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                                Excerpt from Warrior of the Son


   From the hilltop it was plain to Evan MacKeth that the town of O’Byrne hadn’t changed at all since the year before. The rough, narrow roadway still descended from the forest and wound its way betwe en the patchwork of farmer’s fields at either hand before crossing the shallow, sluggish stream bordering the town. The air was still heavy with the smell of tilled earth and manure, while the lingering smoke from cooking fires added its own acrid aroma hanging over the little valley like a sinister shadow. This lack of change might have seemed a comforting constancy to some, but to the fourteen-year-old boy it meant another miserable visit to the castle of his mother.
  He had been born in this same secluded settlement with its rustic castle glowering down on the cluster of mud-walled, thatched roof houses. That gaunt fortress had been his home until he was seven, but there were few happy memories associated with the place and fewer still any reasons to be there now. Yet each year as spring became summer in the Kingdom of Glenmara, King Yuri sent Evan back to O’Byrne.
 Riding into the village, Evan ignored the inhabitants who had lined the narrow, muddy streets to welcome their young laird back into their midst. They were a sorry collection of illiterate, dirty commoners, no different than might be found in Durham or Eonacht or anyplace in Glenmara, but this lot belonged to the MacKeths. Their cheerfulness at Evan’s return indicated that they believed the MacKeth’s belonged to them too, and their attitude made him want to lash out as though by assaulting them he might somehow free himself from his history with the place. Mercifully, he was soon at the castle.
   Spanning the surrounding ditch, a wooden bridge climbed to a broad, flattened mound enclosed by a wooden palisade. This grassless yard was filled with the stables, storehouses and barracks necessary to the function of Cardiff MacKeth, and like the structures in the town they imparted a sense of dingy functionality.
  The little troop of men-at-arms and servants crossed into the enclosure unchallenged by the handful of soldiers standing about the open gate. Servants led the horses away, Evan’s escort was cheerfully invited into the barracks for a welcome meal, and the boy was left to ascend the stairway to the keep alone. Atop a taller mound of earth a square wooden tower overlooked the outer bailey. Inside that cheerless bit of artless architecture, Maeve MacKeth waited for her son.    
   She received him with all the enthusiasm of a mother’s affection while he returned the embrace with a quiet alarm. The boy long had been aware that his mother was ill, but this reunion brought with it the realization that she wasn’t getting better: she was pale and weak. He noticed she hadn’t risen from her chair to greet him.
   Still, she was energetic enough to kiss his cheek and make a proper fuss, taking his face in her hands as she devoured him with her eyes—the auburn hair, deep green eyes, the gentle lines of his quiet, expressive face. He was at that awkward age between adolescence and early adulthood, so she thought nothing of the frown he gave in exchange for her smile. But his displeasure had nothing to do with her attentions.
   “Are you well?” he asked gently.
    “Of course!” she said, “Never better! How you’ve grown in but a few months! You’ll be a man before supper.”
   “I am a man, mother,” the boy complained. “I’m nearly full grown.”
   “Listen to you! Grown or not you’ll always be my little boy and little boys are generally hungry.”
   A servant brought a tray of roast chicken, bread and cheese that Evan consumed while Maeve sat close at hand. The boy suffered through and answered the usual barrage of questions with an impatient resignation. He knew his mother loved him, though sometimes, when she was going on and on about a thousand insignificant matters, it didn’t seem such a positive thing.
   He already missed the palace, the magnificent architecture overlooking the Rivers Gabhailin and Cuinn where he spent most of the year, especially since Ivrian was there. A distant cousin, Ivrian Ceallaigh was in Durham for several months, and he was bitterly disappointed to be separated from her. They had brushed lips just before Evan’s departure, and he could still feel the marvelous ache of it coursing through his body.
   But Ivrian wasn’t the only reason Durham was such a pleasant place. There was also his half brother Osric, heir to Glenmara’s throne. The two of them had become fast companions since Evan had arrived at the palace, a frightened, ignorant boy longing for his mother. Osric had introduced him to the wonders of the Royal Court, taught him proper etiquette and made certain he was dressed in the latest fashions. Now it seemed he had always lived in the palace of the High King, his previous life in O’Byrne nothing but an inconvenience.
   “And how is Yuri?” Maeve asked.
   “You mean the king?” Evan responded, his mouth full of chicken.
    “I mean your father,” Maeve said, “How is your father?”
