What on earth was that?’ asked Feran.

‘I said, we wanted to get everything done in time for tomorrow,’ repeated Behvyn, after swallowing.

‘No, you didn’t,’ corrected Kjerros.  ‘I’m sure you said “myyrrgh frnn gnaww”, which is, frankly, more than a month off!’

Kjerros set Behvyn laughing so that there was a risk of stew going flying once again.  In order to calm things down, Feran moved the conversation onto the plans for the next day.

‘It’s been ages since we’ve seen them.  But it’s said they’ve been invited to the Mayor’s office for a formal dinner.  Are they going to come with us?’ he asked, looking more at Behvyn than anyone else.

‘It’s been a while,’ said Behvyn, ‘but, come off it; of course they’ll come with us,’ he said, hiding his own doubts.  ‘Anyway, how are the preparations going?  Is everything ready?’

‘Ready as we’ll ever be,’ said Kjerros.  ‘And we have lamps, oil, blankets, mounds of food, and,’ speaking in an undertone, ‘about a week’s supply of you-know-what and plenty of gnastia with which to wash it all down.’

Their faces lit up in devious eagerness at the prospect.  At the same moment, however, a wave of excitement passed through the rest of the patrons squeezed into the Assembly Room of the Poacher’s Pocket.  A head had poked in briefly from the hallway door and nodded at Grodel.


The assembled mass, still buzzing with chatter like a forest at dawn, turned expectantly to Grodel, who then took a dramatically long moment to organise himself.  He placed both meaty hands, spread widely apart, onto the top of the bar behind which he always remained, unless there was a requirement to eject someone, and drew himself up to his full height of six and a half feet.  He inhaled deeply and, seeing this, Behvyn clenched his jaw to deafen the boisterous sound he expected to fill the room at any moment.  It would be the loudest announcement of the night.

‘Right you lot: shut up!’  Everything stilled and not a few ears rang.  Grodel had never been one for pleasantries.  ‘As most of you know, we’ve got something very special for Muscle Oaks tonight.  We have visitors.’  At this, the excited murmuring began again but Grodel decided his voice could carry over it.  It did so in the way the crash of a felled tree will cover the sound of a leaf drifting to the ground.  ‘Not just any normal visitors, though, but famous performers no less, who have performed at His Majesty’s Royal Court in Cambwall, to great acclaim.’  Now everyone could detect the pride he had in saying it.  Grodel had the biggest event in recent Oakster history taking place on his own premises and was making sure everyone realised it.

‘My fellow Oaksters,’ he continued to boom, ‘you have constantly complained about the fact there’s nothing happening here night after night,’ at which there were several laughs and many fingers pointed at the most likely candidates.  ‘You have accused me of being a lump-eared old fool who don’t appreciate art.  You have even,’ Grodel paused, particularly agitated and arched his black eyebrows thunderously, ‘criticized my beer.’  A low murmur of disbelief swam around the room and the tension in the atmosphere creaked up a notch.

‘But I do here tonight throw all that back in your ruddy faces,’ he continued, now to the breaking out of laughter, ‘- ruddy from my own fire, I may add - and tell you to go and eat your words!’  Some cheers and clapping.  ‘Why?  Because tonight, and just for one night, mind, so make the most of it, I’ve got something here for you that, well, half of you in the room probably aren’t good enough to be allowed to see.’

He gave the room a thorough scan and received back a few raised pints and meekly grateful nods of thanks.  He narrowed his eyes and leaned back with crossed arms.  ‘Anyway, that’s enough from me.  Here now, performing just for you, at the Poacher’s Pocket in Muscle Oaks is the Walking Chord!’

His introduction rose to such a crescendo that the room resonated, which was then added to by copious amounts of clapping and cheering, whooping and not a few barks from the freshly woken dogs at their owner’s feet, all as the door to the hallway slowly opened.

Then in walked the two most beautiful girls Behvyn and Behleth had ever seen.


No more than eighteen, they moved so gracefully between the closely packed tables that it was as though they floated in.  They wore intoxicating perfume and strange garments of light silk in crimson, blood-orange and burnished blue-green flowed from their shoulders and waists.  They reached the small performance area that was edged by the crossed legs of children.  The dim lamps and firelight inside the room highlighted the girls’ tanned brown faces, raven hair and the subtle, filigree gold they wore about their foreheads and necks.

In the silence of stilled applause and hushed breathing, the taller of the two sat on an awaiting stool.  Her hair was perfectly straight and held back from her face by a delicate gold-threaded lattice, laced with small diamonds that scintillated in the low light.  She reached down and brought up to her delicate jaw the instrument that had caused unending puzzlement.  It had no moving parts.  No keys were apparent and there were no strings.  Even this far north, villagers - even stubborn-minded Oaksters suspicious of anything imported from outside - knew something about music, but the object had kept all who had looked upon it mystified.  About the size of a wine bottle, it was shell-white and honeycombed, tapered towards its top, and rippled with close-set ridges that ran horizontally the full way down its length.

