The Ancient Chronicle

An Excerpt from the Book

The Ancient Chronicle

The Ancient Chronicle


Herein is recorded the tale of Jake Connolly and the deeds he performed among his Nanyanin cousins;

Of the finding of the Atsari and of its consequences;

Of the Itarlavon family—the keepers of the Earth, which, being overrun by water in the ancient past, was given solely to the Thalanin, and the Nanyanin dwell there no longer;

Of the descendants of the ancient Nanyanin who in their time feared that judgment would fall upon them, as it did upon those who dwelt on the Earth—save for one family—and who rejoiced when Divine Wrath was limited to the Earth and who agreed to leave the Earth to the Thalanin;

Of the Kenornin—descended from him who first murdered his brother in the early days of Man—and of the Keneraton who ever long for the Earth, admiring its beauty and fertility;

Of the automatons—made in days long past by men of greater craft than live in this present age—who now dwell among the Nanyanin;

Of certain Thalanin who, having left the Earth, now live among the Nanyanin;

Of many kingdoms on many worlds, great and small, that figure into the story of Jake Connolly, the Atsari, and the aggression of the Keneraton;

Of many deeds, both good and evil, and what became of them;

Of sin and of salvation;

Of love and of hatred;

Of life and of death;

And of the steadfast love of the Creator for His wayward creation.

Chapter 1

The Court of Itonilon

Day was dawning in Itonilon when the king and his council assembled in the Great Hall. From the fortress high upon the hill came the ringing of mighty bells, and the village below heard them sound the convocation. Many townsfolk climbed to the castle gates, for they wished to see the young stranger of whom they had heard many tales.

Within the fortress of the king, pages walked about lighting torches to dispel the night that still lingered in the corners of the room. Smoke billowed from the flames, drifting to the roof, where it hung like a storm-cloud before passing out a small hole into the early morning sky. The Great Doors of the hall stood open, and slowly the crowds entered, passing many whispers among themselves. A rumour of feet and voices filled the hall even as the first rays of morning fell upon the city.

Only one man stood silent—a dark figure in a tattered cloak and hood. He lingered in the shadow of a stone pillar, watching the councilmen enter and take their seats. The council were all grim-faced and wore cloaks of blue and silver. The table at which they sat was cloven in two at its centre, and in this gap stood a dais upon which was set a mighty stone chair overlaid with gold and precious gems.

A fanfare sounded, and the people fell silent, standing with their heads bowed. The doors behind the table opened, and a procession entered led by courtiers carrying banners of gold and crimson. Behind these walked a column of men clad in mail of black and silver hue. They carried tall pikes that glistened in the torchlight, and their helmets shone like mirrors.

In the midst of these guardians walked the king, arrayed in furs and velvets dyed red and black. Upon his head was set a crown of whitest gold, and a fiery jewel shone in the midst of it. Upon his fingers he wore many rings, and in his left hand he held a silver rod.

At his right hand walked Tharè, daughter of the king, a maiden at the turn of adulthood, young and beautiful. She was fair like the pale sun shining in winter, but this day her visage showed only sorrow. Her golden hair hung about her downturned face and fell upon her trembling shoulders. Tears fell from her bright-green eyes and stained her flowing dress of blue and white silk. A circlet of golden leaves was upon her brow, and about her neck she wore a silver pendant set with a bright-red stone. Her handmaidens followed sullenly behind her, each with a downcast face and some with eyes red with tears.

Tharè stood close to her father, and only those nearest them could hear their whispers. “Please,” the princess said, “tell me I may be dismissed from this council. I don’t wish to see him.”

“It sorrows me also, my dear,” said the king. “For my part, I would not have you attend this council, but it is law that you must. Yet I will see that you need not remain long. I would have your days be bright and sorrowless, but there are duties monarchs must endure for the good of their kingdoms.”

The princess sighed deeply, and her handmaidens led her to a chair beside the council table. There she remained, staring at the floor until the great iron doors at the far end of the hall opened, creaking on their ancient hinges. The princess turned towards the sound, and the torchlight danced on her tearstained cheeks.

