Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Readers of my original series know that, often, there are scenes and/or characters that are cut out of early drafts. Sometimes these are removed because they are not working, sometimes because their sub-plot is slowing down the action and sometimes because I need to get back under my 180,000 word limit!

Now, when you buy a DVD, you get to see extra scenes that were left on the cutting room floor.

Here, you get the DVD extras from Bridge Of Swords. These scenes may give you some extra insight into characters, or you may well judge that it was a good thing I cut them out!


(This introduces a comical character called William of Winterbourne as well, who sadly had to be cut out)

Huw was finally getting used to the size of the palace, although it had taken him more than a month here to feel comfortable with its many twists and turns. Sometimes he had to pinch himself, to remind himself that he was actually here, he was really living the dream. He loved to wake up in the morning, just lie in the huge bed and watch the morning sun play on the stonework of the wall. Or sometimes the afternoon sun, if he had been performing late in the night. There was no need for him to be anywhere in the morning then, so he would stroll down to the kitchen and enjoy a leisurely breakfast, or lunch, or both at the same time. Every other day he was required to perform either during the afternoon or evening, although he was sometimes asked to make a special performance on his day off, which he was happy to do. The contract he had signed was outrageously generous - a gold piece per performance, on top of all his food and lodgings for free. He did not even need to buy clothes - he just went along to the Court Tailor, and he received new tunic and trousers each week. Luckily that was all he needed - he heard that the Court Dressmaker was working every turn of the hourglass she had just to come up with new outfits for Rhiannon to impress the King. But all this meant, by the end of the year, he would be one of the richest men in the Vales. He received his payment every week and while there was the strong desire to take the thick gold coins and start spending them in Crondon’s many markets, which were full of temptations from across the continent, he made sure they went into his leather pouch, which he kept hidden in the toe of an old boot, which he kept at the very back of his wardrobe.

He dressed swiftly and followed the path he knew best of all - to the kitchens. At first, when he had received an order to make his way to this room, or that room, to perform for some nobles, that he had run into trouble. Several times he had been late, and the Forlish nobles were swift to let their displeasure be known. Luckily there were so many of those red-coated officials wandering around, as well as guards, and they often pointed him in the right direction. But Huw did not like depending on others, so he used some of his free time to explore the castle, often enlisting a guard or two as a guide - and as insurance should he bump into an angry noble or, Aroaril forbid, the King.

He was getting to know the whole castle now, not just the rooms frequented by the nobility but the passages the slaves and servants used to get around the castle without being seen, and move food, clothes and the myriad other things needed to keep the King’s court functioning around such a huge building. Many of the servants and all of the slaves were terrified to see him, although he was careful to be polite to them, and reassure them that he meant no harm. They had good reason to be afraid. Even in his limited experience, he had seen many acts of cruelty and viciousness. Nobles would strike or even beat a servant who did not complete their orders exactly, while to be a slave was even worse. Everyone, from nobles to guards, to red-coated officials and even the servants treated them like scum. They were sworn at, hit, beaten and worse. To be an attractive slave girl or boy in the court of King Ward was to be in a living nightmare. Several times Huw saw things that made him turn away with disgust. Part of him wanted to rush in, to protect these poor slaves, whose only crime was to have been born in another country, and to be captured by Forlish soldiers. But the greater part of him shrank away. He might be a privileged performer, one of the favourites of the King, but he had no more power than the lowest servant. All he could console himself with was the thought that he could purchase the freedom of dozens of them with the gold coins he was earning, but he could only do that if he kept silent, and kept earning those coins.

He knew his father would not agree, would not stand back while rape and beatings went on in front of him but he managed to persuade himself that what he was doing was for the best, in the long run.

Besides, there was plenty to take his mind off such things. The castle was full of diversions - he could go and watch his fellow performers for one. Although he had to admit, he did seem to go along to see Rhiannon more than anyone else - combined.

William of Winterbourne was still there also. He had strode onto the stage, following both Rhiannon and Huw, surely knowing that he had next to no chance of being the third person in a row to be selected by the King. It seemed impossible and while Huw was overjoyed to have been successful, he still felt sorry for the older man, as this was his third and last chance to impress the King.