   “How should he be? He’s the king. What complaints can he have?”
   “He’s well?”
   Evan sighed, his shoulders sagging as he resigned himself to conversing with his mother. “He’s well. The Queen has a cough though.”
   “The poor thing,” Lady MacKeth said.
   Before she could further comment Evan added, “Osric is teaching me to play chess.”
  “Is he now? Did you know that your mother is a fair hand at that game? Perhaps you can test your skills on me.”
   Evan smiled as though he thought it a fine idea. His days would be filled with such tedium, accompanied by many more insincere smiles before fall arrived. The knowledge that only through his mother’s efforts had he been afforded the opportunities of the royal court filled the boy with a certain gratitude, yet it was difficult to be grateful when he was facing another summer in the middle of nowhere.
   His meal finished, Evan claimed exhaustion from his journey and went straight away to his rooms where he was soon asleep in the large, comfortable bed.
   Maeve, on the other hand, did not sleep. She was excited about the arrival of her son, but that was only part of the reason slumber eluded her. It was something else—a gnawing fear of things that lay just beyond her sight, just beyond her understanding, just beyond her control. She quenched the candles and alone in the darkness, tried to divine a solution to events that might never transpire.
   Her entire life revolved around Evan, yet the source of her greatest joy was also the reason for her deepest fear. With all the instincts of a mother to nurture and protect, she knew she couldn’t protect her son. She couldn’t even really nurture him now that he lived in Durham most of the year though she tried to make up for her neglect when he was in O’Byrne, causing more aggravation than comfort to the young man.
   She sighed. What would happen to the boy when she was gone? Who would take care of him then? He would be safe as long as Yuri was alive, as long as the king cared to intervene on the boy’s behalf. But if the Queen had her way Evan’s future would be as black as the darkness now surrounding Maeve.
   Lady MacKeth was not without sympathy for the Queen. It couldn’t be pleasant to know that her husband had taken Maeve into his bed, the result of which had been an illegitimate son. Maeve bitterly regretted the affair now, but her son was the only reason she could face another day. If only she could keep the gathering clouds away.
   Yet for all her fear, for all the time spent sitting alone in the shadows trying to sort it out, no solutions presented themselves. How could her heart be so full and yet so empty all at once? Beyond the window a night flecked full of stars beckoned her. She closed her eyes.
   “If there is anything beneath those stars that might save my boy, please let it come to me,” she whispered.
                                                                * * *

   Evan woke to the insistent ringing of the alarm bell atop the keep. Bolting from his bed he raced to the rooftop where a small knot of soldiers had gathered. “What’s happening? Are we being attacked?” he asked.
   “Sommat’s wrong in the town,” answered one of the men, pointing. “There’s a fire.”
   Outlined by the flames bursting through the thatched roof of a house near the stream, a long line of people passed buckets back and forth as they fought the blaze. But there was something else going on too. Armed men had gathered near the mill. “What are they doing?” the boy inquired.
   The soldier replied, “They’ve got somebody cornered in the mill, young lord. Maybe he started the fire.”
   Now here was rare excitement! Evan hurried down to the outer bailey where the yard was swarming with activity. Men drew water from the well in case the fire spread to the fortress while others armed themselves to address whatever was happening at the mill. A crusty old sergeant named Miles grabbed Evan as he made his way toward to gate.
   “Best get back inside, lord Evan,” he said, “There’s more out there than fire!”
   “What’s going on?”
   “Don’t know for sure. Two townspeople are dead, and not from burning neither—torn up something terrible. We’ve got the culprit trapped in the mill.”
   Murder and fire! Perhaps this summer would be different. Ignoring Miles’ warning, Evan ran out into the town.
   Townsfolk crowded the streets, armed with farming tools and other implements entirely unsuited to a fight. They gathered together in small groups near their homes where children peered from doorways and windows. Others were fighting the fire though by now it was more a matter of preventing it from spreading than of saving the house already in flames.
   By the time Evan arrived, soldiers were entering the mill with weapons and torches, stepping over the bloody remains of the two hapless villagers. He was about to join them when a tremendous din erupted just inside the doorway, followed by the sudden exodus of those who had just gone inside--some of them anyway.
   “What in blazes was that?” yelled one of the men, wiping a thick sheen of blood from his face.
   “Are you hurt?” asked another.
   “I’m not hurt! That’s Phillip’s blood. He were standing right beside me when his head came off!”
   “Where’s Fenton?”