Through the open doors, four guards entered two by two, and in the midst of them walked a young man. His hands were bound behind him, and his feet were shackled with a heavy chain. Ragged clothes hung in tatters upon his thin figure, and he squinted as though the dimmest light were painful to his eyes. The guards leading him tugged at the chain around his neck, and he stumbled forward. He looked towards the princess, but she had turned away from him.

The guards brought the young man before the council table and stood at his sides. The king had seated himself upon his chair, and his council sat motionless to either side of him. At length the king looked to one of his councilman, who bowed his head in answer and rose to his feet.

The crowd grew quiet as the councilman began to speak. “My name is Thorondoron, head of the king’s council,” he said, his voice echoing in the sudden silence of the chamber. “Jake Connolly, you have been brought before this council to face charges of high treason. Do you know why these charges have been brought against you?”

Jake stood for a moment without speaking, the silence of the chamber ringing in his ears. His thoughts swirled, and he could not readily find the will to answer. At last he spoke, and his voice was deeper and quieter than usual. “I know why,” he said. He shifted his weight, and the chains clanked at his wrists and feet. “And I would just like to say…”

Thorondoron lifted his hand, and Jake fell silent. “Your defence has not yet begun,” the councilman said. “You stand here guilty, having admitted your crime openly. You are here to be sentenced before this council, yet the king may show mercy if he will.”

Jake chuckled to himself. Not likely, he thought.

“Bring forth the prisoner’s effects,” Thorondoron called. The iron doors opened again, and a pageboy entered carrying a black-metal box about the size of a man’s head. There was a lever upon the front and two dials inscribed with many symbols. The boy placed the box upon the table before one of the lesser councilmen, who gingerly picked it up, looking it over. He pulled the lever, but the box would not open.

“It’s shut tight,” the councilman said, putting it down again. “How is it opened?”

“It cannot be, save by one who knows the numbers,” said Thorondoron, and he looked at Jake intently. “The accused knows what they are, but he will not say.”

“Then why have we not blasted the chest open?” asked another councilman.

“It is made of purest adamant,” Thorondoron answered, “and it is beyond our craft to break it.” He took the box in hand, turning it in all directions. “It is a curious device,” he said. “And quite unlike anything I have ever seen.” He looked down at Jake. “Is it perhaps dangerous?”

Jake sneered at him. “Would you believe me if I told you?”

“No,” Thorondoron said dispassionately. “Nonetheless it is curious that you possess such an item. What does it contain?”

Jake made no answer.

“Very well,” Thorondoron said and placed the box on the table again. “Keep your secret for now, but know this: you will open this chest before this council is through with you.”

The pageboy, still standing before the table, cleared his throat. “That’s not all, sir,” he said, and he produced a cloth from which he removed a small silver ring. This he placed upon the table, and he withdrew himself.

Thorondoron picked up the ring and examined it. “A worthless trinket.”

“Yet it is of value to me,” Jake said, stepping forward hastily.

“Then you will declare it too before this council,” said Thorondoron, placing the ring beside the adamantine box. “When the time comes.”

He took a deep breath and stood taller. “Yet,” he continued with a more formal air, “before you begin your defence, the king wishes to address you.”

Thorondoron sat, and the king rose to his feet. A guard forced Jake to kneel.

The king’s face was filled with sorrow, and his eyes fell upon Jake with a piercing gaze. “Jake Connolly,” he said slowly, “you came to us from a far land, and having nothing of your own, you have enjoyed the hospitality of our city. Though there were others who might have helped you, I took you into my house because Jalzoron brought you to us, for he has done much for this kingdom and for this world. You ate our bread and made a home of this castle. No Thalani has ever been so honoured here in all our history.

“But you have repaid us with treachery. You have brought to nothing all the gifts we have given you, and now you stand before us in disgrace. Through your actions, Jalzoron’s esteem of you is now made suspect, and though we still judge him honourable, you have brought a great stain upon him in our eyes.

“It is my duty to sentence you as the law and God may direct. You will be allowed this only: to appeal to the mercy of the king, as our laws demand.” The chamber remained utterly silent as the king sat down again.

Thorondoron was rising to his feet when the silence of the chamber was split by a shout. “Your Majesty!”