William gave no hint of what he must have been thinking and instead put his little dogs through their paces, making them not just walk on their hind legs, but dance for the King. The audience had warmed up to what they were doing, and the way they seemed to be fooling William by pretending not to do some tricks, and then repeating others. He was a brilliant performer and Huw could only admire his stage craft. By the end, all were laughing and cheering and to everyone’s surprise, not least William’s, he joined Huw and Rhiannon on the bench.

He made a fine companion and Huw often spent time with him, as well as the dogs, just talking or walking through the castle. He did not take William through the secret paths, but he had showed him some of the older rooms, as well as the magnificent castle library, said to contain books from every country on the continent, as well as some from across the sea.

In fact he planned to go exploring again with William this afternoon, as he had no performances booked for the day. The first few weeks had been busy, as all wanted to see the new performers in action but now it seemed to be settling into more of a pattern. He found that reassuring, as though he were truly accepted.

William was finishing up his regular breakfast, bacon, eggs, steak, bread, cheese and tomatoes, washed down with huge mugs of tea.

`Is that your first or your second meal?’ Huw asked with a smile as he slipped onto a chair opposite his friend.

`You are too quick to mock!’ William told him severely, then belched loudly. `A man like myself needs to eat to maintain his figure. It’s all right for you, bards are supposed to be so thin that they can disappear when they turn sideways. You want the women to melt when you sing to them. But when you want them to laugh, like I do, it is better to look like this. After all, what is funny about my dogs trying to jump over my stomach, and acting like they can’t do it, if my gut was as flat as yours?’

Huw acknowledged the point with a wink, as he ordered fresh bread and fruit, as well as juice and tea.

`Tell me, are we by chance going to see that friend of yours again this afternoon?’ William asked, wiping his mouth.

`Do you mean Frederick of Northfield?’ Huw said innocently.

`Of course! I know how you love to watch that man recite the world’s most tedious poetry as if it were words of spun gold. No, you dolt, Rhiannon of Hove!’

`I had thought to go down that way,’ Huw admitted.

`Thought so,’ William sighed. He paused for a moment. `Do you think you’ll talk to her today?’

Huw made a face at him. That was a particularly sore point. After the excitement of the auditions, where he had helped Rhiannon, played for her and sat next to her, he had been sure he could try and develop something of a relationship. But her father never left her side and, far from being grateful at everything Huw had done to help his daughter, acted as if Huw had tried to assault her. When she was not performing, or eating, Hector was making her rehearse, increasing her repertoire, honing her dance moves and making her practise singing.

Once, Huw had emerged from one of the castle’s many servant passages to see her singing in a room by herself, watched only by Hector. Neither knew he was there and he had spent a blissful time just watching her, listening to her and longing for her. He had heard what many of the court were saying, that she was no beauty but had the best legs they had ever seen in the castle for a decade. But he saw something in her face, shining out from inside her when she sung. There was a real beauty there, a true beauty that he wanted to see more of, get to know better. He was sure they could make some beautiful music together, if only they got the chance. He had confided as much to William, who had chuckled lewdly at Huw’s suggestion.

`I’ve never heard it called that before - but that’s as good a description as any!’

Huw had blushed, and said no more.

`I might get to talk to her - you never know. Her father can’t be with her all the time,’ Huw said.

William snorted. `Don’t be so quick to hope. That man knows what he is doing. He is making sure the King is infatuated with her - and the last thing he needs is for her to get involved with a penniless bard from a pissant village like Browns Brook! He wants her to catch the King’s eye, that way their fortune will be assured.’

`No!’ Huw exclaimed. `That cannot be!’

`Aroaril Hugh, how old are you? That sort of thing has been going on for years. The Queen is ancient - why she must be nearly 45 now! The King has been casting his eyes around the court for years now - and he always picks the pretty ones. They go to his bed, willing or unwilling, and their fathers get a large bag of gold coins in exchange for their daughter’s virtue. They say there’s a dozen little royal bastards running around court, that claim to be the son or daughter of a noble family - or a servant one,’ William said carefully, lowering his voice.