The girl then looked with large almond-shaped dark brown eyes into the faces of her watchful audience and stopped their hearts as they felt the pang of recognition.  Then, producing from her left side a slim white wand, she began to blow over the top of the instrument whilst simultaneously moving the wand along its side.  A tone of the strangest beauty lasted for each breath outwards, then a complimentary tone in alternation for each breath inwards.  The girl was able to generate chordal progressions by changing the direction of her breathing and blowing over one or several of the many chambers within the honeycombed centre.  A haunting melody built without cease.  As she held the wand higher or lower along the instrument the resonance changed so the sound narrowed or broadened to emphasise the emotions of the piece.  The audience was held rapt.  Behvyn and Behleth could not take their eyes off the girl’s playing and Feran was tearful; the music’s sweet power enchanting him with each soulfully spun note.

Then at the point at which it was impossible to imagine the sweetness of the music ever growing further the second girl, who had remained standing, lifted her head to the roof beams and began a melancholy lyric that caught everyone by their very mettle.

She sang the tale of a wife who had rejoiced in the simple perfections of love, family and home, but whose husband was haunted by a yearning for the unknown.  Eventually, the husband realised his foolishness, his experiences leaving him a broken man, and determined to return home.  But even as he had done so, and his young children had come running to cling to his legs, he discovered his wife had killed herself moments earlier in a fit of broken-hearted despair.  Though mournful, the story warmed all who heard it in the shared comfort of friends and family.  As the lyrics ceased, the music endured as a sorrowful dirge that dwindled gently into a whisper until finally, like golden candlelight exposed to too strong a breeze, it wavered and was no more. 

Silence fell like darkness; a silence none wished to break, rich as it was with the memory of so fulfilling a moment, and the Walking Chord was still.


Eventually, Grodel, his face twitching from suppressed emotion, turned and grinned about the room, and the spell was broken to be replaced by clapping; an applause that rang of bliss and contentment.  Everyone was wiping their faces, standing up, stamping their feet, cheering and smiling around at each other and especially at the two girls in the middle of the clearing by the fire.  They beamed back charmingly and were forced to bow a great many times and were offered a large number of kind gestures, free drinks, offers of marriage and other accommodations along with thanks, as their eyes searched the room restlessly.  That was until they found Behvyn’s table.

‘Now then, now then!  That’s enough I say!’ boomed Grodel in an attempt to calm the sea of contagious merriment that had erupted around the place.  Everyone wanted to shake the girls by the hand as they forged a path through towards the boys at the back by the kitchen doorway.  A few people delicately re-examined the instrument that had been carefully replaced by the stool and one or two had a quick attempt at playing it but could make no noise from it.  In such a way was the mythos for the girls’ skill deepened.

‘Erm, it looks like they’re coming over here,’ said Behleth awkwardly, looking around at the others.  They looked back at him, all slightly wild-eyed at the thrill of it, and promptly moved down the benches either side of the table to make room.

‘Hello!’ said the first girl who had played so captivatingly on the strange instrument.

‘Wow, look at you four!  Who am I going to kiss first?’ said the second, and then they both ran around and hugged and kissed everyone.

Still the boys were behaving oddly.

‘What’s up with you lot?’ asked the first girl, sitting next to Behvyn and putting her hand onto his arm.  She flicked a glance over to the second girl, who had perched herself by Feran.

‘Speak!’ she commanded, looking slightly hurt.

‘Tig, that was fantastic!’  ‘Amazing!’  ‘What was that thing you were playing?’  ‘Tangle!  You’re so, so brown!’ came the answers all at once.

‘Thank you!’ beamed Tig and Tangle again, their grins wider than ever.

‘Hmm, well it has been a long time,’ continued Tig after all the questions had filtered in, ‘and it’s a lot hotter in Cambwall.’

‘We thought we’d play that one tonight as it seemed to suit our return,’ said Tangle, placing her head on Feran’s shoulder.  ‘You know, the way that you can spend you life exploring the world but only find happiness when you realise what you already have.’  She gave Feran a hug.

‘How long did we go on for?  The sea-chelys makes me dizzy!’ said Tig.

‘Is that why you sit down?’ asked Kjerros.  Tig made a twirling motion by her head with her hand.

Feran let out a cry of distaste.  ‘Urgh!  My beer’s gone flat!’

‘The fire’s reduced down, but that huge log was new on when you started,’ said Behvyn.  ‘Amazing!  You bewitched us for over an hour!’  He looked to Tig who was so happy she was almost floating off the bench.  Feran dashed to get in a fresh round of drinks.