As all turned to see who was shouting, the cloaked man stood forth from the shadows and removed his hood, revealing a face worn by age and grief. The king’s guards leapt to his sides, wielding their pikes and swords. The councilmen stood, and the hall erupted in a murmur of voices. The cloaked man raised his hands to shoulder height, and a guard took hold of each arm.

Before the man could be carried away, the king spoke. “Release him!” he said firmly. “This is Jalzoron, of whom I spoke. He is known to this house, and despite all that has happened, he still has standing here.” The guards retreated from Jalzoron’s side. “Tell me, my friend,” the king said, “why have you come to this hall in secret and not walked freely among the people?”

Jalzoron bowed low. “Forgive me, my king,” he said. “I have come to help this boy in his defence, and I could not do so until now. I feared I might not get the chance if my presence were known, but now my name has been spoken in council. By the law of this land, I may now have voice in this chamber. I beg Your Majesty’s pardon.”

The king sighed. “This may be the second mark against you,” he said. “It would be a grave matter to break our trust in you again.”

“Grave indeed, sire,” Jalzoron said. “I do not consider your trust to be a trifle, but there is reason behind what I do, and by your leave, I wish to proceed in this boy’s defence.”

“Very well,” the king said. “Speak therefore, if the accused will allow it.”

Jake stood bewildered, and all words failed him. He had not expected Jalzoron to appear. “I…suppose,” he said at last.

Jalzoron gave Jake a reassuring glance and then addressed the assembly. “My nobles,” he said, “it is true I took in this boy, for I found him wandering the wilderness beyond the borders of this land. I brought him to this kingdom because I believed he would be safe, and so he was—from all dangers except those he carries with him. Not in that chest”—he pointed to the box sitting on the table—“but in his own heart.”

Jake cleared his throat. “You’re not helping me,” he whispered through clenched teeth.

Thorondoron ignored Jake’s whispers and addressed Jalzoron. “Is it possible then,” he said, “that you know where this Thalani acquired such an item as that?” He pointed to the adamantine chest.

“I do,” said Jalzoron. “The box was mine, and I gave it to him.”

A din of voices arose from the crowd, but the king raised his hands, and the commotion ceased. Thorondoron bowed to the king, and the king waved his hand, bidding him to continue.

“And where did you acquire this object?” Thorondoron asked. “Surely it is not of this planet.”

“It is not,” Jalzoron said. “I cannot reveal its origin nor how I came by it, but I can assure you it is not dangerous, for I know what it contains.”

Another murmur arose in the hall.

“Tell us then,” Thorondoron said.

“That must wait,” said Jalzoron, “for it figures into the story Jake Connolly must tell this council.”

Thorondoron glanced between Jake and Jalzoron. “What story?”

Jalzoron stepped forward and addressed the entire hall. “When I first met this boy, he told me the tale of how he came to this planet, and I believe his story is true. In order to make his defence, I believe he must repeat this story to the council. I will stand here as witness to be sure he tells it as it was told to me. It is a long story, but if the council will endure it, its telling may appeal to Your Majesty’s clemency.”

The king sat for a moment in silence, looking over the crowd. The onlookers murmured as to what these events might mean. The king stirred at last and looked to his daughter, who, gazing back at him with eyes clear and glistening, nodded and turned her face again to stare at the floor.

“Very well,” the king said, turning to Jake. “You will tell the story of which Jalzoron spoke.” Then, turning to Jalzoron, he said, “I trust, sir, that you will do what you can to assure us this story is true. Else this shall be your third fault in as many days, and it may take quite a long time to trust your word again.”

“I promise you, sire,” said Jalzoron. “I shall not trespass further.”

“Then begin,” the king said with a wave of his hand.

Jake rose from his knees, and the guards at his sides unbound his hands and removed the chain from his neck. Jake rubbed his left arm, for it pained him still.

Jalzoron stood beside him now in plain clothes, for he had removed his cloak and hood. He looked back at Jake and nodded, urging him to proceed.

Jake looked around at all the faces now turned towards him. Sudden fear pulsed through him, for he had not been prepared to do so much speaking. As he reached back into his memory to determine where he should begin, many thoughts came to him—some filled with happiness and others with sorrow. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and began.