`I can understand the King’s lusts - I have seen him with a servant girl while I was performing one night. He wanted me to play the Battle March while he … you know.’

William guffawed at this.

`But how could a father actually set out to do that to his daughter?’ Huw continued.

William sighed. `My friend, I am afraid things here in the capital are not the same as they are in Browns Brook. For a poor family like theirs, to be courted by the King and rewarded handsomely - it would be very tempting.’

`I could never do such a thing!’

`Me either,’ William admitted. `But as my daughters are both married, and even fatter than their old man, I don’t think I ever had to worry about that!’

Huw smiled, as he was supposed to, but inside he could not stop thinking about Rhiannon with the King. And Hector’s fierce protection of his daughter seemed revolting in the light of William’s theory. The man was not protecting his daughter because he cared for her, but only to sell her to the highest bidder.

`So, are we going along to see Rhiannon again?’ William asked. `Or will you show me the back way out of this place that you use to slip down to the markets?’

`How do you know about that?’

`Well, I know the gate guards like a silver coin to let us in or out of the gate - and you seem to be able to avoid paying them.’

`Perhaps I sing for them?’ Huw suggested.

William winked. `Of course. I believe you!’

Huw was saved from replying when Thomas, the official from their audition day, hurried over.

`Hugh! Thank Aroaril I found you! The King requires you to play the lyre during a war meeting this afternoon,’ he gasped.

`Perhaps our revered monarch needs some romantic music, to get him in the right mood for his latest conquest,’ William said blandly, offering another wink to Huw.

`I shall be there,’ Huw promised.

Thomas smiled. `Excellent. Do you know where I can find Rhiannon of Hove? He also wants to have her there.’

`I‘m sorry,’ Huw shrugged, while William just shook his head.

Thomas nodded, then rushed away on his search.

`He wants to have Rhiannon there. Perhaps the King will let you have a turn after he has finished,’ William said with a leer.

`You have a disgusting mind!’ Huw told him but his mind was already turning to the chance of actually speaking to Rhiannon that day.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Readers of my original series know that, often, there are scenes and/or characters that are cut out of early drafts. Sometimes these are removed because they are not working, sometimes because their sub-plot is slowing down the action and sometimes because I need to get back under my 180,000 word limit!

Now, when you buy a DVD, you get to see extra scenes that were left on the cutting room floor.

Here, you get the DVD extras from Bridge Of Swords. These scenes may give you some extra insight into characters, or you may well judge that it was a good thing I cut them out!



He turned with a grin to hug his friend.

`Gaibun! We’re going to learn the bow! I can’t believe we are finally going to learn how to shoot arrows!’ Sendatsu laughed.

`I couldn’t sleep last night for thinking of it,’ Gaibun confessed.

A slim elven girl slapped him on the back of the head.

`Really? You were so excited about having your fingers scraped raw, your back aching and your arms so sore you can barely lift a spoon?’

`Yes, Asami, I am!’ Sendatsu told her.

`Proves you must have been dropped on your head as a child. Well, come on then!’

Sendatsu led the way, the three of them racing through the streets, laughing and dodging the adults they saw there - most of whom merely smiled indulgently, to the city‘s archery range, on the outskirts of the forest.

There were a score of other youths, boys and girls, all about the same age, between seven and eight years old, waiting patiently with an older elf, with a shaved head and huge shoulders and arms.

`Glad you three decided to join us. We were thinking of sending out our best trackers to find you,’ he told them, with a slight smile. `But don‘t be late again.’

`Yes sensei,’ they chorused, as they took their places in the line.

`Good. Now take your bows. We shall begin at the same time every day - archery is all about practise. You will find these bows hard to draw at first but, as soon as they grow easier, you must choose a bigger, stronger bow. Until you have a bow with full draw weight, I don’t want you ever using these easily.’

He showed them the bows made of yew, how it was made of both the heartwood and outer wood of the tree, so it would withstand the tension of the spring and snap back with the pace and speed to send a long arrow 200 paces.