‘Well, we practice a lot,’ said Tangle, ‘and they say that the words were written by a goddess.  So, you know, we couldn’t do too badly.’  Tangle removed the diamond-studded netting from her hair and in the process caused it to spring back into its usual collection of untameable curls.  From the same casual movement she melted Feran’s heart who was returning with arms full of frothy beer.

‘Have you just arrived or have you already unpacked?’ asked Kjerros, simultaneously rolling his eyes at Feran’s obvious incapacity.

‘We’ve dumped our things upstairs; for one night only though, remember?’ questioned Tig excitedly.

‘Oh yes, we’re all ready for tomorrow,’ confirmed Kjerros contentedly.

‘Tieco Lake!  I can’t wait!’ squealed Tangle and the girls looked at each other and giggled mischievously.

At that moment, Mandle burst into the room (she had remained steadfast in the kitchen during the girls’ performance) and started gabbling a wild complaint to Grodel who eventually fathomed what she was so agitated about.  He looked in the direction of their table and Behvyn’s heart sank.

Grodel then boomed over at Tig and Tangle, though he gave a terse smile as he spoke.  ‘What’re yer two nattering about?  Mandle says the dogs outside are goin’ mad over something ‘n’ tryin’ to jump the fence i’ the yard.  If yer’ve nowt better ter do, go ‘n’ see if yer can’t shut um up fer me.’  With that he gave all six of them at the table a stiff look and turned back to his customers that flooded the bar following the performance.

‘Typical!’ said Tangle.  ‘We come home for half an evening, and father’s already got us doing chores again!’

‘We’ll come with you,’ said Behvyn, draining his drink and getting ready to go.

‘No, not just yet,’ said Tig, wiping froth off Behvyn’s nose.  ‘We’ve got to get out of these dresses first.  I’m not having Half-Pint ruin this.’ 

‘We’ll meet you outside once you’ve changed,’ said Behvyn.  ‘Whilst you’re doing that, we’ll see if we can’t calm them down ourselves.’

As the girls went off, back out the hallway door to a new round of applause, Behleth turned to Behvyn, a glint in his eye once again.  ‘So, what do you think?’

Behvyn watched Tig leaving the room and turned back to his brother, a stupid look etched on his face.

‘No comment necessary,’ said Behleth, and chunked Behvyn on the jaw.


The cold hit immediately as Behvyn led them outside into the back yard he knew so well from having grown up at the Poacher’s.  A strong wind curled around the courtyard, whipping his shoulder-cut hair into his face.  Over the noise of rattling fence panels to his right and the squeaking weathercock set upon the roof of the stable ahead in which Glambard the carthorse stood sheepishly, he could hear the confused barking from Grodel’s three dogs: Jigger, Jogger and Half-Pint.

Jigger and Jogger were both wolfhounds: narrow backed and tall, with a springing gait that made them look half their weight.  They both had coats of short white hair patterned with undefined grey-brown splodges.  Their extended muzzles and thin heads looked bird-like and they were almost identical to each other, but Jigger had half of one dark ear missing, lost many years ago in his youth in the thick pine forests westward of Muscle Oaks.  Now they both tore about the courtyard disturbing everything that lay about.  Water buckets, bags of sand, wood chips, barrels, dead potted plants, Glambard’s feeder, old bottles, old glasses, broken chairs left outside for mending, tables and benches for the good weather, all were knocked, pinged, unsettled, dislodged, upended, scattered and dragged around in their chaos.  Together, they were making a grand mess of everything, but were clearly spooked by something.

They were helped in creating this cacophony by Half-Pint, a soft-haired terrier with well-defined butterscotch patches across his back and ears, whose short white legs fitted with paws a size too big for him held his belly only inches from the ground.  He had an intelligent, inquisitive face, within which were set two large shiny black eyes that had made him the girls’ favourite.  Completely unaware that he was not as large as Jigger and Jogger, he was usually adorably affectionate, effervescently busy and unceasingly noisy.  But now, as he ran around the legs of Kjerros and Feran like a dervish, he flitted between issuing sharp barks of warning to winces of mortal fear.

'There!  There!  Why are you all so jumpy now, you silly doggies?’ said Behleth.  He knelt and slapped his knees with his hands.  He called again to the three dogs that were tearing their way about the cobbled yard, without success.

‘Why do people talk to dogs like they were babies?’ wondered Behvyn openly, as Tig and Tangle rejoined them, now in heavy dresses, hooded cloaks and stout boots.  Arriving out of the back entrance to the kitchen, they received a scowl off Mandle.  The door was shut quickly and firmly behind them, much to the mirth of Kjerros.

‘How’s that for a warm welcome?’ he asked, smiling.  The girls raised their hands, incredulous, then ran to the gate that was set in the middle of the back fence to check it was held fast.  Jigger and Jogger were standing with their front paws on top of the fence and barking into the night.  At their fullest height, they were taller than Behvyn.