· · · · · · · · · · · · · ·

The planet Rithonon circled a star near the edge of the Tharion Sea, as it is named in Eratzira. Jake Connolly lived in the Thalanin village of Brown Hill on the western edge of the mountains of Itelmir, which ran eastward to the ocean far away. Brown Hill lay hard against the mountains in a long valley filled with many other villages, all given to mining. All these Thalanin villages were administrated by the Nanyan city of hCathad, whose towers dwarfed the many ancient ruins scattered throughout the valley. Long ago Rithonon had been an outpost for watchmen who guarded the borders of an ancient star-kingdom. They had patrolled Rithonon’s star and its neighbours and had safeguarded the rich mines of Rithonon. Those men had now been gone for long ages, but the mines remained.

Brown Hill lay below what had once been a tall fortress that had housed a garrison of many men and starships. The citadel now lay in ruins, but farther down the hill, a tall watchtower still stood. It was in this tower that Jake Connolly lived with his many birds, for he was a vèralamenasi. His parents before him had also been vèralamenasin, but they had died many years before while on holiday, leaving Jake to care for the birds alone.

Chief among the vèralamen Jake cared for was a falcon named Faluin, offspring of the great Starlords of old. Jake alone had been able to tame him, and he had served Jake and his family for many years. When Jake’s parents died, it was Faluin who brought him the news, and from those days Faluin became his friend and counsellor. Jake never hired out Faluin but used him only to carry private messages and to keep an eye on the lands all around.

Being the only vèralamenasi in the valley, Jake never wanted for patrons. Even Thalanin came to enlist the service of the vèralamen, though they always wrote their messages upon small scrolls. Other Thalanin would hire Jake to translate Nanyan or to serve as interpreter for meetings with Nanyanin officials. He made a good living and never lacked for anything.

In his tower Jake lived mainly in two rooms—the kitchen on the ground floor and his bedroom near the top. The rest of the rooms had been sealed off except for a large chamber on the topmost floor where the vèralamen roosted. Jake fed them when necessary, but the vèralamen often hunted their own food. Automaton creatures were not uncommon in the valley, though they were far outnumbered by animals of flesh and blood. The fields surrounding Jake’s tower were wholly given to farming and ranching, and it was not unusual for Jake to see cattle grazing outside his window or to watch a farmer driving a cart down the neighbouring roads.

From the upper windows, Jake could see all the rooftops of Brown Hill, for it was a small village. One main road ran through the centre of town, and many shops and tradesmen were to be found there. Jake was friendly with most of the villagers, and they seemed to like him well enough.

Of all the places Jake frequented in the village, his favourite by far was the Grey Griffin—an inn that lay on a side street off the main road. It was sheltered enough to seem isolated, but it was always busy. Miners would eat there before their work began and then again after their long labour. Two old men were often seen playing draughts and talking about the other patrons as if no one else could hear them. There were other regulars besides—all good people and each a special kind of peculiar.

But by far the person Jake found most intriguing was Samantha Brown, the innkeeper’s daughter. She was a bit younger than Jake was, bright-eyed and overflowing with cheerfulness. Jake had never seen her unhappy, and she always greeted him with a shy smile. He had seen much of her in recent days, for she seemed to enjoy his company, and she had at times visited the tower on the hill just to say hello or to tell him some bit of news from the inn.

One particular day Jake journeyed down to the inn for breakfast, as was his custom. Though a number of the townsfolk were still asleep at that hour, the brown-stone streets were far from silent or empty. Jake passed several men driving their carts overflowing with produce towards the market. Miners trudged in small groups here and there—some boarding transports for the more distant mines, others following the road that led to the Brown Tunnel Mine just south of the village. Constable Gibbs was already up and about, and Robert Lofton, the town beggar, hid in the shadows as the constable passed.

All over town early risers were raising banners and streamers from buildings and lampposts. Women on tall stepladders hung lanterns from ropes strung between the streetlamps. Tents and stalls of wood and cloth appeared in many places, and in the town square, three men were building an enormous wooden platform. The Brown Hill Autumn Festival was to be held the following evening, and many of the townsfolk were busy with its preparation. Jake usually skipped most of the festival, coming down only briefly for a bit of food and a walk around to look at all the commotion before returning home. It was not much fun going all alone, but this year he planned on a change.