`I never want to see you draw back only to the eye. Aiming is easy enough then, but you have no power. Draw to the ear and learn to think the arrow to your target. For the first year, the safest place for me will be standing right in front of the target but you shall learn!’

He showed them how to draw back, how the tension was spread through the arms, chest, shoulders and back, how to release the string between breaths so the bow did not move and throw the arrow off target.

`We are the only race in the world to use the longbow! The humans are not clever enough to use the bow, nor do they live long enough to be able to spend the 10 years necessary to become an archer!’

`Why do we learn the bow?’ Asami asked grimacing with the effort of drawing the bow. `We do not hunt animals for their flesh, and we are protected from the humans by a magical barrier.’

`That we are. But magic can be breached, or can fail. A strong arm and a strong bow will never fail. These are the best defences we could ever have, should we need them.’

Sendatsu had enjoyed the lesson, although his arrows had gone nowhere near the target, even though the tips of his first two fingers on the right hand were sore and red at the end of the lesson and his shoulders and back were aching. Gaibun was even more excited.

`Did you see me hit the target? Did you see? I was the only one who did it!’ he laughed all the way home, while Sendatsu and Asami teased his claims that he was a natural, an archer born.

`Shall we get something to eat and then go down to the park? I want to swim in the lake,’ Sendatsu suggested.

`We’ll meet down there,’ Asami agreed.

Sendatsu raced inside his house, intending to grab something from the kitchen before finding a towel. Perhaps his mother had been baking cakes. His stomach rumbled at the thought. But he skidded to a halt as he came through the door to find his father sitting at the kitchen table.

`Benneth! Back from archery already?’

`Yes, father,’ Sendatsu nodded, unconsciously trying to stand straighter.

`And how did it go?’

Sendatsu grinned and began a hurried recount of the lesson, how they had worked until they ached, and their teacher had called a halt.

`And Gaibun hit the target!’ he finished. `We’re going down to the lake for a swim…’

`Did you hit the target?’ his father asked sharply.

`No father, although I got close …’

`And you thought that was good enough? You thought it was acceptable to go out and enjoy yourself afterwards? Reward yourself for failure?’

Sendatsu gaped at his father.

`Answer me, boy!’

`But the teacher said…’

`I don’t care what your teacher said! Do you think failure is good enough?’

`No, father.’

`Come with me.’

Miserably, Sendatsu followed his father into the garden, where an old archery target hung on a tree. His father, a tall muscular man, took out an old bow, smaller than the massive one he used but still bigger than the ones Sendatsu and his friends had tried at the archery lesson.

`Here, take this. This is the bow I used at your age. It is bigger and stronger than the ones they give you at the start, but that is good. It is not acceptable to be the same as everyone else. You must be bigger, stronger, faster. If you are to take my place on the Elven Council, you have to prove yourself worthy. Are you going to let Gaibun become the best archer of your age? Do you want to be a lesser elf? He is your competition, and you must beat him!’

`But father, he is my friend …’

`Friends make you weak. You must be strong. Take up the bow.’

`But father, my hands are sore and my back aches…’

His father brought the bow stave whistling around in a vicious arc and Sendatsu jumped in pain as it whiplashed across his backside.

`Talk back to me again and you shall regret it! Now take the bow and string it!’

Sendatsu took the bow with a shaking hand and, exerting every ounce of strength, just managed to bend it enough to slip the string into the nocked horn tips. His father watched grimly, then dropped a sheaf of arrows at his feet.

`Every day, you will come back here after your lesson, string the bow and put 10 arrows into that target. Each day I shall remove the arrows - and woe betide you if I come home and find anything less than 10 in that target.’

`But father, what if I miss?’

His father’s face tightened and Sendatsu reflexively took a step away. `Did you not listen to me boy? I want 10 arrows in that target and I don’t care how long it takes you! Begin!’

Sendatsu bent and picked up an arrow. Shorter than the yard-long shafts the adults used, it was still a good six inches longer than the ones he had first tried. He fitted the nocked end to the string, then drew a deep breath and drew back. His already sore muscles protested, while his fingers felt like fire.