‘It’s locked,’ confirmed Tig.

‘Aw, they’ve made such a mess of things,’ said Tangle, looking around.

‘Don’t worry, we’ll tidy up,’ said Feran dutifully, and he and Kjerros began the business of collecting up the detritus that had been strewn about the yard by the dogs’ rampant behaviour.  Unsure of where to gather it all, they chose to pile it up at the juncture of the fence and the kitchen wall.


Though they continued to try, the dogs did not respond to the friends’ attempts to calm them.  They continued yelping, barking, darting around, running at the fence and reaching up for its top, standing on their hind legs and then hiding, tails between their legs, shivering against the cold, their moods taking such peculiar turns first one way and then another.

‘It’s bizarre!’ said Tangle dispiritedly.  ‘Jigger!  Jogger!  Half-Pint!  Come here, come to me, come on, sillies, it’s Tangle!’  But they only kept barking into the night.

‘They’re afraid of something,’ added Kjerros, who after some struggle had now managed to get a hold of Jogger’s scruff, but the wolfhound’s strength nearly bore him to the floor.  ‘Look!  They won’t stop shaking!’

Then Half-Pint took a nip at Feran, who jumped away into Kjerros.  Kjerros’ grasp of Jogger’s scruff was broken and suddenly all three dogs made a jump for the gate.  Jigger and Jogger both made an enormous bound and cleared the six-foot high barrier in one while Half-Pint sped up the pile that Kjerros and Feran had created moments earlier.  He leapt over the fence from its peak, landing at a fevered run on the other side.

‘No!’ cried Tig and Tangle in unison and were just about to open the gate and run off after them before Behvyn stopped them.

‘Hang on a second!’ he said.  ‘You won’t catch them; they’re too fast.  Let’s get organised.  Feran, go and grab those lanterns from over there and light them.  Kjerros, they’ve headed northwards up the Vale.  They may get as far as Long Knoll.  Have a look inside and see who’s in from there.  We don’t want them to be alarmed when they come back to find six strangers wandering over their land.  Let them know we’ve gone to look for Grodel’s dogs.’

He looked over to Tig and Tangle who he could see were desperate to begin the search.  ‘And Behleth, tell Grodel we’re going off.  We don’t want him worrying over where these two are.’  The sisters flicked a quick smile at Behvyn as Kjerros and Behleth went in through the kitchen.

‘And you two,’ said Behvyn, looking seriously at the impatient and concerned girls, ‘look absolutely gorgeous.’  They smiled graciously despite themselves then Tangle sought Feran.  He was over at the other side of the courtyard, trying and failing to light the lanterns with tinder and flint.

‘We have news,’ said Tig to Behvyn meaningfully.  ‘About your father.  It’s the main reason why we came back.  We can’t talk about it here.  But I promise I’ll tell you tomorrow once we get to Tieco.  And thank you for the compliment.’  She kissed Behvyn’s cheek, drew her cloak around her, and moved off as the sound reached them of Kjerros and Behleth returning through the kitchen.  ‘Let’s go, Tangle.  The others can catch us up,’ she said, as she unbolted then passed through the gate.

Behvyn watched them leave in a daze, his mind elsewhere until the wind swooped around the back of his neck.

‘Feran!’ he cried.

‘I’m coming!’ his friend replied, finally able to get the wicks to light in the lanterns.  He ran carrying four of them, each glowing amber, layering the inside of the glass with a thin lacquer of black until the flames settled.

‘Don’t worry, Mandle, we can slam the door behind us ourselves!’ said Kjerros, as he did indeed do just that, to the extent that the glass panel in the door nearly dislodged itself.  ‘I brought cakes for the journey,’ he said, proudly holding aloft a bindle that smelled faintly of recent cooking.  It radiated warmth.

‘Well done,’ replied Behvyn.  ‘Now, let’s go.  The girls have already gone on ahead.’

Kjerros and Feran raced after Tig and Tangle, but Behvyn did not follow immediately.

‘What is it?’ Behleth asked.

‘It’s great seeing them again.’

‘It really is!’ Behleth clapped his brother happily on the back.

But as Behvyn passed through the gate and turned to latch it shut behind them, an odd feeling descended.  As his friends ran on, crossing the fields, he looked back at the Poacher’s.  Something felt wrong.  Then he scouted the surrounding woods.  There was the crack of a branch snapped underfoot.  His eyes located of origin the sound.  Staring hard, unblinking, he thought he saw movement in the pine woods ahead but could not be sure.  ‘Just a trick of the wind,’ he said to calm himself.  Tig’s ominous words about his father returned to him but there was no time to dwell. 

‘Come on,’ Behleth urged, leading them into the dark.

Behvyn set out with his brother into the foreboding night as the unseen menace cursed its carelessness.