As he continued on through the town, Jake breathed deeply. The air was clear and cool, and only a few clouds floated lazily over the town. The air smelled of things baking in the shops along the street. Mrs Arlington’s pastry shop stood near the centre of town, and every morning the smell of her sweet rolls drifted in and out of streets and lingered over the town until late in the afternoon. Jake’s stomach made a noise, but he did not divert his course or his purpose, for there was more than breakfast on his mind.

The Grey Griffin Inn stood two storeys tall around a stone courtyard, making a wall on three sides. Its upper storey overhung the yard so there was a walkway underneath. Its wooden pillars held up white plaster walls, and red tiles covered the slanted rooftop. At the centre of the courtyard, a stone fountain stood, dry and partially overgrown with moss. Jake could not remember if the fountain had ever run at all. On the far side of the courtyard, two wooden doors stood partially open, and though the air outside was chill, wafts of warm air flowed ceaselessly out into the courtyard.

Jake entered the doors and, passing through the cloakroom, found himself standing in the common-room of the inn. The room was large and filled with many tables and chairs, some partitioned by half-walls or by differences in the height of the floor. A long bar with many stools lay on one side of the room, and off in the corner a few cushioned chairs sat ready to welcome weary guests.

At this time of morning, the common-room was not busy. Only a few patrons sat scattered amongst a handful of tables throughout the room. The inn was quiet and peaceful, and from the kitchen floated smells of bacon, sausage, and fatback cooking, mingled with the permeating smells of coffee and strong cider.

The two old men—who seemed always to be present at the inn—called out to Jake from their usual table in the corner.

“Good morning, young Connolly,” the one man said. “Another day in the aviary, eh?”

“Always.” Jake tried to sound polite.

“She’s in the back,” the other man said with a wink. “She was out here looking for you a second ago, but you just missed her. She was called into the kitchen—something about a pile of dishes. I guess you’ll be lucky to see her at all.”

“She’ll come back,” the first man said. “If she knows he’s here, she’ll come back.”

“Ah, but will she know he’s here?” the other said. “She could be in there for an hour or more, and her mother won’t let her come out if she sees there’s work to be done.”

“Bah!” said the first man. “You’re too old and shrivelled up to remember the burning fire of a young heart. I say she’ll be here, mother notwithstanding, and young Mr Connolly will wait here, I’ll wager, till she comes out—even if it takes until he’s as old as we are.”

Jake’s ears turned red, and the two old men howled with laughter. Jake slipped away from them and took a seat at the bar near the kitchen. He strained his neck to look over the kitchen door, but he could see no sign of anyone, and no one came out to serve him.

Outside in the courtyard, voices grew loud, and a moment later a half-dozen miners entered wearing dirty overalls and carrying their hats in their hands. They were talking amongst themselves very loudly (Jake always suspected that miners were almost deaf), and they sat at a table not far from the kitchen. Jake could not help but overhear them as they spoke to one another.

“But he was a queer-looking man,” one of the miners was saying. “He weren’t like no Regulator I’d ever seen afore. New fellow he must have been, but where he came from, he wouldn’t tell me. He just asked to see the foreman, so I shows him the way. I tried to make talk with him—‘How do you do today, sir?’ and all that—but he never says a blessed word. He only keeps looking round him at everybody we go by, like he was looking for something—or someone, but he wouldn’t say who.

“Nanyan folk are a queer lot. They live so awful long that it don’t do them no good! They get tired of living, I think, and they can’t find nothing better to do than to poke their noses into other people’s business.”

The others asked him many questions, but he did not know any more than he had already said. Jake listened, not thinking very much of it. He rarely understood miners, for he knew little of their work or organization. He knew what Regulators were for sure; one visited him promptly every month to be sure his business was run legally, but what this mining Regulator was up to, Jake could not guess.

At that moment the kitchen door swung open, and Samantha appeared, her face bright and her eyes sparkling. She walked up to the bar, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Good morning,” she said warmly.