`Pull back! What are you, a little girl? Pull, boy! Put some effort into it!’ his father snapped.

Grunting with the effort, Sendatsu pulled it back and released, barely aiming. Luckily the target was only 10 paces away but, even so, the arrow only just stuck in the very edge of it.

`Aroaril, boy! If that was your best effort, I can see we are going to be here until dark. Come on, make me proud of you for once!’

Sendatsu leaned down and selected another arrow. This one was even harder to draw back. His arms were trembling with the effort now and while the release was sweet relief for his muscles, it was pure agony for his fingers. He looked down in horror to see the rough hide string had taken the skin off the pads of his fingers and they were red raw.

`You missed, boy,’ his father said coldly, dropping the arrow at his feet again. `Come on, I haven’t got all day but I will stay here if that is what it takes.’

Sendatsu laid another arrow into the string and pulled back. He could feel the dampness of blood from his fingers on the string, while silent tears rolled down his cheeks.

`It is not good enough to be second best. You must be the best! Now pull!’ his father roared at him.

Lost in a world of pain, Sendatsu tried to do what his father told him. At that moment, the only thing he hated more than the bow, which was tearing his muscles and cutting his flesh, was his father.


Sendatsu lifted his tunic to let Asami rub a soothing salve on his welts and bruises.

`Mother says this will take down the swelling much faster,’ Asami said softly, her fingers light across his wounds.

`Thank you,’ he smiled gently at her.

`This is terrible,’ Asami sighed, her fingers tracing a long welt from his upper back down to his ribs.

`It’s getting better. I’m getting faster. He doesn’t hit me so much now,’ Sendatsu told her, trying to say something to keep his mind off her hands on his skin.

`I still think you should have told someone,’ she finished with the salve but he caught her hands before she could take them away.

`But then I wouldn’t have you do this for me. And that makes it worth it,’ he said softly, leaning closer to her.

Her hands went to his back again and drew him forwards into a long kiss that seemed to last a moment and for ever.

`I thought we were all going to pick strawberries?’ Gaibun’s voice snapped them apart and Asami jumped to her feet.

Sendatsu was slower to get up, partly because he was sore, partly because he needed to pull his tunic down to disguise the bulge at the front of his trews. He met Gaibun’s gaze and was shocked at the anger in his friend’s eyes.

`If I did not know better, I would say that you were doing this for sympathy,’ Gaibun said coldly.

`How could you say that?’ Asami demanded. `Haven’t you seen his bruises?’

`Aye. But not the way you have, obviously,’ Gaibun snapped.

`I’m going now, before I say something I shouldn’t,‘ Asami warned, and stalked away.

`But what about the strawberries? They’re your favourites!’ Gaibun protested.

`Pick them yourself!’

They watched her walk away, but all Sendatsu could think of was the way her hands had felt on his skin, the way her lips had felt against his.

`Come on. Those strawberries need picking, whether there’s two or three of us doing it,’ Gaibun said gloomily.

Sendatsu followed him, but his eyes lingered on the departing figure of Asami.

`You are lucky,’ Gaibun said softly.

`What? You still think I got these bruises deliberately…?’

`No. That she likes you. She knows how much I like her but won’t let me near her. But you …’

Sendatsu looked at his friend and could see only sadness in his eyes now.

`We will still be friends, no matter what,’ he said defiantly. `Asami is not something to be fought over. She will make her own decisions.’

`I know,’ Gaibun agreed. `I promise it won’t come between us!’

Sunday, October 7, 2012



Readers of my original series know that, often, there are scenes and/or characters that are cut out of early drafts. Sometimes these are removed because they are not working, sometimes because their sub-plot is slowing down the action and sometimes because I need to get back under my 180,000 word limit!

Now, when you buy a DVD, you get to see extra scenes that were left on the cutting room floor.

Here, you get the DVD extras from Bridge Of Swords. These scenes may give you some extra insight into characters, or you may well judge that it was a good thing I cut them out!


