Author's NoteThis is an excerpt from the first volume of an epic fantasy where the Wars of the Roses are raging, but this is not England as we know it. Young Will and Master Gwydion, a wizard, struggle to save the Realm from the stones of power. A kind of magic flows through the veins of the earth in the Realm and this is used by wizards and misused by sorcerers to change history.
The Realm is poised for war. Its weak king - Hal, grandson of a usurper - is dominated by his beautiful wife and her lover. Against them stands Due Richard of Ebor and his allies. The two sides are set on a bloody collision course.
Willand son of Eldmar turned his gaze away from
the Tops and ran down towards the village. The sun was warm today, the sky
cloudless and the grass soft and thriving underfoot. His long hair streamed
freely in the sun like golden wheat as he ran past a cluster of thatched
cottages and came at last to the Green Man.
The Language of Stones - Chapter One – Out of the Vale
‘Is Tilwin here yet?’ he asked, hoping the knife-grinder was already slaking his thirst. But Baldgood the alehouse keeper shook his head. There was no sign of Tilwin, nor of his grinding wheel, so Will went out and sat on the grass.
Sunshine blazed on the white linen of his shirt. It was a fine spot just here. Daisies and dandelions had come out all over the green, as if it had known to put on its summer best. Every year it was fine and sunny at Cuckootide. There was racing to the Tarry Stone, kicking at the campball, and all the other sports. And afterwards there would be the bonfire. Songs would be sung and there would be dances and games and contests with the quarterstaff before the drinking of dragon soup. It would be the same this year as it had always been, and next year it would be the same again and on and on forever.
In the Vale they called today Cuckootide, the day the May Pole was put up and all the world came out onto the green to have a good time. But Will knew he could not have a good time – not until he had talked with Tilwin. He looked up at the round-shouldered hills they called the Tops and felt the longing again. It had been getting stronger, and today it felt like an invisible cord trying to pull his heart right out of his chest. That was why he had to speak with Tilwin. It had to be Tilwin, because only he would understand.
He knew that voice at once – whiskery Leoftan, the smith. His two thick braids hung like tarred rope side by side at his left cheek. He wore a belted shirt of white linen like Will’s own and a cap of red wool.
‘Your dad’ll be putting in your braids soon enough now, eh?’
Will shrugged. ‘It’s a hard week to turn thirteen, the week after May Day.’
Leoftan put down his armful of wooden tent-pegs. ‘Aye, you’ll have to wait near another year before you can run in the men’s race.’
Will scrubbed his fingers through his fair hair and stole another glance at the Tops. ‘Have you ever wondered what it’s like up there, Luffy?’
The smith stood up, gave him a distracted look. ‘What’s that you say?’
‘I was just thinking.’ He nodded towards the Tops. ‘One day I’d like to go up and see what’s there. Haven’t you ever thought what Nether Norton would look like with the whole Vale laid out down below?’
The moment stretched out awkwardly, but Will could not let it go. Once he had seen a small figure riding on a white horse far away where the earth met the sky. In the spring there were sheep – thousands of them – driven along by black dogs, and sometimes by men too. He had seen them many times, but whenever he had spoken of it to the others they had fallen quiet, and Gunwold the Swineherd had smirked, as if he had said something that ought not to have been said.
‘Well, Luffy? Haven’t you ever wanted to go up onto the Tops?’
Leoftan’s face lost its good humour. ‘What do you want to go talking like that for? They say there’s an ill wind up there.’
‘Is that what they say? An ill wind? And who are they who say that, Luffy? And how do they know? I wish – I wish—’
Just then Baldulf came up. He was fourteen, a fleshy, self-assured youth, and there was Wybda the Gossip and two or three others with him. ‘You want to be careful what you go a-wishing for, Willand,’ Wybda said. ‘They say that what fools and kings wishes for most often comes true.’
Will gazed back, undaunted. ‘I’m not a king or a fool. I just want to go up there and see for myself. What’s wrong with that?’
Wybda carried her embroidery with her. She plied her needle all the time, but still her pigs turned out too round and her flowers too squat. ‘Don’t you know the fae folk’ll eat you up?’
‘What do you know about the fae folk?’
Baldulf swished a willow wand at the grass near him. ‘She’s right. Nobody’s got any business up on the Tops.’
Gunwold grinned his lop-sided grin. ‘Yah, everybody knows that, Willand.’
They all began to move off and Leoftan said, ‘Aren’t you going over to watch the men’s race?’
He let them go. He did not know why, but just lately their company made him feel uncomfortable. He wondered if it was something to do with becoming a man. Maybe that was what made him feel so strange.
‘There’s a trackway up over the Tops,’ a gritty voice said in his ear.
He started, and when he looked round he saw Tilwin. ‘You made me jump.’
Tilwin gave a knowing grin. ‘I’ve made a lot of people jump in my time, Willand, but what I say is the truth. They’ve sent flocks along that trackway every summer for five thousand years and more. Now what do you think about that?’
Tilwin never said too much, but he knew plenty. He was not yet of middling age, and for some reason he wore his dark hair unbraided. He came once in a blue moon to fetch necessaries up from Middle Norton and beyond. Twice yearly he took the carts down to hand over the tithe, the village tax, to the Sightless Ones. Tilwin could put a sharper edge on a blade than anyone, and he was the only person Will knew who had ever been out of the Vale.
‘Who are the men who send the flocks through?’
‘Shepherds. They come this way because of the ring.’
‘What ring?’ Will’s eyes moved to the smooth emerald on Tilwin’s finger, but the knife-grinder laughed.
‘Ah, not that sort of a ring. Don’t you know there were giants in the land in the days of yore? There’s a Giant’s Ring away up on those Tops. A circle of standing stones. It’s a place of great magic.’
A shiver passed down Will’s spine. He could feel the tightness forming inside him again. Maybe it was the Giant’s Ring that was calling to him.
‘Magic … you say?’
‘Earth magic. Close by the Giant’s Ring stands Liarix Finglas, called the King’s Stone. Every shepherd who’s passed this way for fifty generations has chipped a piece off that King’s Stone until it’s now crooked as a giant’s thumb.’
‘Oh, you may believe it is so.’
‘Why do the shepherds do it?’
‘For a lucky keepsake, what do you think?’
Will did not know what he thought. The talk had set his mind on fire. ‘Fetch me a piece of it, will you, when next you go up there?’
‘Oh, and it’s a piece of the King’s Stone, you want now, is it?’ Tilwin had a strange way of speaking, and a strange, deep way of looking at a person at times. ‘Ah, but you’re lucky enough in yourself, I think, Willand. Lucky enough for the meanwhile, let’s say that.’
The strange feeling welled up and squeezed his heart again. His eyes ran along the Tops, looking for a sign, but there was none. And when he looked around again Tilwin had vanished. For a moment it seemed that the knife-grinder had never been there at all.