The sight of her and the sound of her voice drove all else from Jake’s mind. “It is indeed,” he said.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you came in,” she said and then added quickly, “to serve you, I mean. I’d left the dishes in the sink from last night. I guess I’d forgot about them when you walked me back home yesterday.”

“I hope I didn’t get you in trouble,” Jake said. “I didn’t realize we had been talking so late.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” Samantha said. “Besides, I would much rather be out walking with you than cooped up in this place all evening.” She sighed. “I was born here, and I’ve lived here all my life. I reckon I’ll probably die here too.”

Jake shook his head. “Never,” he said. “You’ll leave this town someday. You’ll be up on Telethoram before you know it, and from there, who knows? You might even make it to Earth.” He gave her a wink.

Samantha smiled shyly. “That’s too much for me to imagine,” she said. “I’ve dreamt of Earth—walking its green fields, breathing its fragrant air, seeing all the stars in their primeval shapes. But I can’t let myself hope for things so impossible. Telethoram is good enough for me. Have you ever been up there?”

“Once,” Jake said, “but that was a long time ago.” The memory suddenly stabbed him. “My parents, they…they took me there. They wanted me to see it.” His voice died away, and he turned his head.

“Oh.” Samantha turned red and nervously wiped the counter with a cloth. “I didn’t mean to…I mean, I didn’t think about…I mean, your parents and all…”

Jake turned back to her and attempted a smile. “It’s all right,” he said, “but I do miss them terribly.”

“I didn’t mean to bring it up,” Samantha said. “I can’t imagine…Well, I…I’m just making it worse.” She turned away, and by the shaking of her shoulders Jake could tell she was crying.

He reached out and grabbed her arm gently. “Please don’t worry about it,” he said. “I don’t mind talking about them—at least not as much as I used to—and you don’t need to feel bad about anything. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

Samantha still faced away from him. “If you say so,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. Suddenly she straightened up. She took a deep breath and turned back around, wiping her eyes with the cloth in her hand. “Well,” she said weakly, “this is embarrassing. I don’t usually cry in front of customers.”

“Then I’ll consider myself special,” Jake said with a grin. “So special I just might get to take someone to the festival tomorrow.”

A twinkle came into Samantha’s eyes. “Maybe,” she said with a shy smile. “Is she a special girl?”

“She’s dear to me, yes,” Jake said.

“Well then, why don’t you ask her?” Samantha put her elbows on the bar, leaning over so that she stared straight into Jake’s eyes.

The look on her face caught Jake off guard, and his mind went blank. He fumbled for a moment as he tried to speak. “Well, I…” he said. “I…just might do that. Do you think she’d say yes?”

“Most definitely.”

“Well what if—”

Samantha interrupted with a giggle. “Oh, just ask me already!”

“Very well, then.” Jake cleared his throat, and in a tone that jested at chivalry, he said, “Would you please permit me to accompany you to the festival?”

Samantha met the jest with a curtsy. “With pleasure, sir.” She looked up, smiling broadly. The noise of the room seemed to fade away to a great distance, and Jake felt a great feeling of contentment wash over him.

Samantha suddenly glanced over to a nearby clock and frowned. “It’s getting late,” she said. “I must go, or I shall fall behind in my work.”

“Well you’ve already delayed my breakfast,” Jake teased.

Samantha scowled at him but could not suppress a giggle. “The usual then, sir?” she said with an exaggerated bow.

“Certainly, miss,” Jake said, “and don’t be all day about it.”

“No promises,” she said, and she stuck her tongue out at him before disappearing into the kitchen.

The table of miners nearby erupted in taunts and snickers, and Jake flashed them a fierce look—or as fierce as he could muster. He was much too happy to be cross, and his most threatening face was surely far from intimidating.

Breakfast came—scrambled eggs, sausages, fried potatoes, beans, and toast. Jake ate slowly as he watched Samantha go about her morning routine serving the hungry crowds. Most were miners coming off work, and soon the room was filled with noisy talk. Jake stayed until he could no longer bear the noise and crowding. He paid for the meal, bade Samantha a good morning, and left. Compared to the growing chaos inside, the courtyard was peaceful and quiet.