THE city of Cridianton, the capital of Forland, was impressive. It was meant to be. It said to everyone, this is the pre-eminent country, the biggest and most powerful in the world.

To Huw, it was stunning. It looked like something out of the stories his father had told him when he was a boy, stories of elven cities.

Of course the stone used was grey, rather than white, and the towers were squat and powerful, rather than tall and beautiful. The practical part of him knew much of it would be filthy and miserable, crowded streets and misery, hunger and rats. But the romantic within him thrilled at the sight of the colourful flags snapping from the top of the city walls.

Once a year, King Ward allowed performers to try out for his court’s amusement. Ward and his court were insatiable for entertainment and they quickly became bored with seeing the same thing. Those singers, dancers, jugglers, clowns and bards who angered the Forlish King were lucky if they escaped with their skins intact - but those who pleased him left the court after a year with their pockets full of gold. And, better yet, they were assured of work at every town in Forland. Every minor nobleman and rich merchant wanted to see an entertainer who had delighted their king. Huw estimated he could return home within two years with enough money that he could pay for labourers to take over his father’s farm, as well as build himself the finest house in the village.

Many of those heading for Crondon were hopefuls like himself, while others were those looking to prey on them or profit from them. Up ahead was a long, mostly good-natured queue of those looking to get inside the gate. The guards were speaking to all before they could enter, which was taking time but Huw was not worried. The trials were not until tomorrow and he was in no hurry. There was so much to look at! Stalls had been set up at the side of the road and it seemed to be turning into a fair.

Beside the road, a young juggler was performing for a small crowd, sending three small painted wooden tops soaring high into the air before catching them. Huw stopped also, partly through interest, partly because he could see the nervous sweat on the man’s face, see the way he was snatching at the wooden tops as they went past, rather than letting them drop smoothly into his hand. He tried to will the man to stop while he was ahead. The juggler was tall and good-looking, blue eyes beneath a shock of blond hair, a cheeky smile and a square jaw. Huw knew looks should make no difference to talent but the sad fact was, people liked their entertainers to be handsome or beautiful.

Huw reflected enviously that if he looked like that, he would have more than a small crowd around him. But he knew enough to stop while they still wanted more. There were a dozen people watching him, and if the juggler finished with a flourish and a smile, he might get half a dozen coppers, and the same in silver.

`And now for the finale, I shall attempt four!’ the juggler called confidently, and Huw groaned inwardly. He had seen many entertainers performing at Forlish inns these past few weeks - and at least three jugglers who were far better.

`Where is my helper?’ the juggler shouted, oblivious to Huw’s concern.

A small child stepped forwards, a fourth top, this one painted red, in his hand.

`Now throw it to me!’

Huw could see what as going to happen long before it did, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. He just had to watch, wincing, as the last top was thrown clumsily to the juggler. The man reached out for it, lost his rhythm and the tops went in all directions, the last one - predictably - landing squarely on his head.

The juggler staggered a little as the crowd roared with laughter and then turned as one and walked away, looking for more entertainment. The small boy gaped at the wreckage, then was tugged away by his mother.

`Wait! I have more tricks, spectacular shows that will amaze even our great King Ward!‘ the juggler called, but jeers followed his claim and the people moved away even faster.

Huw moved also, but to help the juggler, who had slumped to the ground, rubbing his bruised head.

`Here, let me get these,’ Huw offered as he gathered up the fallen tops.

`My thanks to you,’ the juggler gasped. `Now, if you could but bring the crowd back…’

`You almost had them. It was just the child as a helper. It was a good touch, bringing with it laughter and support from the crowd but it meant the act failed, where an older child might have given you the better conclusion to the show,’ Huw handed over the tops.

`You sound like you are a performer also …’ the juggler’s voice tailed off as he glimpsed the lyre in its protective case slung across Huw’s back.

`I will also be performing for King Ward,’ Huw admitted.

`Well, that is wonderful! We shall win contracts together!’ the juggler said with a smile. `I am Bertwald, from Browns Brook. And you?’

`Huw, of Patcham.’

`Patcham? I have travelled widely but I ever heard of that village. Where is that? Balian or something?’