   “Mebe he’s still inside.”
   “Well I ain’t goin back to look fer him!”
   At that moment Sir Thomas Brandt, the only knight on the fief, arrived with a squad of soldiers from the castle. “What’s going on?” he demanded.
   Everyone pointed to the mill. “There’s a madman in there!” wailed the bloody soldier.
   Sir Brandt shook his head. He was an older man with heavy jowls and an outrageous mustache that drooped down well past his chin. “Like as not merely an arsonist,” he said calmly.
   “Don’t know nothin bout no arsonist, Sir Brandt, but somebody set a fire too,” offered someone.
   Sir Brandt rolled his eyes. “An astute observation. I trust you’ve blocked off the exits?”
   “Aye, we did!” beamed one of the soldiers.
   “Wonders abound! Sergeant Miles, prepare your squad. We’ll rush right through the door and take the wretch.”
   “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” warned an unfamiliar voice. Everyone turned to see who would dare dispute a belted knight.
   A stranger was standing in the small courtyard. The flames from the burning house lent a severe look to his features, glinted in his dark, intelligent eyes, reflected from his hauberk and the fittings of his sword. Something about the man drew the attention of everyone away from the fire and the bodies and whatever was waiting for them in the mill.
  “Who the devil are you?” demanded Sir Brandt.
   The stranger bowed. “Julian Antony Vorenius, at your service. Who are you?”
   “Insolent dog! How dare you question or advise me!” the knight blustered.
   Evan saw the stranger’s eyes narrow.
   “I meant no disrespect,” Julian said evenly, “though I hardly think asking your name violates even the strictest protocol. As to advising you, I’m trying to save your life.”
   Sir Brandt flushed purple, strange strangled noises rising into his throat. “You save my life? What utter nonsense! I don’t know where you came from, but I won’t have a complete stranger telling me my business!”
   “If you go blundering in there now your ‘business’ will be over before it’s begun. There’s a Mud Troll in that mill,” the stranger warned.
   “What? What are you saying?” laughed the knight, “A troll? One more word and I’ll have you hanged! Do you hear me?”
   Julian nodded.
   Evan eyed the stranger suspiciously. A troll? There weren’t any trolls in Glenmara, and in any event, how would this man know what was in the mill? Perhaps he was mad. Still, the soldiers seemed to have lost any remaining enthusiasm.
   “Come on, you lot,” Sir Brandt snarled and reluctantly, the soldiers followed.
   Creeping closer to the doorway, Evan crouched and listened. He could hear the soldiers whispering to each other, could recognize Sir Brandt’s voice as the squad moved deeper into the mill. He glanced back at the silent, motionless stranger.
   His attention was abruptly refocused by the confusion of screams, banging and clanging that erupted from the dark interior of the mill. Soldiers came bolting through the door in a panicked tangle, dispersing to the outskirts of the yard where they stood trembling, glancing anxiously at each other as if to confirm they were still alive. The stranger still didn’t move.
   A pair of hands clawed their way into the open as Sir Brandt tried to crawl to safety. He was gasping, crying out for help, blood pouring from a wound in his scalp. Evan grabbed his arms and pulled. Something pulled the other way.
   The stranger called out a warning. “Let go, boy. Get away from the door!”
   Sir Brandt clutched at Evan’s arms with a grip made more powerful by desperate terror as he was dragged back into the mill. Evan braced his feet against the door jam, exerting all his strength to hold on until help arrived, but finding himself being dragged inside, the boy released the knight. The knight, however, didn’t release Evan, and with one violent heave both were thrown into the mill.
   Evan sprawled to a stop against the massive millstone. The floor was scattered with blood- soaked grain while nearby an unfortunate soldier lay in an unnatural tangle of arms and legs. Beside him Sir Brandt groaned and called for help, but the open door beckoned Evan with a promise of safety that replaced any desire he might have had to assist anyone. Yet as he prepared to run toward the inviting light, a movement drew his attention to the most terrifying sight he had ever seen.
   Evan’s disbelieving eyes fixed on a gigantic, mottled brown foot pressed against the earthen floor. A hairy leg led to a knee as big as the boy’s head, to a massive waist that became a bare chest and culminated in the high, disfigured head atop shoulders as broad as a man was tall. The smell of decayed earth clogged Evan’s nostrils as though the air was somehow full of dirt and moss and old vegetation. “A Mud Troll,” thought the petrified boy.