As Jake walked up the lane towards the main road, he heard a voice calling out his name. He turned and found to his dismay that Lawrence Appleton, the town magistrate, was walking towards him. Appleton was only a few years older than Jake—rather young for a magistrate, for he had inherited the position from his late father. His eyes and hair were dark, and the corner of his mouth seemed always upturned in a menacing smirk. He wore a bright-red suit, as was the custom for magistrates in Eratzira.

“Mr Connolly,” Appleton said. “I’ve been looking for you, but you weren’t at home.”

“Well, what’s the matter?”

“There’s a new Regulator in town,” Appleton said with an air both of pride and contempt.

Jake rolled his eyes. “Yes, I’ve heard,” he said and kept walking. “Something about the mines, I guess.”

“About the mines?” Appleton said with a chuckle. “You don’t understand. He’s going all over town asking about you.”

“About me?” said Jake. “Whatever for?”

“He wouldn’t say,” Appleton replied. “He just wanted to know where you lived and worked.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“Well, what could I tell him? I had to tell him the truth. I suspect he may be up later to talk with you. I can’t imagine what you’ve done to deserve such special attention.”

Jake smiled a fake smile. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said. “It won’t be the first time a Regulator has darkened my door.”

“Then I’m sure you have nothing to worry about,” Appleton said smugly. “Good day, Mr Connolly. I hope everything goes well for you.”

Jake bade Appleton farewell and walked back through town towards his home, muttering under his breath as he walked. Appleton had spoiled an otherwise good mood.

Jake quickened his pace when he reached the bottom of the hill upon which his tower stood. The sun was climbing in the sky, and it was time for him to open up shop.

Jake had an old print-out machine that was wired into the relay system that ran throughout the valley. Throughout the day the office of the High Magistrate in hCathad would send requests for the delivery of legal documents. For these dispatches, Jake would encode a key onto a metal band that he would attach to the foot of a vèralam. This key would identify the bird to the magistrate’s office when picking up the document, and a further key (given by the magistrate) would identify the bird to the recipient—usually another magistrate’s office on another world. This system worked flawlessly, for vèralamen are difficult to capture, and the keys prevented forgery.

This was the majority of Jake’s work.

Requests of a more personal nature would be brought to the tower in person. Messages of this kind were most often reserved for special occasions—births and weddings in far off places, the milestone birthday of a great-great-grandparent, a letter to a lover far away—anything that needed something more significant than a weak transmission beamed between the stars.

Jake sometimes found himself feeling guilty in his labours, for there was little for him to do except send the birds on their way. He took care of them for his part, but the vèralamen ably cared for themselves, finding food and shelter of their own accord. But he enjoyed his work, and as he made a good living, he did not complain.

As Jake walked up the lane to his own front door, Faluin swooped down from an unseen height and perched on the fence that lined the road. In a single motion, he shook himself from head to foot, ruffling his brown and white feathers. Then he turned and addressed Jake in Nanyan. “Successful exploits, sir?” he asked. “Was she pleased with your outing yesterday?”

“She seemed to be,” Jake said, smiling. “Anything to report here?”

“All is quiet,” Faluin said. “Faldan and I flew around the planet this morning. All is at peace.”

“You didn’t happen to see a strange Nanyan man in Brown Hill, did you?” Jake asked. “An Overseer perhaps?”

“I did not, sir,” Faluin said. “Shall I go looking for him now?”

“No, that’s not necessary.”

“Is it not important?”

“Not really.”

“Very well,” Faluin said. “Shall we go up, then?”

Jake nodded and raised his arm, and Faluin perched upon it. Jake brought him into the house and set him on a perch near the open window. The first floor of the tower was mostly given to a garage whose outer door faced the hill behind. Inside Jake kept a flyer that had belonged to his father. Jake used it occasionally, taking it out to be sure it was kept in good working order. Faluin would often fly alongside and guide Jake over the mountains and back home again.

The remainder of the first floor was taken up by a small kitchen and a round table shoved in a corner with a few chairs. Opposite these stood an iron stove and a sink with a pump that drew water from an ancient well deep underground. Jake had asked the city leaders of hCathad to let him connect to the waterline in Brown Hill, but his request was never met with any sense of urgency. So he pumped water day after day, heating it on the stove for bathing and cooking, but he seldom drank it, preferring to go down to Brown Hill, where the water was cleaner.