`No, it‘s in the Vales,’ Huw said proudly, now collecting the rest of Bertwald’s props. Then he noticed the juggler was not helping him, was just staring instead.

`The Vales? But where’s your beard?’ he asked dumbly.

Huw chuckled. `We don’t all wear beards and shag sheep in the Vales! We have a proud history of song, and heroic tales…’ He trailed off, horribly aware that Bertwald was neither laughing or smiling, and seemed to have no interest whatsoever in the history of the Vales in song.

`You’re Velsh? And to think I was actually considering travelling to the capital with you!’

`Well, why not? What’s wrong with travelling with me?’ 

`Are you mad? King Ward will throw a stinking Velshman out of Crondon before he even gets the chance to open his mouth! And anyone who travels with them would get the same fate,’ he declared, hurriedly packing the last of his props. `I want nothing to do with a filthy Velshman. Stay clear of me!’

Huw gaped at him. Bertwald had seemed pleasant enough, if lacking in talent. Where had this come from?

`If you’re smarter than the average Velsh oaf you’ll turn around and go back to whatever shit village you crawled out from,’ Bertwald continued. `But stay away from me!’

`Look, you have it wrong, but we can still travel together. I just won’t tell them I’m Velsh,’ Huw offered with a smile, although the words of his father Earwen were flooding into his head, about always being proud of where you came from.

`Get away from me!’ Bertwald pushed him hard in the chest and Huw staggered backwards, falling down but twisting at the last moment so he did not land on his precious lyre. He sprang to his feet and checked it anyway, then brushed the grass and leaves from his cloak angrily. The juggler was hurrying away and he knew he should go after the man, throw him down to the ground and repay him for his rudeness and that push. In his village, if you were pushed over, you came up swinging fists. At the very least he should tell him a few facts of life, about how unwise it was to be rude towards helpful strangers, and how the Velsh were not strange barbarians who were overly affectionate to sheep but his feet would not move after Bertwald and, worse, the words to say that would not come to him. It was not because he lacked for words, he made his living from them. But a combination of shock and fear stilled his tongue. Not fear for himself, he told himself loudly, but more of causing a scene. How many of the other people here would think the same as this juggler? If he began an argument about the honour of the Vales, would the people listen or would they side with the handsome Forlish juggler?

He watched Bertwald scamper away, still staring darkly at him, and made sure there was no stains on his clothes instead. He swirled his cloak around for a final check and wondered if it might not be better to pretend he was from some isolated Forlish village. After all, if Ward did hate the Velsh, perhaps discretion would be the better part of valour. Impress the Forlish King first, then when he had won a contract to perform there, reveal where he came from - and then none could doubt he was a proud Velshman, he told himself. That would be the smart thing to do.

Reassured by his own logic, he walked across to join the growing queue of hopefuls being interviewed by a pair of men in court clothes, flanked by a squad of bored guards.


`Make way there! Make way!’ the call came up from behind and craned his head, trying to see what was coming up the road - then wished he hadn’t. It was a long line of people - men, women and even children, filthy and dressed in rags. But the real horror was the way they were tied together, rope halters around the necks, even around the necks of the youngest, boys and girls no older than ten summers. Huw watched, his mouth sagging open, as they were driven along the road by a score of armoured riders with whips, who were not afraid to use them.

`No slacking there! We didn’t keep you alive just to let you lie down now!‘ the leader roared, plying the whip on a pair of stragglers.

Huw was outraged to see one of them was a young girl. He glanced around, expecting everyone else to be as disgusted, but heads hardly raised, from the queue of hopefuls to the many stallholders, farmers and merchants going about their usual business. Or, if they did, they merely looked then went on with whatever it was they were doing.

His first instinct was to rush over, to protect the women and children being herded down the road into the capital like animals. No, worse than animals, for the sheep, cattle and goats he had seen go past him that day had been well-fed, cared for. But he found his feet were frozen to the spot. The cruelty, the anger, on the faces of the guards told him they would not listen to reasoned argument about the nature of freedom. Still he knew it was the right thing. He had to do something, say something. His father would never have let such a sight go past.

