One Stone, Chapter 1

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

It rains on nights like these; in part, as a matter of good taste, and in part because it’s always raining in Lleywa. When it isn’t raining, it’s drizzling; when neither raining nor drizzling, it opts to storm; when storm, rain and drizzle aren’t an option, in the depths of winter, it makes to sleet. It is a nation without a winter, its people proudly proclaim, unless you count the sixteen or so hours during which it grows cold enough to snow and the rain gets out of the way. Similarly, it’s a nation without much of a summer, either. Whether out of habit or for dramatic purpose, though, it rained on this night, on the mountain passes of Lleywa.

From time to time, people who meet with the Lleywa nobility wonder why the castles are always constructed on high edges of mountains, overlooking valleys, and they are usually given the simple answer of “Piss off and mind your own business,” showing the typical Lleywan level of aristocracy. The more dignified amongst them, the old money, however, are kind enough to accord a better reason, or at least one more likely to continue the conversation: “The first Thane of Lleywa was a shepherd, who stood behind his people, and watched over them in the night.”

That conversation typically ends when someone reasonably points out that that’s creepy.

The narrow ways down the mountainsides, however, were built out of stone, not dirt, which meant that during the rain – which, to reiterate, was always – they didn’t turn to churning, wet slurry that turned downwards travel into slow-acting death sentence. Dangerous, yes, but a surefooted horse could manage them, if slow.

The rider could not afford slow. The rider could even less afford death, but it was a compromise they’d manage as best they could.

Thunder tore holes in the sky, and lightning showed them. The rain sheeted down, a vertical river that seemed to hit the stone hard enough to make it wince. The Rider pushed on, bundle tucked under its arm. Warm lights in a dark outline of the castle behind spoke of a household too, too awake for the hour of the morning; the village below lay dark and silent. Perhaps the mother’s screams of anguish, the father’s yells of joy and the servants’ exasperated sighs of relief, could have broken the thunder’s bellowing. Perhaps the rider could hear some of it being lost in the thunder. Perhaps the rider could feel some of those tears being lost in the rain.

In the vast, interconnected web of powers and favours that nobles weave to separate themselves from the lessers, and to determine who is right – for now – and who is legally dead – for now – thick, clean lines are necessary, no, mandatory, to keep from civil wars and bloodstained ambitions. The Lleywan nobility had made a practice of having a single child whenever they could, and a nation of shepherds found remarkable ways to be resourceful about keeping breeding numbers low. The people outside of Lleywa joked about it having something to do with the sheep. The people inside Lleywa, particularly the witches and midwives (who so often were the same thing) preferred herbed roots, teas and careful applications of oils, which put the control of such things in the hands of the women, rather than the men, and also happened to work.

Lleywa was not a large nation, and the castle did not oversee a large part of it. A second child could ruin everything, and they knew it – two lions born in the same litter rarely ever ended up well. And the rider did what was asked, and committed a great, dark sin in the name of a noble lord who would, with all of the strength in his arms, kill the rider the second it became an option.

The rider reflected on this much: A flight in rain, a terrible duty, and a noble bloodline: There was destiny afoot, this night. And the rider showed Lleywa the back of a horse that would never be so fortunate as to return to the rich stables to which it had been accustomed.

Tucked in tight against the saddle, made as comfortable as possible, the baby hid under the rider’s shadow and was, at the least, spared the rain.

In any circumstance such as these, there seem to be a great number of simpler solutions. The nastiest is to kill a child, to declare it stillborn and show it as evidence. There’s a problem with that plan, though, aside from it being dreadfully immoral and massively traumatising to the people involved. To kill a nobleman’s son isn’t just murder, though. It’s not even just murder of the son of an influential man, a man who owns property and a big sword and has deep enough pockets to employ steady, mean people who are experts in finding people or ending them. No, killing a noble’s son is dangerous because of what it means to be a noble. How those people are set apart from the people, in Lleywa, that they look over, or more often, overlook. A noble traces their bloodlines, messy and stained as they are, back to a King (and it is always a King). The King is special. The King is chosen by God. Sometimes, if you reach back far enough, the King is painted like the sun and is god, or as close to as any might imagine.

To kill a noble is to reach up through that line and to tug at the beard of God himself – and it is always himself. Killing a noble is, in part, killing a king, and that, for some reason, is set aside as a special kind of evil.

That there are people out there who think killing an infant can be made measurably more horrible should tell you everything you need to know about nobility.

And so, the rider rides. A long-lost brother is not the worst of all things. And who knows – perhaps, some day, in the future, something will break, and the kingdom would be glad of having a spare.

Down in the valleys of Lleywa, the sheep kept their heads down and under leaves. They didn’t know much about the path or movement of riders, or the turning and moving of kingdoms – but so much of the kingdom relied on them to keep moving around. At least seventeen years passed, and with them, many, many sheep. Yet, there were still enough sheep, still grazing, and they knew as much about the rider and the baby as the sheep that had seen them.