From the window above the sink, Jake could look over the pasturelands that spread out as far as he could see. Beyond the fields, almost at the edge of sight, marched a line of trees, and behind them stood the distant towers of hCathad that rose in spires of grey and blue. Now and then Jake would observe a starship descending over the city to the far side of the valley, where there were many moorings for starships. Jake had visited the docks only once a long time ago, for his business rarely brought him there.

Turning from the window, Jake crossed the kitchen to the stairway that curved behind a stone wall up into the tower. Slowly he climbed the narrow stair, taking a torch with him so he could find his footing. On the second storey, he passed a large wooden door on thick metal hinges. Cobwebs and dust filled the cracks between the door and the stones in which it was set. It had not been opened for many years, for the room beyond had belonged to his parents. After they had died, he had not had the heart to enter it, and he had never thought of moving into it himself though it was an enormous room, as he remembered it. He suspected that in the ancient days, it had belonged to whoever had commanded the tower.

Floor after floor he climbed, passing many other rooms long shut up or sealed. On the floor just below the uppermost, he stopped at a small wooden door not quite tall enough for him to walk through standing upright. He ducked inside, and as he entered, a few roaches scattered away from the light. The room was dark, for though there was a window in the far wall, it faced away from the rising sun. Beneath it lay a bed covered in rumpled sheets and blankets, and it was here that he slept. Besides the bed, the room also held a small table, an old trunk, and a wardrobe with creaky hinges. Jake had always wanted to replace it, but he could not think of how to remove it. It was much too large to fit through the door, and he sometimes wondered how it had been brought upstairs in the first place.

Jake took a black leather book from the table beside the bed and left the room again. He continued up the stairs until on the topmost floor he came to a landing that opened into a large room of plain stone. A few pillars of stone and metal held up the ceiling, and at the far end of the room stood a wooden door that opened upon a small storage space. Four windows opened in the walls of the room, evenly spaced to match the four directions of the compass. Upon the floor and along the walls were many tree branches and stone columns where two dozen birds of all kinds and colours sat—some sleeping, some preening, and some talking to one another.

A harrier sitting on a wooden perch near the stairs turned as Jake entered. “Good morning, sir,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”

“Fairly,” Jake said. “Has Dinarin returned yet?”

“No, sir,” the harrier said. “But Thesanumon is far away indeed. I don’t think even Faluin could have made the trip in so little time.”

At that moment Faluin swooped through the window and landed on a wooden beam that had fallen and now lay at an angle near one of the windows.

“Where could I not have gone?” he asked.

“Your pardon,” the harrier said, bowing low. “I meant no disrespect.”

“Are you speaking of Dinarin’s journey to Thesanumon?”

“We are,” said the harrier.

“Then I concur with you,” said Faluin. “It is a long journey. We must await him a while longer.”

“That’s not very good news,” Jake said. “The woman who sent the message did not pay enough for him to be gone this long. I must remember to raise prices in future.”

Suddenly one of the eagles let out a cry, and a murmur arose from the other birds. Jake turned to the window and started, for there on the window-ledge sat a large bird unlike any Jake had ever seen. At first sight he appeared owl-like, but as Jake looked at him more closely, he appeared like a large falcon, keen and fierce, with a look of malice that unnerved Jake so that he backed away at once. Faluin jumped to a stone pillar near the window, placing himself between Jake and the newcomer.

“Hello,” Jake said as cordially as he could manage.

The bird gave no answer.

“My name is Jake Connolly.”

The bird remained silent and as still as a statue.

“Who is your master?” Jake said. “Do you have a message for someone?”

The bird paused a moment longer and then took in his beak a scrap of paper that had been attached to his foot. Slowly Jake reached out his hand to receive it. Faluin watched closely, ready to intervene if something went amiss. The bird dropped his message into Jake’s palm, and before Jake had even begun to unroll it, the bird turned and leapt through the open window, soaring away at great speed. Jake ran to the window, but the bird had already vanished from sight.

Confused, Jake opened the paper scroll, and upon it he read these words handwritten in plain English:

Jake Connolly, you are in danger.