`You have to stand up for what you believe in, or you will end up living your life on your knees. And that is no way for a man to spend his days,’ Earwen often said.

He could imagine what his father would do. He would pull one of those arrogant riders off their horse, take their sword and free the prisoners. Anyone who tried to stop him would be cut down. But Huw could not move. All the riders looked huge in their armour, and all carried long daggers and curved swords at their belts, as well as the cruel whips. On horseback they seemed huge, forbidding. Huw could not imagine wresting a sword from one of them, nor freeing even the smallest prisoner.

`Who are they?’ he managed to croak.

The man in front, another bard by his costume, turned and looked, as if seeing them for the first time.

`Another pack of Balians for the slave markets. They bring back a string or two of them every week. They make good slaves, once they have had the nonsense whipped out of them. They should realise that Forland is their ruler. They should be happy to be slaves to the greatest country in the worldI’

Huw felt sick. The line of Balians passed close by, and he watched each face in horror, seeing their pain, their exhaustion, the fear and dread etched into every line. The ropes had rubbed red wounds around wrists and necks, while their feet were torn and bloody from the road. One young man, no older than himself, had a dozen vicious weals across his shoulders as well. Even as Huw watched, a rider slashed down with his whip, opening another wound across the man’s upper back.

Huw looked up angrily - and wished he hadn’t. He locked eyes with the slaver, who leered at him.

`Like the look of that one, do you?’ he winked. `I promise not to damage his pretty face. That’s what you’re looking for, after all, isn’t it?’

Disgusted, and afraid, Huw looked away. 

`Come and see the slave markets tomorrow. They’ll be for sale soon. But bring your purses - prime Balian slaves like these are hard to find!’ the rider called, widening his sales pitch to everyone within earshot.

`He’s lying,’ the bard in front said quietly. `The market’s choked with slaves from every part of the continent. The strong ones will fetch a gold piece, the young, good-looking women double that, but the rest can be had for a few silvers. The King should be ordering the army to kill more of them, rather than take slaves. It’s wrecking the whole economy. Even the beggars can afford a slave these days!’

Huw realised the man expected him to be sympathetic but it was all he could do not to vomit. In the Vales, every man was free and the thought of owning slaves was as repugnant as sleeping with the sheep. And the Forlish called them barbarians! He knew what the right thing to do was. He should walk away from here, go back to where the air was clean, the people honest and no man was another’s slave. It was what his father would do and he could almost hear Earwen’s voice telling him to do exactly that.

And yet … he had known the Forlish were corrupt and greedy, had known their army was rarely at home but instead was ever widening the lands King Ward could call his own. He had known and he had still come here, because this was his dream. Only here could he truly become a bard, only here could he earn the money he needed to look after his parents. If he returned now, he could walk away with a clean conscience but he would have to give up the lyre, have to become a farmer. Every sacrifice his father had made would be worthless. Everyone in the village would nod their heads, declare knowledgeably that they knew this would happen all along. This was what came of having impossible dreams. Velshmen did not become bards, they became farmers or miners. He would forever be laughed at, forever have to live with the thought he had failed.

It is only for a year. I shall walk away by then, he told himself. And, perhaps, he could earn enough money to purchase slaves which he could set free. Walking away would not help those poor people, he told himself, warming to the task, but staying and making so much gold that he could release them would save them.

He seized upon that idea like a man dying of thirst reaching for a cup of water. It would be better if he stayed, he could do more good that way, he decided. It took courage to walk away, but even more to stay and do something about the slavery.

Feeling much better about the decision, he straightened his shoulders and rejoined the queue. The last of the tortured Balians were moving through the city gates now and the slavers were disappearing from sight with them. From the reaction of the crowd, the horrific little scene might never have happened. That did shake Huw’s determination to stay, a little. If these people could ignore what was being done to women and even children, what else would he discover behind the city walls? Something deep inside his gut was telling him he should go, that to stay was a betrayal of everything his father had taught him. But his head was in control and, after all he had gone through to get here, he had no intention of going.